The Annual SCAA Exposition is upon us. This month — in addition to the usual gadget marketing, major sponsorship from suspect brands, and the U.S Barista Championship — the event organizers have added a new Culinary Track: SPECIALTY COFFEE ASSOCIATION ADDS CULINARY TRACK | Articles | Beverages. To quote the SCAA press release [pdf, 27kb]:

SCAA’s Culinary Track is specifically designed to cater to the needs of gastronomic professionals, to guide them towards creating an exceptional specialty coffee menu or perfecting their existing beverage programs.

Sniff, sip, and spit - it's the SCAA Expo. Just don't cook with it.Big annual conferences are like sharks: if they don’t continue to move forward, they risk dying. After regular attendees have fatigued on Ron Popeil wannabes hawking their revolutionary coffee service inventions, and their umpteenth lather-rinse-repeat cycle of a highly routinized and somewhat arbitrary barista competition, conference organizers need to regularly introduce new blood and new ideas to keep it relevant. Enter the culinary track.

We’ve long lamented the sorry state of restaurant coffee and espresso — particularly in some of the nation’s finest dining establishments. So any legitimate attempt to improve the quality of restaurant coffee should be a good thing, right?

The Field of Coffee Dreams: If you create a conference track, they will come

But here’s the root of the problem and why this move is a big FAIL: this is a coffee conference, not a culinary conference. If you want to spread the gospel of good coffee, you need to take it to the chefs and restaurateurs. You don’t expect them to come to you. Chefs and restaurateurs, working ridiculous restaurant hours, already have too many conferences that they can reasonably attend before running off to Anaheim to hang with a bunch of coffee nerds.

As a result, this effort will do little to attract the culinary world to coffee. Instead, this track will do far more to attract the coffee world to the culinary arts. And when that happens, we get worried. We get results such as ridiculous coffee pairing dinners — which have always made about as much sense to us as cigar pairing with each course.

This fear is echoed in the retail food service article cited up top:

And this year, show organizers are adding a new Culinary Track designed specifically for foodservice and culinary professionals looking to create synergy in their food and beverage programs.

Oh no, not synergy. Not starry-eyed baristas who envision the monotonous gyrations of barista competitions somehow becoming enjoyable fodder for food television. Not another overreaching extension of coffee’s misguided wine analogy — where coffee professionals hope to ride the faux glamor of the culinary world’s coattails, selling out the very things that make coffee special and unique in the process.

And then there’s “cooking with coffee” — another topic that makes us cringe. One of our biggest complaints about coffee books of yore were the pages and pages of coffee recipes. If you need a recipe, it’s not coffee. We could tear out the last half of many of these old coffee book classics and never miss them. Look no further than the coffee stout: what was supposed to be the perfect marriage between beer and coffee has amounted to the embarrassing shotgun wedding of the beverage world.

If we really are serious about educating the culinary world about good coffee, support your local restaurateurs who get it. Demand better standards from the many who don’t get it. Just be true to yourself: don’t pretend to be something else than you already are.