There are many sides to The National Restaurant Association’s annual Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, held recently in Chicago. It’s an idea factory, an exhaustive and exhausting showplace for new foods and beverages. It’s a technology bazaar, delivering innovations that ease operations in both the front- and back-of-the-house. This year in particular, it may also have been a leading indicator of better times to come. There was real energy on the show floor, a distinctly upbeat feeling that added positive buzz to the usual bustle. And perhaps most interesting, the show is always a culinary crystal ball—an opportunity to taste the trends and see the shape of things to come.
Spices and smoke on steroids. The concept of molecular gastronomy appears to have run its course, and it is unlikely that techno-emotional cuisine, its more contemporary replacement, will have much impact on the mass market. But ingredients like gelatins and emulsifiers favored by cutting-edge chefs are now sold in user-friendly formats for those looking to whip up a little lemon “air” as a seafood topping or Campari “air” as a cocktail garnish. Pollen is a favored flavoring agent of some molecular gastronomists, and dill pollen, a highly potent version of the familiar herb, is available to add zip to entrées and sauces.
Specialty salts continue to be a hot category, and this year they were combined with another hot flavor: smoke. There were Chardonnay-, tea- and alderwood-smoked salts. Smoke also is being used to add depth of flavor to a wide range of spices, like smoky Saigon cinnamon and smoky Tellicherry peppercorns. In a clear demonstration that smoke has blown down international barriers, an American company proffers a smoky paprika-chipotle seasoning, while an Australian organization promotes smoky hickory-infused olive oil.
Ethnic incursions. The NRA Show is a veritable souk, or marketplace, for ethnic foods, and this year, appropriately, there were exhibitors specializing in the foods of the eastern and southern Mediterranean, regions overlooked in earlier iterations of the Mediterranean food craze. In addition to convenience versions of falafel, hummus and tabbouleh, a spice purveyor offered a dizzying array of exotica, such as ras el hanout and dukkah, two spice blends common in dishes of the area.
From the other side of the globe, the Korean government sponsored a major showcase of Korean goods. There were representatives of restaurant concepts featuring frozen yogurt and rice bowls, but much of the excitement surrounded young Los Angeles chef Roy Choi, who has made a name for himself with Kogi , his hotter-than-hot Korean taco truck. Patiently doling out kimchee-inflected tacos to a long line of show-goers, Choi explained his presence as an opportunity to educate the industry on the cuisine of his forebears.
Indian foods continue their slow advance on American menus as well. One booth featured a line of shelf-stable Indian sauces and pickles, while another offered tasty chicken tikka potpies.
And a Japanese supplier, perhaps hoping for the next Kobe beef, was sampling ton-toro, a tasty, highly marbled pork jowl that’s popular in Japanese barbecue restaurants.
Spruced up and juiced up. The beverage category has come alive the past few years, buoyed by innovation among specialty coffees and teas as well as other soft drinks. One manufacturer poured cucumber, juniper berry and lavender sodas and, taking a page from wine merchants, suggested food pairings for each. A couple of aisles over, another company was selling carbonated soft drinks sweetened with varietal grapes.
All in the family. Every trip to the NRA Show requires side excursions to hot new Chicago restaurants. Of particular note is Hub 51, run by Jerrod and R.J. Melman, sons of über-operator Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises . The fun menu includes cheeky takes on culinary hot buttons like charcuterie. The Jerky-Jerky is a described as “truck stop charcuterie platter” with house-made turkey jerky, beef jerky and cheese dip. Hub 51  offers proof that the creativity apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and another positive indicator for the future of the restaurant business.