2017 National Restaurant Association Show review: charcuterie, pickles, truffle zest, amarena cherries – and so much more!

Exciting, thorough, overwhelming – these are just some of the words I would use to describe the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show, which takes place in Chicago every May. Starting on a Saturday and ending the following Tuesday, the event draws in tens of thousands of restaurant professionals from around the world, who come to the Windy City to learn to build a successful business from the best restaurateurs, to network their way through the Show and to strike lucrative deals. As a former journalist and current food blogger, I think it is very important that I stay on top of trends and products and that I report them accurately to my readers – and this is why for me the NRA Show is a goldmine. Knowledge is power, right? 🙂

So, what does the salami in the pic above have to do with this Show – and what do we ultimately need to take from it? According to a NRA survey of almost 1,300 professional chefs, house-made charcuterie items are going to feature prominently on restaurant menus this year. As stated in the NRA announcement released at the conclusion of the survey, “menu trends that will be heating up in 2017 include poke, house-made charcuterie, street food, food halls and ramen. Trends that are cooling down include quinoa, black rice, and vegetarian and vegan cuisines.” Judging from the abundance of artisan charcuterie vendors I noticed at the NRA Show, this comes as no surprise. Next time you see salami on the menu, you’ll know why 🙂

House-made pickles are another hot food trend this year, and the producers I met at the NRA Show were very eager to capitalize on it.

Still, little did I know that I would find pickled green tomatoes at the Show! My mom and aunt did a lot of canning when I was little, and I have fond memories of eating pickled green tomatoes with my dad at the kitchen table, sucking the last drop of sour liquid from the slippery tomato seeds, getting a refreshing taste of summer on the spot. Oh, what a wonderful time that was…

I sampled a few pickled green tomatoes at the Show and went on this instant trip down memory lane. Long may this food trend continue 🙂

Unsurprisingly, some of the sessions at the NRA Show Foodamental Studio (where participants replicated processes and techniques pertaining to the hottest food trends under the guidance of industry experts) reflected this reality. For instance, the session in progress when I took the picture below was titled “Think Outside the Pickle!”

The condiment and spice market is picking up as well, and this was reflected in the high number of Food and Beverage (FABI) Awards won by gourmet items in this category. Made with honey sourced from upstate New York and chili peppers from Brazil, Mike’s Hot Honey took my breath away (literally!). This is a chilli pepper-infused honey which goes well with pizza, chicken and even ice cream. How about using it in panini? Now there’s a thought…

Speaking of fancy food items, a special mention should be made about the Sabatino Tartufi truffle zest, which won a FABI Award this year. A favorite of Oprah’s, this low-calorie, low-sodium powdered form of truffles works as seasoning for pastas, pizzas, potatoes, meats and more. According to Sabatino Tartufi, getting truffle flavor into a dish has never been easier or less expensive. I promise to report back after I use the sample I got at the Show 🙂

The World Culinary Showcase was the perfect spot to catch my breath and rest my feet while planning the next few hours at the Show. At these live demonstrations education and entertainment take center stage as some of the industry’s most celebrated chefs share not only their culinary prowess, but their industry insights as well. Kicking off the demos on Saturday morning was acclaimed restaurateur Rick Bayless, who revealed some of the basics of Mexican cuisine and showed the audience how to make tacos:

Once the session was over, I went on to uncover another hot food trend – ancient grains – and came across Stonefire’s ancient grain mini naans. Made with ancient grains, quinoa, spelt, buckwheat, kamut and a touch of honey, these pockets of carb goodness satisfy consumers’ desire for high-quality, authentic, healthy and great-tasting artisanal products. The sample I tried at the Show fitted this description perfectly: the naan was light, wholesome and delicious!

As usual, I had a great time at the NRA Show Bellavita Pavilion, which brought more than 60 Italian producers under the same roof. The goal: to showcase the best Italy has to offer in terms of gourmet foods and drinks – over 400 products in total.

Guests could attend various food demonstrations held by well-known Italian chefs and could sample authentic Italian products to their hearts’ content. As for me, I just loved the amarena cherries in syrup I tried at the Fabbri booth inside Bellavita, and I intend to purchase them in the future. Such a high quality ingredient can elevate a dessert tremendously:

All in all, there were many highlights in my NRA Show experience in terms of both flavors I discovered and knowledge I acquired. I spent quality time sampling the authentic Chicago style hot dog at the Vienna Beef booth…

…had my picture taken with Bob Moore, the soul and symbol of Bob’s Red Mill

… snacked on artisan cheeses at the Wisconsin dairy farmers’ section…

… had some delicious Wagshal’s smoked brisket…

… and finished off strongly with a visit to the Sweet Street booth to sample their award-winning Manifesto cookies.

No high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors/flavorings or GMOs – and so yummy!

Writing about the NRA Show always gets me excited: there is so much knowledge to share, and so many good foodie moments to remember. Now it’s my turn to take a step back to reflect on the knowledge I acquired, and then to use this knowledge to develop trendy and delicious recipes. It’s time to use the Show as source of inspiration – to move past it, while always keeping it in mind.

Goodbye, NRA Show – till next year 🙂

*Disclaimer: I was not financially compensated by any of the companies mentioned or shown in this post. All opinions expressed here are my own.


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