MONTEREY, Calif. — While fresh fruits and vegetables are the reason for the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Conference & Exposition, celebrity foodies and chefs bring the star power. 

PMA foodservice expo underscores need to educate
Fred Wilkinson
Managing Editor

They may not have attained the widsespread cultural esteem professional athletes enjoy, but culinary celebrities have, in their own way, achieved a certain rock-star status.

Their word-of-mouth advertising brings new food items and preparation ideas to a mass audience. 

Workshop session panelist Ted Allen, host of Food Network shows “Food Detectives” and “Chopped,” remarked on how Americans’ relationship with food and cooking has evolved over the past generation or two.

He noted how for his parents’ generation, adding value was all about time-saving innovations in packaging and convenience foods. They saw cooking as a chore to be made simpler and faster.

Today’s younger adults have a more romantic view of food and view cooking and preparing elaborate meals as an enjoyable past time, he said.

Jeff Henderson — “Chef Jeff,” star of Food Network’s “The Chef Jeff Project” and executive chef for Las Vegas casinos — offers an inspiring personal and professional tale.

He discovered cooking in the most unlikely of places — a prison kitchen.

After a rough upbringing that led to 10 years behind bars, he found salvation on a stovetop.

During the Gourmets Dish sessions, Henderson spoke of his childhood in Los Angeles and how produce (other than avocados from the tree in his grandpa’s yard) was largely missing in action from his family’s diet.

He said he never tried blueberries until his early 30s.

He also dropped a word bomb that surely bruised the egos of some apple folks in the audience.

Henderson said that growing up the only fruit he was regularly exposed to was “red Washington apples,” and he wasn’t terribly fond of them.

Perhaps sensing a hint of tension in the room, Allen jumped in and said the apples were probably in storage for too long.

We can give him some credit for attempting the save, but the exchange made it clear the produce industry needs to step up educational efforts aimed at foodservice professionals.

New varieties, coupled with improved handling and storage techniques, mean more choices and fruits and vegetables stay fresher for longer.

Let your buyers know.

Vocal about local

Chefs and some students from The Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales University asked suppliers questions about locally grown produce, apparently not knowing local growers are a different segment of the supply chain as well as competitors.

They also made some references to local produce being fresher, tastier and more healthful.

None of those three things is true, but the comments by the present and future foodservice professionals underscore how deep that perception is lodged in the public’s consciousness.

During the workshop Point/Counterpoint: Food Safety and Your Business on July 25, a couple of industry executives provided their own insights on locally grown produce and food safety, particularly concerning calls for safe handling rules to apply to suppliers of any size.

Bob Gray, Salinas-based chief executive officer of Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Oviedo, Fla., posed a question: Would locally grown operations preserve their pastoral mystique if they had to adhere to the same food safety protocols that larger grower-shipper-processors have to?

If visitors to you-pick farms had to don hairnets and beard snoods, take off their jewelry, put on protective outfits and were ordered not to touch anything, would the local grower seem as quaint and homey? Oh, yeah, and that farm dog running around in the orchard? Get him out of there too.

Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative Inc., Salinas, summed up the difference in expectations between national and local suppliers like this: “With a local grower, you kind of expect him to have dirt under his nails. If (Tanimura & Antle chief executive officer) Rick Antle shows up with dirt under his nails, you wonder where he’s been.”


Did you attend the PMA Foodservice Conference, or do you have some insight into the foodservice industry? Leave a comment and add your opinion.