Alex Cabanero was there to learn, Rodrigo Aguirre and Vicki Wawerchak were there to teach and Joseph Biskie was there to show what he could do.
They were among hundreds of culinary professionals, vendors, students and members of the media who were milling around last week during the trade show segment of the American Culinary Federation’s national convention at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, attended by more than 1,000 chefs. It was just one aspect of a schedule that included educational seminars (knife-sharpening, Midwestern cheese and beer, becoming a successful competitor, the creation of the Paris-Brest dessert), book signings, meals and competitions.
“It’s informative — what are the trends, what’s going on, anything new on the market,” said Cabanero, a chef from Vacaville, Calif., who was attending his second ACF convention. “And meeting other chefs.”
More than 100 business representatives manned their booths in the vast space (“Where’s the entrance to this place?” asked one harried guy in chef’s whites who actually was looking for an exit) to supply information about their products and pick up new customers. There were, as would be expected, plenty of food products (beef, lamb, rice oils, cheeses, caviar, fish and other seafood, chocolates, pastas and sauces, applewood-smoked meats, sausages and tuna), as well as clothing, footwear, serving ware, food-preparation equipment and just about anything else a chef or cook could conceivably need.
Along one side, Joseph Biskie and his fellow students at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill., were hurrying around their competition kitchens as mom Lynn Biskie chilled out in the lobby. Asked exactly what her son was preparing, she answered sheepishly, “It’s a very confusing menu.”
Things were pretty quiet at Aguirre’s Pacific Stone Crab booth when a reporter stopped to talk. Florida stone crab — whose fishing fleet had a dismal season this year — is familiar, but Pacific? Aguirre nodded and prepared to lay out the facts as he stood near samples of the crab.
“The texture of the meat is a little firmer,” he said of his product, which grows in colder water than their Eastern counterparts. “The flavor is milder in sweetness. It keeps you wanting more.”
Although both kinds of stone crab have, obviously, existed for eons, Aguirre said his company, started by his father in 1961, hadn’t aggressively marketed it until a few years ago. For a long time, he said, it was sold frozen, primarily to Asian markets.
About 2½ years ago, he said, they thought: “In Florida, it is fresh. Why are we freezing it?”
The market began to grow, largely because of Truluck’s, a chain of seafood restaurants with outlets in Texas, Florida and Southern California. In Las Vegas, Aguirre said, his product is served at Joe’s Stone Crab, which became famous for the Florida stone crab served at its original Miami location. Aguirre said the restaurant differentiates between the types to avoid confusion.
Pacific stone crab, he said, is fished year-round off the Baja California coast over a 150-mile range. The space is divided into zones, which are fished at different times to help ensure sustainability.
Sustainability — the capacity of a species to survive and thrive — was a recurring theme at the trade show. Various companies touted their products as sustainable, and representatives also were on hand from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which collects and disseminates data on various species and rates them according to sustainability, labeling them “best choice,” “good alternative” or “avoid” (visit www.montereybay aquarium.org). Representative Sheila Bowman said many of Seafood Watch’s partners were participating in the trade show, but that she also was gratified by the number of culinary instructors she’d talked to who said sustainability is incorporated in their programs.
“I haven’t talked to a single person who said, ‘What is Seafood Watch?’ ” she said.
“People are coming in and asking us questions,” said her colleague, the aforementioned Wawerchak. “We used to have to go out and preach to the masses.”
Sustainability doesn’t pertain solely to seafood, and at the MacFarlane Pheasants booth, owner Bill MacFarlane said he’d discussed the very topic at dinner the night before.
He said pheasant, which in this country is sold only farm-raised, is becoming more popular largely because of the health aspects; it’s higher in protein and lower in fat and cholesterol than chicken, turkey or beef.
And while farm-raised fish operations can have a negative aspect on sustainability because of water-quality and other issues, that doesn’t appear to be the case with land-based animals.
“When you’re farm-raised,” MacFarlane said, “you’re inherently sustainable.”
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at email@example.com or 702-383-0474