“Life’s a banquet,” famously roared Auntie Mame, a West Village avatar by way of the woman who inspired her, the man who created her. Paraphrasing the words that followed, there were no poor suckers starving to death at the recent record-breaking 2013 Summer Fancy Food Show (SFFS) at Javits.
The Specialty Food Association’s (SFA) massive 3-day agora, which serves the $86 billion food industry, is North America’s largest marketplace devoted exclusively to specialty food. This year’s Show — for trade only — was the largest ever, covering, according to the SFA, 354,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space (a football field is a mere 57,600 sq. ft.!).
Over 180,000 high-end foods and beverages from more than 80 countries could be seen and often tasted, a challenge even to hungry football teams.
Show participants were exhibitors on one side, buyers on the other. These latter comprised those in retail (the supermarkets, specialty food markets, etc. that sell to consumers) and the restaurant/food service people bringing meals to out-of-home diners. A record-setting 24,100 retail and food service buyers from the U.S. and abroad showed up. Retailers, exhibitors suggested, appeared to outnumber the food service people by about 5 to 1.
However, attendees aren’t so easily categorized. Even Bleecker Street’s Murray’s does triple-duty (and triple crème!) as retailer, wholesaler and now restaurateur with its new cheese bar, putting the company theoretically on both the retail and food service sides (Murray’s buys from major French distributor/importer the Fromi groupe, one of the Show’s exhibitors).
France, along with Turkey, Italy, Greece, Mexico, Italy, Spain, and China were among the largest of the 80 foreign countries and 1,000 foreign exhibitors on the floor. China’s vast but odd presence – endless lines of homogeneous, unfussy booths stretching over an out of the way location – was like a visual metaphor for the country as cliché.
Exhibitors who debuted this year included Bulgaria, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Switzerland. Even Palestine, showing off its memorable olive and honey cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and capers spreads, had a booth.
Of the more than 1,500 U.S. exhibitors were over a dozen states’ (Massachusetts, Kentucky, Virginia, etc.) renowned restaurants that also sell retail (Michael’s in Sheepshead Bay, Sarabeth’s, Rick Bayless’s Frontera Mexican hot spot in Chicago). Frontera’s guacamole was just right; Kentucky’s rich bourbon barrel cake had some over a barrel.
Another major exhibitor contingent was large distributors and importers (Cento, American Roland, Trois Petits Cochons, which began in the Village or Best Cheese Corp. that supplies West Village chefs like Mario Batali and Jean-Georges Vongerichten).
Food and beverage variety and abundance staggered. Olive oils from Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Chile, Morocco, Palestine, etc. practically flowed through the aisles. Vinegars poured forth: a taste of a fancy aged Italian balsamic recalled the virtues of less heavy, sweet, intrusive simple vinegars. Everywhere were cheeses, chocolates, chips, pastas, sauces, jams, dumplings, mustards, dips, salumi, sausages, patés, mousses, ham products, basmati rices, rice cakes, chilies, spreads, soups, antipasti, seafood, pastas, fruits (dried, fried, juiced, canned).; it was practically raining olives.
Trends being big at The SFFS, yogurt, kefir, energy bars, instant gourmet meals, seaweed chips were for the tasting. Healthy and fast gourmet foods were broad trends: drinks from herbs and exotic plants, Fage yogurt was unloaded, seaweed emerged in many a chip and salt and mayonnaise substitutes passed the taste test. Furthermore, practically everything was stamped gluten-free.
On the trendy “fast” track were meal starters and quick gourmet meals. Fast and amazing was Thailand’s two-minute dessert of boiled coconut milk, sliced banana, and sugar.
Beverages abounded (coffees, teas, juices like agave, kiwi, acai, aloe, pineapple), even beverages with buzz: wines, mezcals, tequilas, whiskeys, beers, cachaca, tequilas, etc.
Adding sizzle to this giant slab of a trade show steak was celeb chef Marcus Samuelsson, who hosted this year’s SFA mid-event red carpet 41st sofi™ Awards for outstanding foods (a record 2,573 products were submitted).
