At first, I was sure I must be dreaming. Pretty ladies stepped out of nowhere to hand me free samples of cheesecake, gelato, or cashews. There was beer, wine, and grilled kangaroo. Everywhere I turned there were displays of gorgeously decorated cakes. Chefs stood over hotplates cooking up dishes of pasta or rosti potatoes, free for the taking. I couldn’t be sure, but there might have been angels singing. I never wanted to leave this blissful place.
Then the ethereal music came to a screeching halt as I came upon a display of salad dressings from a cigarette company. I shook myself out of my sugar-induced coma and noticed displays of chicken wings, available in bags of 500, or frozen burger patties, and all varieties of personal pizzas, sausages and nacho cheese mix.
My foodie dream was actually the trade show floor of the recent Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice Association show. This annual event, which took place this past weekend at the Direct Energy Centre, is open to the trade and media only. Combined this year with Hostex, a similar trade show that focuses on restaurant equipment, the event took over the entire Direct Energy Centre with displays and wholesalers offering everything from food items to linen, dishwashers, deep fryers and grease monitoring systems that use wireless technology (“taking the guesswork out of grease management”).
The CFRA Show is a true reality check for anyone who might think setting up and running a restaurant is easy. Besides all the necessary equipment (smokers, roasters, deep fryers, cutlery, chairs, tables, uniforms…), there’s the food to think about. At high-end places, customers pay a premium price for fresh, local and organic. We expect the chef to know the name of the pig they’re frying up bacon from, or that the roasted potatoes have been picked lovingly from a family farm.
The majority of restaurant and foodservice operations work on a far larger scale with a far smaller budget, however, and wholesale operations that can supply high-labour items such as French fries or pastries are in high demand. For most chain operations where deep-fried is the cooking method of choice, as well as foodservice operations like cafeterias, food products arrive at the door frozen, ready to drop into the fryer or pop into the microwave.
All of the big brand names we’re familiar with at home also have a niche in many restaurant kitchens. Think that diner soup is homemade? Maybe, but it might also be Campbell’s. Those tasty fries? Likely McCain’s or Cavendish Farms. Given a choice of salad dressings? That restaurant probably works with Kraft. Pretty much anything available in the typical family dining restaurant or pub can be brought in frozen. We saw everything from chicken fingers to frozen Yorkshire puddings in a variety of sizes.
Desserts are one of the most commonly out-sourced food items, and the variety we saw at the CRFA show was astounding. From more well-known Toronto bakeries such as Dufflet and the Sicilian Ice Cream Company to Fortunati’s Cheesecake Bliss on a Stick, restaurateurs who don’t have the space or funds for a full-time pastry chef have innumerable options.
What does all this mean for us, the average restaurant-goer? For those of us who imagine a team of hard-working white-clad chefs and commis back of house, individually breading chicken tenderloins, or painstakingly decorating a black forest cake, it might well be a wake-up call. The advice to “know where your food comes from” applies to more than just the grocery store. An idyllic image of Alice Waters or Jamie Kennedy examining baskets of fresh produce while planning the day’s specials for their niche-market restaurants must be juxtaposed with the very harsh reality of diners and family-oriented chains cooking everything out of boxes, bags or barrels.
That’s not to say the CRFA show was a waste of time or that everything we encountered was frozen junk intended for a cafeteria or pub. With representatives from various fruit marketing boards, booths sampling products from various provinces and a number of products directed to fine dining restaurants, there was definitely something for everyone. After all, there are some items, like bread, wine and cheese, that even high-end restaurants would not be able to make in-house. Plus, plenty of exhibitors with ingredient-type items such as spices, nuts or chocolate were present, hoping to attract contracts from restaurants cooking their menus from scratch.
Our visit was a fantastical journey through all facets of the foodservice spectrum, from truffle-studded cheese and ice cider, to beer-flavoured onion rings, breaded donair bites and curly fries. After the diabetic shock of all those cake samples wore off, I could appreciate the huge scale of diversity and options we as diners have available to us. Because despite knowing how bad they are for us, we all succumb to the curly fries occasionally.