The last few years, I’ve been blessed with food-rich travels and that continued recently when I attended The Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.
Taking in this annual event is becoming a tradition, as it keeps me current with food trends and offers another reason to visit one of the world’s culinary hotspots.
Before telling you about my discoveries there, I wanted to share an interesting side trip I took before heading to the “City by the Bay.” I’m a fan of the National Public Radio show A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. It’s a weekly, live, old-style radio show with skits, music and Keillor’s endearing stories about his fictional hometown, Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.
The show is taped at various theatres around the U.S. I’ve always wanted to see one, and when I learned ASU Gammage would be a venue, it finally worked out. This historic hall is located on the Tempe campus of Arizona State University, where my brother Richard works in the Department of Electrical Engineering. He also wanted to see the show and suggested that, beforehand, we tour around Arizona and go sightseeing.
Our road trip started in Las Vegas, where we spent a night, took in the nightlife and had dinner. Las Vegas has several celebrity-chef restaurants and we ended up at Gordon Ramsay BurGR, described as a place where the traditional burger is taken to a new level. On his television shows, Ramsay is famous for his tirades, where he rips into young chefs and restaurants owners who mess up.
With that reputation, the pressure is on at the many Ramsay restaurants for the staff to run a seamless operation. But I did find a few cracks at this bustling 200-seat eatery. The abundant service staff were friendly and professional, but militaristic in their efficiency — get them seated, get them fed, get them out and repeat. With regard to the food, I ordered a Britannia burger, topped with English cheddar, chutney and arugula. It cost $14 (side dishes were extra) and was tasty, but the toppings were so sparse, the strong taste of the wood-fire grilled meat obliterated their flavour. The cone-shaped side dish of fries, $8, was beautifully cooked, but intensely salty.
The next morning, we drove east, toured the Hoover Dam and then ventured into Arizona. We drove for a while on Interstate 40, got hungry, and pulled into the tiny town of Seligman, whose main thoroughfare was historic Route 66. We found a diner, Westside Lilo’s Café, filled with locals for good reason. The food was tasty and plentiful, and our server was about as genuine, kind and caring as one could get.
Back on the Interstate, we continued eastward and marvelled at how the landscape changed from desert to pine- and snow-filled forest as we climbed in elevation. After reaching Flagstaff, we headed south to Sedona, our final destination for the day.
Sedona is a jewel of a town, quaint and well-kept and surrounded by stunningly beautiful red-rock monoliths with names such as Coffeepot, Cathedral and Thunder Mountain.
The next morning, under a brilliant blue sky, we took an inspiring hike and found ourselves starving again. Conveniently located near the trail’s end was Senor Bob’s Hot Dogs. Not exactly healthy, but very tasty, particularly when the hot dog was smothered in Bob’s flavourful salsas.
We did a bit more touring before driving on to Tempe (adjacent to Phoenix) and I was getting excited about seeing the Garrison Keillor show. The taping of A Prairie Home Companion was a ton of fun and, judging by the standing ovation, the 3,000-plus people in attendance agreed.
I bid my brother adieu and the next morning flew off to San Francisco to take in The Fancy Food Show, where I met my wife, who was also attending with colleagues of her employer, Victorian Epicure.
This annual event held in massive Moscone Center attracts thousands of people from around the globe interested in buying, learning about or selling fine foods or beverages. Those selling included 1,300 exhibitors from more than 35 countries who showcased more than 80,000 food and beverage products, such as cheeses, snacks, olive oils, vinegars, sweets, cured-meats, wine, natural and organic products, and much more.
Because there’s so much to see and sample, in past years, I’ve found it difficult to know where to start. It’s kind of like walking into a mammoth store that houses 10 giant supermarkets, with each one offering a different array of products. However, this year’s organizers made things easier for visiting media by having a separate section called What’s New, What’s Hot, which highlighted trendier items.
Products that caught my eye included single servings of ultra-healthy, dried-fruit-and-nut-rich oatmeal; Greek yogurt in many forms; dairy products from grass-fed cows; iced Chai tea; artisan-infused syrups such as Meyer lemon; and flavoured beer salts, such as lemon-lime, for the rim of your glass or bottle.
While later strolling the show’s main halls, I also noticed that foods flavoured with nutritious kale were popular and gourmet chocolate was everywhere. Other products, from crackers to cereal, rich with gluten-free grains and seeds were also abundant.
The booths of two Canadian companies, Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods (manitobaharvest.com) and Holy Crap Cereal (holycrap.ca), were attracting a lot of attention and rightly so. They are producing world-class products that are now available all over the place, including Victoria.
The Fancy Food Show also commandeered a panel of food experts to research and list their top five food trends for 2013. Like me, they, too, noticed seed and tea products, with their list including — get ready for it — broccoli cilantro tea by a company called Numi Organics. Rounding out their top-five trends were new oil products, such as cherry-seed oil; banana-flavoured products, such as banana peanut butter; and blue-cheese-infused products, such as Bissinger’s Chocolate wine grapes, coated with a delicate layer of blue cheese, before being coated in chocolate.
Beyond all the sampling at the food show, I also had some splendid meals out in San Francisco, a city surrounded by farms, dairies, vineyards and the sea that is rich in cultural diversity. They include a seafood feast at the Hog Island Oyster Bar, southern-style treats at a funky restaurant called Town Hall, and some Mediterranean-style delights at the always-packed A16.
That’s why, unlike the song, I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco, I left my stomach.
Eric Akis is author of the just-published hardcover book Everyone Can Cook Everything. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
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