Samuelsson hailed the Show as “an inspiration to others in his field” but chefs and restaurateurs were greatly outnumbered. One chef spotted was Matt Le-Khac of Orchard Street’s An Choi, who combed the Vietnam booths researching vegetables and ideas for a new broth.
However, Vietnam-born Top Chef winner Hung Huynh of Meatpacking’s Catch, one of several high-end West Village restaurant people queried for this article, skipped the Show as did others like Annisa owner/chef Anita Lo, Perry Street’s Jean-Georges Vongerichten, vacationing Mario Batali and Barbuto’s Jonathan Waxman (not together!), Spasso’s Bobby Werhane, Recette’s Jesse Schenker, et al.
Spasso’s seasoned manager T.J. Siegal suggested how the Show might pull in more restaurant people. “Some years ago a food show organization paid me a lot of money to participate in a focus group to address this problem. I let them know that they could make shows more worthwhile by providing us well before hand with detailed guides to who’s attending and what’s being shown.” He added, “I haven’t had a vacation in 10 years.”
Indeed, the chef refrains were of the “no-time/too busy” and “been there/done that” variety. Lo, implying that the Show can be like a coming of age ritual for restaurant people on the rise, said, “I used to go to these things when I was younger but now they’d have to give me a free personal assistant to lure me there. I don’t find these shows necessary anymore. When we did go, we’d just roam the aisles with no agenda in mind.”
More of a booster for the Show was Commerce owner Tony Zazula, who said no one from his team including chef Harold Moore could attend because of a new project they’re so busy with but they’ll definitely attend next year when their new venture is further along. “We can use the tremendous selection of the Summer Fancy Food Show’s vendors to put our next project in motion.”
Like the Show itself, inspirations and trends remain on front burners but for the West Village restaurant people other wellsprings are also closer to home.
For Schenker, who runs Recette with his director of operations wife Lindsay, inspiration comes from what other chefs are doing. Like Anita Lo, who reads a lot of the various food publications and does online research, he reads “a lot about the industry in general, gets an idea and runs with it.” To keep things fresh, Schenker, like Lo and others, changes menus seasonally. He “tweaks” within seasons and also stays ahead of the game offering special Monday 10-course tasting menus that never repeat a dish.
Chef Garett McMahan of Perilla, the Jones Street eatery that is part of “top chef” premiere season winner Harold Dieterle’s West Village empire along with Kin Shop and The Marrow, acknowledges that there’s plenty to see at the show but “I just couldn’t be away from the restaurant.” He continued, “I’ve been to many other food shows and to tell you the truth, there’s not a lot of direct inspiration from the show itself.”
Yes, he believes “it’s good for chefs to go out and see what is happening, but I think our inspiration comes more from the market or talking with our friends and seeing what they’re doing.”
Zazula, too, said that Commerce chef Harold Moore finds his inspirations in the freshest and highest quality ingredients that are available, meaning he’s always experimenting in the kitchen and can change the Commerce menu almost daily.
Swayed and inspired by the seasons, Lo’s menu evolves four times a year. She too uses word-of-mouth: “I speak with my purveyors often, and new purveyors are constantly knocking on the door.”
As for working the Show, which Zazula calls “overwhelming,” he advises those in the trade that while it’s “entertaining to wander the aisles (and try the free samples!),” it’s best to have a specific plan, know the issues and questions that need addressing, and narrow your field of vendors accordingly, otherwise “you’ll end up lost.”
For journalist/civilians, there could be worse fates than “ending up lost” amidst so much good stuff. But high-end binge eating can also mean the unexpected side effect of guilt, somewhat assuaged by remembering that important documentaries exist like the recent A Place at the Table that address the rise of food insecurity and malnutrition in this country.
Also gratifying was word that the Show’s staggering leftovers — 220,300 pounds of food — set another record and were sent to the needy through City Harvest. Auntie Mame would have liked that.