Every year in May I get incredibly excited for what’s about to come. Not only am I eager to finish the school semester and enjoy a long-awaited summer break, but I also fidget at the thought of the upcoming National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show. In my opinion, this is one of the year’s best food-related events which take place in Chicago, unrivaled in scope, in number of attendees, in showcase of inspiration.
This year’s edition was bigger and better than ever before, for a good reason: restaurateurs and industry experts from all across America came together to celebrate 100 years of existence for both the National Restaurant Association and for the Show. What’s the connection between the NRA Show and my sandwich, pictured above? Read on for the answer 😉
I usually attend the Show to find out more about the hottest food & beverage trends, to sample sustainable alternatives to meat, and to check out the always exciting FABI Award recipients – outstanding products which, as per the NRA, “satisfy cravings and speak to your diners’ concerns about nutrition, packaging, sustainability, and more.”
I remember feeling very overwhelmed – and a bit hopeless! – the first year I attended the NRA Show, which made me realize that I had to be very strategic with my planning from then on (you can read my reviews of the 2016 and 2017 Shows here and here). What I usually do each year is I start off by hitting the Bellavita Pavilion, which captures the foodie spirit of Italy by bringing together Italian products and reputable restaurateurs, as well as experts on all things Italian from all around the world. This Pavilion puts me in a good mood right from the start – I’m such a big fan of Italian cuisine, after all 🙂
At this latest edition of the Show I was pleased to observe Chef Mario Rizzotti’s cooking demo, during which he talked about mozzarella and authentic Italian antipasti:
No browsing is complete at Bellavita without sampling pizza!
Here was just one among many: a classic margherita oozing melted mozzarella, with a thick tomato sauce, basil, and a dash of EVOO. Simplicity at its best!
This year at Bellavita I also had a great conversation with the Forno d’Asolo reps and sampled some of their bakery items. I have a weakness for focaccia, and theirs were soft, rich in flavors, and chock-full of quality ingredients. They also had delicious elderberry pastries and vegan offerings. FACT: Italian bakery products can be so addictive!
Once I leave the Bellavita Pavilion, I usually go on to check out products which epitomize strong culinary trends – and that’s exactly what I did this year as well. Unsurprisingly (judging from the recent spike in consumer interest in the US), plant-based burgers are at the top of the popularity pyramid. At this year’s NRA Show I got the chance to try out a variety of meatless patties, from Dr Praeger’s…
…to Sol Cuisine…
… and ending with this year’s super trendy, award-winning Impossible Foods patties…
… which can also be used ground, as a filling for tacos:
Meanwhile, at the Kronos Foods booth they were serving a delicious chicken al pastor…
… but also a meatless loaf, tasting just like meatloaf yet featuring vegetable-based proteins. Kronos really offered the best of both worlds at the Show!
Since meatless products are here to stay, trying out several and being able to make an informed comparison was an important part of the perspective I developed while attending this year’s Show.
After “big screen” plant-based items, it was time to try out “small screen” fancy gourmet offerings – and what an amazing experience that was too! Take for example the 2019 FABI award-winning A L’Olivier Basque Pepper Fruit Vinegar featured at Atalanta Corporation‘s booth. Thickened with pulp from bell peppers and the world-famous Piment d’Espelette pepper, this vinegar was fruity, vibrant, and perfect to elevate a dish. I can see myself pouring a bit over panini or using it in stews for an exciting additional note of Old World flavor:
I was equally impressed with the FABI award-winning caviaroli drops available for sampling at Wagshals’ booth. As per the Show description, “encased in a light, gelatin shell, each spherical liquid olive takes five regular olives to comprise a creamy intense flavor-burst upon biting down.” You must be prepared for an explosion of olive flavor the moment you try one of these! I urge you to think of the usual taste of olives and to multiply it thousands of times in your head. And yet, my description doesn’t do justice to these spherical wonders: you have to experience them yourselves to fully grasp the outstanding flavor intensity. To say that I was blown away by this work of art created by Chefs Albert and Ferran Adrià (formerly at elBulli) is an understatement:
Did you know North African condiments are one of this year’s hottest culinary trends? Take harissa, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of dishes I’ve seen harissa featured in at the Show. This harissa grain bowl was served at the Chobani booth:
Here’s also a burger application – the harissa flame-grilled chicken burgers available for tasting at the Brakebush booth:
At this point I took a break from tasting and went to witness the official cutting of the 1,000lb cake from Eli’s Cheesecake to mark the centennial celebration of the NRA and the NRA Show. This was such an important milestone for the industry!
The day was far from over, though! After this picture opp, I went on to sample a nice assortment of foods from Mama La’s Kitchen, including their FABI award winning Cajun Boudin Eggrolls, which were oven hot, fresh and sophisticatedly spicy without being overpowering. What a creative mix of two different cuisines!
I then joined the long lines at the Vienna Beef booth and waited (almost!) patiently for my turn. The Chicago-stle hot dog was working its magic at the Show, as it usually is:
It’s always nice to take a break from savory and to enjoy a healthy sweet treat – and here the Pitaya Plus folks came to the rescue 🙂
They were keeping it cool and upbeat, and their organic non GMO dragon fruit smoothies were so refreshing! I also enjoyed learning about the difference they make to farmers in Nicaragua (the source of the dragon fruit):
After stopping at the Lavazza booth for a much-needed cup of coffee…
…I continued my sweet journey at the Show by sampling products from Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery…
… and Sweet Street…
… and ended at the Bridor booth enjoying a delicious strawberry filled croissant. I had a lengthy conversation with the pastry chef and found out more about Bridor’s history and values. Now, if they could send me some of these croissants by post each day, I’d be all set, ha ha! 😋
It was almost closing time at that point – time for one last slice before I went home, and not just any kind of slice! I couldn’t leave without trying the FABI award winning gluten free vegan cauliflower pizza crust from Venice Bakery. This allergen-free crust is rich in natural antioxidants and enhanced with chia. As I said earlier in this post, plant-based is a very strong food trend this year. I foresee more plant diversification from manufacturers as well as an increase in consumer awareness on the health benefits of eating a balanced, plant-enriched diet:
I left the centennial edition of the NRA Show equipped with a lot of information and flavor experiences, and happy to discover that I had inadvertently been a supporter of some of the food trends identified at the Show for awhile now. Mindful eating, translated into a plan-enriched diet and minimal waste, amongst others, features highly on our family’s consumption philosophy.
Indeed, as per the NRA report, zero-waste cooking, “which transforms food scraps, damaged produce and leftovers into culinary delights,” ranks highly on the list of overall trends for 2019. I don’t know about you, but I never throw away edible leftover stew sauce. Here’s a stew I made the other day…
…and here’s the leftover sauce I used in a sandwich:
My sandwich also featured some leftover rotisserie chicken. I was so pleased to use both the meat and the sauce to create something new and flavorful for my family!
To sum up, mindful eating is high on consumers’ agenda in 2019, and this overall trend is likely to continue, as evidenced at the NRA Show. Whether you’re a vegan, meat-lover, or just interested in developing healthier eating habits, now’s the best time to look at food as something to be cherished, not simply consumed, and to embrace change, if that’s what you are looking for. There are plenty of options on the market – and that, after all, is the perennial beauty of this ever-changing industry 🙂