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Vosges Haut Chocolat owner Katrina Markoff, who scours the globe for the exotic chiles and berries that flavor her pricey, decadent truffles, is launching a not-so-haute brand of chocolates.

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The Chicago entrepreneur, who opened her first shop 13 years ago in her 20s, was at the Sweets and Snacks Expo at McCormick Place Tuesday showing off her Americana-accented Wild Ophelia line of chocolate bars that she says is aimed at "drug stores to truck stops to big-box."

In fact, the Wild Ophelia bars -- which will cost anywhere from $2.97 to $4.99, depending on the retailer -- won't even be sold in Vosges stores.

Vosges truffles are laced with ingredients like Krug champagne, aged Italian balsamic vinegar and black Hawaiian sea salt.

Wild Ophelia bars, by contrast, contain dried cherries from Michigan, chunks of Georgia peaches and beef jerky from Wyoming. Yes, kids, there is a beef jerky chocolate bar.

"A lot of times when you see 'Americana,' it's more kitsch," Markoff said. "We wanted this to feel hand-done . . . but fun, fashionable."

The bars are packaged in recycled paperboard. There are five flavors in the line: Beef Jerky, Hickory Smoked Almond, New Orleans Chili, Southern Hibiscus Peach and Sweet Cherry Pecan.

Check out the chocolates here.

Julie Scianna opened her Frankfort bakery and cafe because, she says, "I just wanted a place for my kids to eat."

But it wasn't that simple.

Scianna has celiac disease. When she started her business, one of her four kids tested positive for the gene. Since then, the rest of them have, too. 5-22_Lachat_gluten_1.jpg

Scianna (at right, with chef Andrew Hebda) opened OMG It's Gluten Free last February. Her signature items include lasagna, pizza and baked goods -- foods that are particularly hard to come by for celiacs, and which also suffer from not tasting all that good in gluten-free form.

Growth in her business has been rapid; her products are in 20 retail outlets, including Whole Foods and Sunset Foods. The numbers of celiac sufferers nationwide also is rising -- about 1 to 2 percent of the population, and "we know that figure is doubling every 20 years," says Carol Shilson, executive director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. (Also worth noting: Between 95 to 96 percent of those with the disease don't even know they have it. And, the number of people with a gluten insensitivity is four to five times that of those with celiac.)

At the National Restaurant Association's annual show, which ran through Tuesday at McCormick Place, Scianna was drumming up business for the new wholesale end of her business. She recently expanded her kitchen to accommodate production, which will include her lasagna, pizza, three cookie varieties, four muffins, brownies and cookie dough.

Scianna is in talks to provide Levy Restaurants and Little Miss Muffin, both based in Chicago, with gluten-free products, as well as a certain extremely famous amusement park not in Chicago.

[photo by Jean Lachat~Sun-Times]

Smoked olive oil doesn't sound quite right and in fact, "tasted strange for a couple of years," admitted Brenda Chatelain.

Chatelain's husband, Al Hartman, developed the idea as so many inventors do: "It was 3 in the morning and I couldn't sleep," he said.

But after four years of tweaking, the Napa Valley couple says they've got it right. They have a patent pending on the process, which Chatelain says smokes the oil without exposure to heat, light or air. And they're at the annual National Restaurant Association Hotel-Motel Show (ending today at McCormick Place), sampling their three varieties of smoked olive oils -- which don't taste at all strange.

The oils, made in California, are ideal for finishing or marinating, rather than cooking. Their best-selling Sonoma variety is all satiny smooth on the tongue; Chatelain offered me a tiny hunk of bread dipped in the oil. I tasted it and immediately wanted a loaf of bread and a dipping bowl. The Napa has a brighter finish, good drizzled over pasta or vegetables, Chatelain suggested. And the Santa Fe has that bit of heat that tickles the back of your throat, thanks to chile de arbol.

The oils already have gotten a bump from celeb chef Tyler Florence, who uses them at his restaurants and has offered a testimonial, which Hartman and Chatelain are gladly using all over their promotional materials, and from Williams-Sonoma, which carries the original Sonoma variety nationally in its stores. A 200-millileter bottle costs $26 ($24 online).

The couple isn't done smoking. They have a smoked brown sugar that should be on the market in two months.

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[Bloody Mary beef straws -- but, of course. | photos by Keith Hale~Sun-Times]

You can usually find the better (or at least quirkier) stories along the outer edges of the McCormick Place floor at the National Restaurant Association's annual show.

That's where the little guys are, the ones hawking their products thought up during sleepless nights and upon which they're staking just about everything.

That's where Ben Hirko of Coralville, Iowa was. Hirko is creator of Benny's Bloody Mary Beef Straw, a beef snack stick with a hollowed-out center.

Use the straw to sip your Bloody Mary. When you're done with your drink, you're left with a juicy beef snack.

"In Austin, there's a place that puts a whole bacon strip in your Bloody Mary," said Hirko, a former bartender.

