Aramark, which provides food for the Convention Center, has ramped up the quality and quantity of dining options at the show, while Organic Gardening magazine has created a weeklong series of food-related programs in the Culinary Room.
Displays of edibles - from a 40-foot wall of lettuce, to a baby tomato-covered trellis - were created to appeal to East Coast vegetable growers.
"We started talking about a new vision," says Aramark Convention Center general manager David Bianco, of the collaboration with the PHS team. "This year we are really stepping up the overall vision of how we are going to create and display and facilitate the food and beverage outlets."
The boldest new initiative, in keeping with this year's Hawaiian theme, is the spacious pop-up-style eatery Kaua'i Kafe, located smack in the middle of the main display floor. Through the surfboard entrance, hostesses seat customers at bamboo-style tables and direct them to a central buffet line. Aramark chef Mark Hoffman created a menu of traditional Hawaiian dishes like Maui fish stew, green papaya salad, jerk chicken, and ginger crème brûlée; $18 buys soup, salad and dessert, and $25 gets the addition of an entree.
Northeast Philadelphians Andrea and Michael Capaldi enjoyed their lunch of beef teriyaki. "We love eating Polynesian food," Andrea says. "We wanted to make sure that eating here was a part of our day." They were, however, a little disappointed that there is no children's pricing option, as their daughter pushed food around her plate.
Not only are there more eating options this year, they are also more varied. Chickie's & Pete's is selling its famous crab fries in the "Man Cave," which, thanks to a large-screen TV and leather lounge chairs, had as many women as men. "We saw the sign [for Chickie's & Pete's] on the way in," says South Jersey resident Kim Avale, who dunked seasoned spuds into a white cheese sauce. Unlike in past years, she was happy to not have to walk too far to find something good to eat.
Toward the back of the show, vendors are selling gourmet chocolates, and Di Bruno Bros. has a large shop with coffee, sandwiches, and packaged displays of the cheeses and cured meats that are its calling cards. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board also set up a shop, offering tastings and selling wines. Those in the know will recognize the return of the Garden Tea room, set apart from the hectic hallways, that requires tickets for the twice-daily seatings.
Those who care more about learning than eating will find many opportunities for enrichment at the Organic Gardening magazine Culinary Room. The two institutions have not paired up together since the late '90s. "PHS leads the charge in urban agriculture and encourages organic food to be grown," says editor in chief Ethne Clarke. "It's an obvious partnership."
Sarah Fioroni, the executive chef at Fattoria Poggio Alloro, her family's organic farm in Tuscany, kicked off the opening-day cooking demonstrations. Almost all 280 seats were taken. Large screens projected the saffron risotto she was whipping up on stage, as she enlightened listeners about Italian culture and the importance of organic food. "I'm honored to be here and talk more with the people about what we are doing at our farm," Fioroni said.
As the aroma of sauteed onions crept through the room, host Joseph Shilling had the unfortunate job of telling the audience that, because of health department regulations, samples were not available. Surprisingly, that cued only one person's exit.
Other demos range from hands-on cooking techniques to tips and tricks. Author Dana Jacobi is speaking Thursday about fresh herbs and how the freezer can extend the life of in-season bounty. Locally, Guillermo Tellez from Square 1682 will focus on hearty and healthy food at 1:30 p.m. Friday; chef Mike Stollenwerk of Center City's Fish restaurant is set to discuss sustainable seafood at 3 p.m. Friday; Aimee Olexy of Talula's Table and Talula's Garden will talk about cooking seasonally at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Seek out the vegetable displays in the main showroom. The wall of lettuce and tomato trellis are pure creativity, but aspiring dirt-diggers should not be discouraged by the edible garden vignettes, where vibrant broccoli, broad-leafed herbs, and softball-sized turnips sprout up in neat rows. No one's actual garden is that picture perfect.
Contact Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @ashleyprimis.