Chef Tom Herndon: Tales From the Foodiverse – The Fancy Food Show

Every winter for the last 30 years, San Francisco has hosted the biggest convention of gourmet-food manufacturers in the world. It’s called The Fancy Food Show. From giant world brands with 3000-square-foot footprints, to tiny cottage-industry food enthusiasts who will crowd into a 10×10 space with others, just to start somewhere. Javits Center in NYC hosts the summer show. Both shows are immense and well-attended.

The Fancy Food Show

In one of my former lifetimes, I had the privilege to work for one of those cottage-industry newbies. The corporation that owned the company generously financed our very own 10×10 booth. I was VP of Sales.

At The Fancy Food Show, I found out about brokers and distributors, and in two years we went from 30 local accounts to over 600 nationwide. Four days of talking gourmet food with hundreds and hundreds of fellow food enthusiasts with everyone sampling products. Serious foodie paradise.

Fancy Food Food Fanciers

Our product was called STUBS, which was an acronym for Simply The Ultimate Breadstick. STUBS were not the extruded, airy, flavorless style, but were cut and rolled by hand, producing a denser, more flavorful breadstick. This was back when gluten was a good thing. We were lucky to be unique to the market, so cheese boutiques, mom-n-pop grocers, and gift basket companies gobbled us up. Pun intended.

Unfortunate events brought about the demise of the company, but I have returned to The Fancy Food Show every year since. My tribe! I always bring a posse with me; sometimes three people, sometimes as many as sixteen. Imagine 3,000 gourmet-food booths and all of them letting you taste their goods! There must have been a dozen aisles that were just cheese! I always tell my friends to pace themselves, but that never works.

Cheese Porn

This year I attended with two of my closest foodie buddies. We decided to just take our time. Many times before, we rushed through so we could take in the entire show, but not this time. We went for quality over quantity. It was one of the best shows ever.

We sampled 100 different exotic cheeses, artisan breads, adult sodas, rare honey, savory charcuterie, bourbon maple syrup, grainy mustard, Jamon Iberico, world-class chocolates, first-press olive oils… you name it. One booth was very popular because it had a 900-degree pizza oven, and the chef kept making thin-crust pizzas with creamy buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, and fresh basil. We went back to that one four times.

One day, eight hours, 1,500 gourmet-food booths (we only did half the show) and swag bags full of exotic samples from Oaxacan mole paste to kettle corn popcorn balls to edible flowers. Truly, we were in Disneyland for the Taste Buds.

What I loved most was hearing the food makers’ stories. Their products were delicious, but their stories added rich context making everything taste even better. I tasted 100-year-old balsamic vinegar; a complex, unctuous syrup. The man told us about the top honors the makers have received; how their balsamic was the one brand chosen by the royal family of Italy; and how that designation is shared by only a very few manufacturers on the planet.

We spoke to a tall Australian whose son is third-generation owner of their mustard-seed oil business. The father started the business in India back in the 1940s, and they’ve been producing this single, specialized product for over 60 years. I told him I’d cooked Indian food many times and that recipes often start with roasting mustard seeds in oil to flavor the oil before cooking. This oil is a fundamental pantry item for any cook who loves to make a curry.

It seems like adding the word “adult” to your label is a popular branding strategy this year. I tasted adult nut butters. By making them spicier than usual, they’re now for grown-ups. Taking a common product and giving it a bit of a lift, an increased sophistication, I guess, and calling it “adult” so the buyer will take it more seriously….you get the point.

Adult Soft Drinks

One young Irish gentleman was selling “adult” tonic water. What the heck? Because of his story, the flavor of tonic water I wanted to try was Dry Ginger. (The lad was quite easy on the eye and a redhead, and I was tempted to say “Ginger is my favorite.” But I didn’t). In his light brogue, he told us the story of being a kid and his ma telling him it was time for supper and to please go down to the pub and fetch his dad. The pub was one of those clubby affairs with fireplaces and dark paneling and big leatherback chairs. When you walked in, you were hit with the heady aromas of leather, whiskey, and tobacco.

“Picture all that in your mind,” he said, “and now take a sip.” He was right. I expected a spicy hit of ginger, but what I tasted was pipe smoke, peat, and leather, which took me back to my grandfather’s tack room. Not just tonic water, but “adult tonic water.” Who knew?

It’s been fun and very fulfilling walking the show the past 20 years and watching the different food trends come and go. Chocolate, tea, salsa, cheese. They all take the market by storm for a year or two, before the next one comes along and grabs everyone’s attention. During the storm, the lucky ones will have staked a solid claim in the Foodiverse and become well-loved brands that people go back to year after year. Think of your favorite gourmet-food item. Chances are the manufacturers gave out thousands of samples at a show just like this.

On That Note

Four women sing “Four Women” L to R Angélique Kidjo, Lisa Simone, Lizz Wright, Diane Reeves

You could not ask for a richer ensemble than these four. On stage Lisa Simone, accomplished musician, award-winning Broadway actress and the daughter of Nina, herself, joins African favorite and World Music star Angélique Kidjo, renowned jazz vocalist Lizz Wright, and four time Grammy winner Diane Reeves.

Four strong women, incredibly sexy and soulful, singing the powerful words of musical legend Nina Simone. This is one strong piece. I’ve listened to it dozens of times.

The spare score starts low and steady with a walking acoustic bass, some guitar and a bit of percussion, slowly increasing in volume, adding more instruments, enhancing the passionate telling of a moving story of four unique women, building to a heart-wrenching climax.

A Crowd Favorite

This just sounded too crazy-good NOT to make. A radical combo. You have to try this. It’s the perfect Winter side dish. It’s wonderful! The flavors work beautifully together. I even turned it into a main dish by adding big slices of coffee-roasted pork tenderloin.

The coffee, pork, oranges, dates and smoky almonds got completely jiggy with it. In my mouth!

Citrus Salad with Radicchio, Dates and Smoked Almonds

Serves 6


2 whole ruby grapefruit

4 whole oranges (I used both Cara Cara and Blood Oranges for color)

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1/8 cup olive oil

1 small shallot, minced

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 small head radicchio, cored and thinly sliced

2/3 cup pitted dates, chopped

1/2 cup smoked almonds, coarsely chopped

Peel and slice the grapefruit and oranges into 1/4 inch thick slices. Lay slices out on a platter and sprinkle with brown sugar. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let sit for 15 minutes.

Carefully drain fruit over a bowl and reserve the juice.

Arrange fruit on a serving platter and drizzle with olive oil.


Chef Tom is currently Resident Chef for a small tech firm in San Francisco. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at

2 Responses to “Chef Tom Herndon: Tales From the Foodiverse – The Fancy Food Show”

  1. Peter Montreuil Says:


  2. marlene schuler Says:

    The citrus salad looks yummy!

Leave a Reply to marlene schuler Cancel reply

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