A few booths down, in the same aisle, stood Jack Milan, a Boston caterer.

Milan's product, Edibles by Jack, are edible spoons (spoon-shaped crackers, really) that mimic the ones used for hors d'oeuvres at fancy parties.

"I've always been frustrated by the concept of porcelain spoons," said Milan. "People just take them or they break. I thought, 'This is stupid. We're losing so many spoons.' "

Milan says he came up with his edible spoon idea 15 years ago, and has been using them for his catering company for that long. He's only just now sharing the idea with the world (or ideally, the world's caterers, hotels, country clubs and so on).

The spoons come in 10 flavors, both savory and sweet, and they're not just for hors d'ouvres. "One of my signatures is crème brulee on a chocolate spoon," said Milan.

Hirko's beef straws aren't on the market yet; his website isn't even active. It'll all be ready in July, he says.

He seems to be in good shape. While we spoke, up walked Steve Wald, senior director of new products for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "Bloody Mary beef sticks? Who thought of that?" he asked.

Hirko grinned. The two men shook hands, and Wald thrust his business card forward. "If you need an extra opinion or advice, feel free ...," Wald said, before walking away.

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[Edible spoons, from the mind of a Boston caterer.]

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The National Restaurant Association's annual show, with its aromas of greasy pizza and fried everything, is an unlikely launching pad for a collection of serviceware heretofore seen only at Alinea, the accolade-laden Chicago restaurant owned by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas.

But there was the badge-wearing Kokonas on Saturday, the show's opening day, working the crowd at a prominent corner of the Steelite International booth.

The six porcelain serving pieces in the collection were designed for specific dishes at Alinea by Martin Kastner, with whom Achatz and Kokonas collaborated when opening their newest restaurant and bar, Next and Aviary.

Kastner has partnered with Steelite, a Pennsylvania company that will manufacture the pieces on a much larger scale -- but for restaurants, not for home use.

Several stainless steel pieces will be released in the fall, followed by glassware currently being used at Aviary -- up to 25 or 30 pieces by the end of the year, Kokonas said.

"It's difficult to let go of certain aspects," said Kastner, who works out of his Crucial Detail studio on the Near West Side. "I don't have the ability to inspect every piece."

But, said Kokonas, who calls Kaster "persnickety," "The quality of these is the same as what Martin was doing."

What will most certainly be different is how others restaurants use the sculpturally striking pieces. Kokonas says a hotel in Las Vegas ordered 500 of the pronged cork presenters, and is using them as taco holders.

Recently, Kokonas saw a photo in a newspaper article of the same contraption being used by a chef -- to hold his cigarette.

On a related note: Because of the show, Next and Aviary are open tonight (Monday is usually an off day for both). On Saturday morning, Kokonas posted a notice on Facebook for 22 Monday night tables at Next; they were sold out in eight seconds, he said.

With McCormick Place reform legislation firmly in place, it's doubly encouraging to note that attendance at the National Restaurant Association show, which ended Tuesday, registered a 6 percent increase over 2009. (Last year, you may remember, was dismal -- down 24 percent from the previous year.)

And a few final, random thoughts from the show:

* Spike Mendelsohn, he of "Top Chef" fame, is working on bringing the Good Stuff Eatery, his "chef-y" Washington D.C. burger joint, to Chicago.

Mendelsohn and his sister Micheline (together, they wrote the Good Stuff Cookbook) met with a real estate company while in Chicago about their franchise plan, Micheline said. "The thought would be to expand the concept in big cities, rather than have 10 in D.C.," she said. Makes sense -- a certain high-profile lawyer from Chicago but now living in D.C. loves the place.

* Bumped into Primehouse chef Rick Gresh on the show floor; he offered these words about the street food thing trying to gain a foothold in Chicago.

"I think we have a lot of silly laws on the book. If it does happen, it'll change the way people eat here, in a positive way. Who knows -- maybe we'll have a steak truck."

And speaking of steak, Gresh is working with Goose Island brewmaster Jared Rouben to create what he's calling the "ultimate steak beer" that will mimic the flavors of Pinot Noir. Much like what Rouben has done with Vie chef Paul Virant and a handful of other Chicago chefs.

Brewing for the USB will begin in July for a fall release, Gresh said. There will be a spring release as well.

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The food truck movement is the topic du jour at the National Restaurant Association show happening now at McCormick Place.

And outside of the convention walls, it's picking up major steam.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) told me this morning he will submit an ordinance at the next City Council meeting on June 9 that re-works the city's existing regulations regarding street vendors. He wants to make the case for mobile food trucks as "a good job creator and just a good way to showcase a lot of talent that might not otherwise be able to afford a whole restaurant buildout."

In an ideal world, the ordinance would then be hashed out in a joint meeting of the council's health and licensing committees, and then go back to the full council for a final vote. Waguespack expects little, if any, resistance.

