Somewhere over the Big-I and two nights before the 17th Annual National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show, my boyfriend and I find ourselves sitting in a Village Inn, one booth over from a chatty, convivial man named Matt. Actually, he is the Chef Matt, of Chef Matt's Hand Crafted Arizona Habanero BBQ Sauce, recipient of the 2005 Scovie Award for barbecue sauce. Matt is working miracles in our section, cracking jokes with our evasive and at times bitchy waitress. Service has sped up considerably since his arrival.
"The best thing you can ever hope to do for someone is to make them laugh," he says, stirring his coffee. "Just make 'em laugh."
And true to form, when we return home I discover that Chef Matt maintains an overflowing "Joke of the Week" forum on his business website. It's obvious that he's in town for the convention.
"You going?" he asks us.
Now, there's a good reason why food trade shows aren't open to the general public: They're really no fun. Which is a shame, because they sound like such a good idea. Take a convention hall, fill it with specialty foods distributors from all over the country, divvy up their products into truckloads of free, bite-sized samples, maybe toss in a wine booth or beer garden here and there—a food lover's paradise! It's not. Let me say this again: Food trade shows are no fun for you, the general public. And if you don't know what you're signing up for, the experience can land you a wicked headache. Fast.
I saw it happen firsthand last December at a small holiday trade show in downtown Albuquerque. My sister and a friend from California had joined me, lured in with promises of free booze and abundant snacks. Both had worked briefly before in food service: my sister as a catering assistant, our friend at a tiny sandwich shop in L.A. called Auntie Em's. I was well aware of the huge gaps between wholesale food distribution and their limited experience in the industry. And as an ambassador to the profession, I was taking a risk in bringing them there. It was very possible that they would hate it. But what did I care? Free food is free food.
"Just go around and get whatever looks good," I explained, "If they ask where you're from, make something up. It doesn't matter."
I led the way in my white chef's jacket and baggy pants, and we slipped into the hall without any problems. Everything was going smoothly until they started talking. Our Californian friend is a terrible liar, and she kept offering her honest opinions of the food.
"Actually, the cake from the guy over there is way better."
Blank stares, tinged with shock and horror. It's not that she was being rude; it's just that no one ever offers up comparative criticism at these things. There's just no point.
"This is weird," my sister whined. "Everything is fried ... are we actually supposed to try these?" She picked up a fist full of single-serve mayonnaise packets from a display table. I didn't have the heart to tell her that, yes, we were.
Pretty soon, everyone was eying us suspiciously. We were too young, and we had no obvious connections. We got grilled at every booth.
"Which restaurant are you from again?" asked one such booth guardian, testing us.
"We're based in ... uh ... Pokey Hockey," my Californian friend offered.
“Pojoaque!” I hissed back, under my breath.
"Really,” said the booth guardian, incredulous. “Jan still out there?"
"Sure is!" I guessed, sweeping my guests out of the room. "Workin' hard, too. Thanks for the, uh, tater tots? Bye!"
On the walk home we clutched our aching, bloated bellies. The combination of rich foods eaten too quickly had not paired well. "Surreal," they said, over and over.
I can see clearly now why my experiment was a total failure. For one, my guests were hardly prepared for what to expect. The wholesale food industry is a world unto itself, replete with its own set of rules and traditions. A fair amount of these are rooted in what can only be described as bizarre social conventions. This isn't Costco, after all. You can't just grab a Dixie Cup of stew, toss it back and go about your merry way. Here, those tiny paper ramekins are a legally binding commitment to stand around and bullshit with one another or, as we say in the business, "network." You want some chutney? You better have a business card to back it up. And that chocolate-chunk cookie will cost you five minutes with Bob (pronounced "Bab"), a regional distributor who's badly in need of some gum. Yes, the food is free, but it's not that great, and it comes at a cost.
And then there's a depressing starkness about the whole event. No flames leaping into the air or delicately plated showpieces by chefs in high white toque hats. Instead, the drone of business pleasantries is at a near roar, and display tables are lined with homogenous chunks of "box-cutter cuisine"—just reheat and serve. And there it is. The seductive flavors of your favorite restaurants have been laid bare before you, wrung dry of their mystery and stripped down to their most elemental components: a resealable plastic bag, shipped in biweekly from somewhere in Kansas. It's a shattering revelation.
I actually blame all of this on cable television. Too many hours in front of the Food Network have unfairly elevated your expectations. You have become soft and wistful about food. You forget that this is a business first, and that there is always a bottom line. Which is fine. But if you want to hold on to your shimmering ideal of an Emeril City, you'd be wise to pay no attention to the corporate chefs behind the curtain. Show organizers know this. They want to protect you and their investment, and they do it by keeping you out of the convention hall in the first place. Because to a food lover like you, this is individually quick frozen, flash-fried hell. Abandon all hype, ye who enter here. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting so jaded that you'd never eat out again.
Back at the Village Inn, Matt thoughtfully carves up his chicken fried steak—no gravy, extra barbeque sauce on the side. "I go to a few of these things every year,” he says, “but none of them are quite like the Fiery Foods Show."
Oh? I ask him what separates ours from the others. He dips his head in thought for a moment.
"The people. You know how awful it is when people try to sell you something they don't really believe in?" Flashback to Christmas 2003. Boy, do I! "None of that here,” he continues. “Everyone's really excited about what they've brought. They've been making it for years, eating it every day, and all their friends rave about how good it is. So then they put together a website and start selling it, and it takes off from there. They hear about the Fiery Foods Show, and they scrape together the 700 bucks for the entry fee, plus maybe 400 for shipping, and they're nervous as hell about the whole thing. But they really believe in their product, and that's enough. They're all good people. They're real, you know?"
Hmmmm. I'm still suspicious–but I must admit that my defenses are weakening. How bad could a room full of chile addicts really be? And if the people there are half as interesting as this guy, it might just be worth the trip.
I reason that Matt's 30 years in the industry puts him somewhere in his mid-50s, but he looks only slightly middle aged. I'm convinced that his buoyant personality is what makes him appear so young. He'd likely say that his love of the hot stuff has pickled his insides.
"So, maybe I'll see you guys over there," he says, reaching past the banquette to hand me his business card. I flip it over and look at his logo: a smiling honey bee in a chef's hat, zipping a red chile pepper through a patch of saguaro cacti. Our waitress returns with our check and places it in front of my boyfriend.
"Anything else I can get for you tonight?" she sighs, attempting to be polite.
"How about a free slice of pie for the birthday boy over there?" Matt volunteers, shooting us a barely perceptible wink.
Well, now. That's a horse of a different color.