Summer Fancy Food Show – The Third Time’s The Charm

Pace yourself,” I was told as I picked up my badge at the registration desk for this summer’s Fancy Food Show.  Truer words were never spoken.

Three years ago, I attended my first Fancy Food Show at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, where I proceeded to utterly fail at pacing myself.  Upon entering the cavernous exhibit halls, I was immediately overwhelmed by the cornucopia of high-end cheese, chocolate, olive oil and other specialty food offerings, all accompanied by the background hum of the distributors, producers, brokers, and other industry representatives wheeling and dealing in a dozen different languages.  It’s magical.  It’s electric.  It is also very exhausting.

By the time we had reached the end of the second aisle, as measured from the front of the Javits Center to the back wall, we found ourselves full from samples, our progress slowing and hampered by our efforts to negotiate the crowds.  The worst part?  It took us close to an hour just to get through two aisles. Over the next two days of nearly constant walking, sampling, and frequent stops to rest, we only managed to see about a third of the 2,300 exhibiting companies that year.

The next year, having obviously not learned my lesson from the prior year, I made the naive commitment to covering the entire show, all floors, all booths.  Over the course of three days, I hit every vendor from every nook and cranny of the culinary universe – from the largest European pavilions down to the Mom and Pop businesses selling products based on a family recipe.  On the third day, after visiting the most remote booths of the lower level of the convention center, my mission was accomplished.  But instead of feeling a sense of achievement, I felt burned out, unable to process all of the information into a coherent thought.  My legs and back hurt for days afterwards.

This year, I settled on a hybrid approach to covering the Fancy Food Show, one that would focus on discovering the vendors and products that were nominated for sofi awards, considered by many to be the Oscars of the specialty food industry.  I would bypass any vendors that were already familiar to me, or whose products I had already sampled in earlier visits.  I would seek out products that were awarded the sofi Silver awards, with special attention to those that were in the running for sofi Gold awards.  I was intent on walking the entire exhibit floor, but not necessarily stopping at each exhibitor.  It would be the equivalent of strolling through an art museum, but not reading the description of each individual work.

There are, of course, always exceptions to the “no familiar vendors” rule.  It’s an imperative to visit the Vosges booth to sample such wares as their Black Salt Caramel Bar (sofi Gold winner for Chocolate) and to indulge in what was probably the best brownie that I’ve ever had in my lifetime, still warm from the oven.  Nueske’s produces the finest bacon and smoked meat products on the planet, so it would be ludicrous to bypass a free sample.  Sometimes, you can even be caught off guard by a food that’s familiar, but produced at a level of quality that far exceeds anything you’d expect from a packaged product, as was the case with the Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co.’s line of products that included lobster pot pie, lobster corn chowder, and lobster mac and cheese that you would swear were never frozen.  sofi Gold winner for Outstanding Product Line?  Absolutely.

One of the thrills of attending a Fancy Food Show is being able to spot and taste innovative products before they hit the mainstream, and sometimes before they’re even released for sale to the public.  For example, one of last year’s most interesting new products, black garlic, is just now starting to appear on grocery store shelves.  Not the same as roasted garlic, black garlic presents itself as a sweet and savory flavor that’s hard to identify at first, and it’s starting to see integration into restaurant dishes.  Garlic also played prominently in this year’s awards, with the sofi Gold award for best new product going to GarLic It!, which describes itself as a private reserve caramelized garlic finish.  Having received a sample of GarLic It! a few days ago, I popped open the jar and stirred a tablespoon of the bronze shards into a pot of orzo, transforming it into an upscale accompaniment without any effort whatsoever.

It’s the thrill of these types of discoveries that keeps me coming back to the Fancy Food Show.  I even found the change of venue to Washington DC, triggered by long-term renovation work at the Javits Center, to be refreshing, since I was able to leave the convention center and be within walking distance of the hotel and other points of interest.