This year’s annual Research Chef Association meeting was held in my home state, Texas, but in a part of Texas I egregiously bypass with shameful consistency: San Antonio.

San Antonio always has been a great food town, yet unfairly maligned as a Tex-Mex one-trick cuisine pony. Don’t get me wrong: There are many and fantastic iterations of whole-nation Mexican cuisine and Texican cuisine, in addition to the ubiquitous cliché ChainMex too-often foisted off on tourists. Yet even my touristy first day lunch (at the overwhelmingly-beautiful-but-somehow-still-Disneylike River Walk) featured incredibly fresh ingredients.

The problem with any conference is, all the interesting sessions seem to occur at once, sandwiched between the boring and the irrelevant. They happen in threes though, so the boss and I could split up and at least double our catch.

I ended up at “Chef-Scientist Collaboration: Culinology Made to Order.” The presentation featured David White, senior executive chef for ConAgra Foods/Weston; his colleague, Sara Praegitzer, a food scientist for ConAgra Foods/Weston; Theresa Landis, senior culinology project leader at National Food Lab; and her colleague, Laurie Troiani, product innovation manager for the Product Design Group at the National Food Lab.

One of the more interesting moments from this session actually came near the end, when an ingredient supplier raised an important issue: Many chefs regard ingredients—beyond the basics—as a “food-science matter.” For that reason, they don’t concern themselves with the aspect of ingredient differences of functionality. (“Salt is salt is salt.”)

One chef in the audience noted that he “saw the light” when an ingredient supplier made a comprehensive, hands-on, real-world application demonstration—“not just a flavor on a cracker”—and that such a demonstration penetrated chef resistance. THIS is good to know and I hope ingredient suppliers take notice.

Another take-away came as a panelist talked about starting a new job at a large food processing company. He said he discovered a chef-based R&D team had no background whatsoever in food science. (Other panelists and audience members related tales of the reverse.)

Therein is the main thing readers of this column (and all Prepared Foods readers) should note: Do your food scientists have training in cuisine and do your chefs/recipe concept developers have any food science backgrounds at all? Time for continuing education!

Another session worth reporting was that of Liz Sloan, PhD. Dr. Sloan is an excellent aggregator of research into American dining habits and she brought her “A Game,” with interesting info that ended up suiting the environment: Latin-American/Mexican/Tex-Mex/Texas cuisine is blasting up the popularity charts. (Overall, restaurant dining is up a few percent.)

Recovery from the 2009-2010 tanking of the economy and the industry is happening, slowly for some and juicily for others. Here are some tidbits.

* Fast Casual still a superstar, the focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients made to order is meeting growing consumer demand.
* Fine dining is coming back somewhat with full-service restaurants being the highest at 8.5% growth.
* McDonald’s, the biggest dog on the block is still growing, but at 5.5%. For the category, the big winners have been 5 Guys Burgers—sales up 32.8%—followed by the aforementioned Mexican/Cal-Tex-Mex chic at Chipotle Grill (up 23.4%), Longhorn Steakhouse (13%) and Texas Roadhouse (9%). Mintel’s 2010 stats place this comprehensive category at the top of American cuisine in popularity. This dovetails nicely with flavor statistics that point to chili peppers and spice as the flavors Americans now crave. (And by the way, it also is the topic of our June issue’s cover story.)

So how did we eat in San Antonio? My votes for best dinner there go to La Gloria’s—still a popular destination but a couple of miles from the River Walk. La Gloria’s chef, Johnny Hernandez, specializes in interior Mexican “street” cuisine from the entire country. Again, very fresh ingredients and a variety that allowed the diner to follow small-plate offerings from Yucatán or Tamaulipas with a succulent fish taco of the sort you’d get at a taco bar in Ensenada.

The RCA has grown and, more than that, grown with the times. The presentations overall are relevant and you can tell the merge between chefs and the food and beverage processing industry has gone a long way toward tuning in to what people want to eat, allowing processors to bullseye that target of consumer interest much better. Next year, y’all get your BBQ bibs on, because RCA is going to North Carolina.