"Some aldermen don't want food trucks to be able to pull up in front of someone else's restaurants. And [Alds. Tunney and Balcer] don't want them in front of the ball parks, so there will be some of those restrictions we'll have to pull together," Waguespack says, "but I don't know why anybody would be opposed to it."

Waguespack credits Chicago chefs Matt Maroni and Phillip Foss for making his office and the city sit up and take notice. Maroni had approached Waguespack with a draft proposal, and Foss had done similarly with Ald. Vi Daley. There have been meetings with health officials and others since, and Ald. Margaret Laurino last week put forth a resolution calling for a hearing before her committee on economic, capital and technology development. But Waguespack says there's no need for yet more talk -- just action.

"We just took their drafts and their writing, and we're going to do tweak it so it'll fit into the city's municipal code," Waguespack says.

I hung out with Maroni on Saturday while he checked out the food truck area on the show floor (read more about that in Wednesday's food pages). He came away feeling inspired about his forthcoming venture, gaztro-wagon -- and with a handful of business cards he intends to use, including that of Streetza's Scott Baitinger, who has offered to speak to the council on Maroni's behalf.

You can bet Maroni and Foss will be sitting in on a panel discussion this afternoon on mobile restaurants; star chefs Ludo Lefebvre and Mary Sue Milliken are the main draw. In fact, Foss will be blogging about the session for the association.

And Waguespack tells me "a foodie" on his staff also is checking out the show today.

Ludo Lefebvre had a ball competing on Bravo's 'Top Chef Masters' two years running, and wants to do it again next year.

"They've already asked me," Lefebvre said. "I told them yes. If they change judges."

Which judge?

"The one with the hat," he said.

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"So how was the hungover chef?" Krissy Lefebvre asked me as I wrapped up my interview with her husband, the chef Ludo Lefebvre, at the National Restaurant Association show Sunday morning. ludophoto1.jpg

(That hangover was procured thanks to Ludo's buddy and fellow Top Chef Masters star, Graham Elliot Bowles. The couple had a three-and-a-half hour meal at Bowles' River North restaurant the night before, where they were served "the entire menu, I think," Krissy says.)

I wouldn't have guessed Lefebvre was hurting; on the contrary, he was incredibly psyched to talk about his soon-to-launch fried chicken truck.

Lefebvre is at the show as a sort of ambassador of the mobile food scene that's all the rage on the West Coast, the East Coast and pretty much every major city (and even some minor ones) except Chicago (check out our Wednesday food pages for more on the topic). Eschewing the traditional restaurant model, Lefebvre has quickly gained a following with his "pop-up" LudoBites "restaurant" in Los Angeles, which rents a space for a short time, then moves on.

"To be stuck in one place, in one restaurant, for 20 years, I don't want that," Lefebvre said. "It's fun to change, it's fun to move."

His truck, developed in partnership with Mobi Munch, a California company positioning itself as a one-stop shop for food truck entrepreneurs, is an extension of his pop-up LudoBites operation -- only, its sole focus is fried chicken.

"When we cook in fine-dining, it's a lot of pressure. It's more fun, a concept like this," he said, adding quickly, "But nothing's changed. We're still using fresh ingredients, the same techniques I learned with the great chefs in France."

So -- he uses boneless chicken leg meat. He brines the meat and flavors it with herbes de Provence. He serves the chicken cut into little chunks or pipettes ("Some people call them nuggets, some say Ludo balls," he laughed).

It's still another month before the LudoBites truck is full operational, but the chef, oh, he has plans.

"I will take it to the Champs-Elysees. That's my dream," he said, an idea that Mobi Munch president Ray Villaman said isn't all that unrealistic.

Lefebvre also has another truck concept in mind -- one serving French street food, which doesn't really exist, if you think about it. "Street food in France is crepes, or you stop at a bakery," he said. "What about crepe tacos with escargot?"

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Entire fast-food empires have been built around the french fry. And yet, companies still continue to pursue perfection -- as in, a better-for-you fry.

The modestly named Perfect Fry company out of Calgary thinks it's nailed such a thing. At the National Restaurant Association show, which opened Saturday at McCormick Place, the company, which makes ventless, hoodless fryers, showed off its new baby: the Spin Fresh.

The 17-inch wide countertop fryer uses centrifugal force to spin off a third of the oil and calories from just-fried fries, chicken nuggets and the like, but retrieves the oil so it can be reused. The fries I tried looked and tasted noticeably lighter and less greasy than most.

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The technology was developed by the Spin Fresh company, one of whose investors and board members, Ed Rensi, knows a thing or two about french fries. Rensi ran a little company called McDonald's for 13 years.

Perfect Fry acquired the technology; in turn, Perfect Fry was just acquired by Elgin's Middleby Corp., maker of the Turbochef ovens used by Starbucks to heat their breakfast sandwiches and pastries.

All of this is to say, you may be seeing a spun-fresh fry at your favorite fast-food eatery sooner rather than later.

(photo by John J. Kim/Sun-Times)

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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