By Ruthie Kott
Imagine: a Coke fountain machine that dispenses any type of product you might be craving. Thirsty for a Fanta Cherry? Powerade ION4 Grape? Seagram’s Lemon Lime Seltzer? Press a few on-screen buttons on the Coca-Cola Freestyle, and it’s pouring into your red-and-white cup.
The Freestyle was one of the featured National Restaurant Association Kitchen Innovations Award winners, exhibited at the 2011 NRA Show, the annual international convention for food industry professionals held last weekend at McCormick Place. The association chose the Kitchen Innovations winners—which also included an intelligent ice machine and a quiet commercial blender—for their efficiency and the potential to improve work in the kitchen.
The NRA Show’s theme this year was “innovation,” focusing on the ways that industry professionals keep things fresh in the kitchen. With more than 1,600 exhibitors, from cooking accessories companies to organic and gluten-free bakeries to Tabasco sauce—which was introducing a new buffalo sauce flavor—the show was both exciting and completely overwhelming in its possibilities.
“It’s an opportunity to show people what’s out there and available,” said James McAfee, US director of food service for Delverde pasta company, who came from New York to attend the convention, which has been held in Chicago since 1950.
Innovation also comes from the techniques chefs use in their restaurants. Mixology, for example, is a relatively new trend, using items from the kitchen to create cocktails. In fact, complex cocktails were highlighted at Sunday night’s first annual NRA Restaurants Rock party at LaSalle Power Company. Hosted by Chef Tom Colicchio, Top Chef head judge and founder of Craft restaurants, the party featured the Star of the Bar mixology competition, for which Colicchio was a judge. Chicago’s own Dante LoPresti from Double A won the $5,000 prize for his Pink Lion drink, which contains Cazadores Blanco, Hum liqueur, elderflower liqueur, lillet blanc, and lemon.
“Chicago is embracing [the avant garde food movement]”, Colicchio says, citing local chefs like Grant Achatz and Homaru Cantu, who use molecular gastronomy in their restaurants, playing with the food to discover how far they can push it within its chemical and physical properties.
Atlanta-based chef Richard Blais, for example, the recent winner of Top Chef All-Stars, led an NRA Show demonstration in which he showed audience members how to use liquid nitrogen, which he was famous for using (some might argue, overusing) on the show. The clear liquid can freeze just about anything, turning even standard side dishes like cole slaw into a sorbet.
The NRA also recognizes the importance of keeping food simple, without robotic machines and fancy methods. One of the recent movements in the restaurant business has been around for some 20 years, says Colicchio, but is just now becoming widespread: the farm-to-table movement.
Chefs simply need to put more fresh fruits and vegetables on their plates, said White House chef and senior policy advisor for healthy food initiatives Sam Kass, at the show on Monday morning. They have a responsibility to teach children about eating healthfully from an early age.
“Exposing kids to healthier foods,” he said, “will put them on a path that will shape their food eating for life.”
Ultimately, innovation, whether it is molecular gastronomy or finding new ways to put garden-fresh vegetables on a child’s plate, is about constantly learning.
“I think chefs have always been about playing with their food, poking at, trying to understand it in different ways, from the moment someone put a piece of meat over a fire,” Wylie Dufresne, chef and owner of New York City’s molecular-gastronomy haven wd~50 said during a Monday NRA Show session. “It’s a never-ending story because it’s about education, that means it will always endure.”