Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tales of the talks

Sit long enough in one spot at the NRA show and you’re likely to witness either an awards ceremony or a speech. Yet, my fellow sore-footed conventioneers, where was the event that tied the two together? Honors were bestowed for standout performances in any number of areas, from culinary-school academics to menu making. Similarly, I listened to more than 50 presentations from a podium during my four days at the show. Some of them clearly deserved the distinction of a prize. So here, to plug an obvious hole in the book-sized list of convention activities, is the inaugural presentation of the Outstanding Oratory Achievement Awards, popularly known as the Oo-Aahs.

Return of the Herminator: With Indiana Jones and Batman making their comebacks, is it any surprise that one of the industry’s own action heroes would strut back onto the stage? Herman Cain has been out of the business for eight or 10 years, working in politics and hosting a radio show in Atlanta. But he clearly hasn’t lost his touch for rousing an industry audience. The former head of the NRA and Godfather’s Pizza, who once shot up at a town-hall meeting to out-debate a stunned President Clinton, knocked the dust off chandeliers with two booming presentations. At a luncheon that brought together hospitality-school students and industry luminaries, the one-time senatorial candidate recounted how his father worked three jobs so he could realize his dream of buying a house where Cain and his brother would each have his own bed. “Twin beds?,” Cain boomed. “We’d been sharing a cot in the kitchen. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven.”

That night, at a gala where he was awarded the lofty distinction of Diplomate by the NRA Educational Foundation, Cain sounded a more somber tone. “Some of you may have heard that I had cancer,” he said in a voice that could slip deeper than a foghorn. “I say ‘had cancer,’ because I had cancer. I’m now 100 percent cancer free.” Word that he’d beaten Stage Four colon cancer, delivered in his evangelical style, had the audience roaring.

But he was no match for his fellow award-winner, a thoughtful, a bashful by comparison chef from Washington, D.C.

Ricchi rocks the house: The Diplomate designation was also bestowed that night on Chris Ricchi, chef-proprietor of Ristorante i Ricchi in the nation’s capital. Looking more like a surfer on spring break than a working mom with two grown children, Ricchi was profiled in a video that highlighted an aspect of her life that was unfamiliar to many of us. Ricchi’s son, the tape explained, had a disability that required his enrollment in a specialized school in the D.C. area. The place sounded like a wreck, with a leaky roof, grounds that had all the warmth of a war zone, and a food service whose only recognition would likely come from health authorities. An administrator recounted how Ricchi took a look at the place and calmly informed another parent, “We can do better.” She then proceeded to raise some $4 million for a transformation.

Taking the podium, Ricchi acknowledged that she’d raised the money by turning to her peers in the restaurant business, who “all opened their checkbooks.” Then she asked her children to stand, including the son whose life had been so powerfully affected by people in that very room. The applause could’ve been heard on the space station.

“This is it,” she roared with a fire that could only come from the heart. “This is what’s important. It’s all about how we can help others. And no one does it better than this industry.”

There were more napkins dabbing eyes than you’d see at a wedding.

But Ricchi wasn’t the only speaker to prompt the sort of sniffling you might hear from first graders on Day One of school. The industry was introduced the next morning to the well-spoken young director of training for Whataburger, who pulled no punches about where she came from.

‘I had to get out.’ “I grew up in Haines City, Fla., in a neighborhood where drugs were available 24 hours a day,” Nicole Jackson recounted in the printed bio that was handed out for the NRA’s Faces of Diversity Awards. “My mom worked a lot but partied a lot, so we lived with my grandmother.”

“We lived on public assistance, and I was told I could aspire to be a janitor or a maid,” she wrote. “I knew I had to get out.”

She did, ultimately picking the restaurant industry as her path. The first step was a crew position at a McDonald’s, earning $3.35 an hour. She quickly moved up there, was hired away by Krystal, and then by Whataburger. And there she was on Sunday, winning an award from the restaurant association for showing others how to climb out of their dire circumstances.

“It may seem like an award to you,” she told the directors of the National Restaurant Association. But for her, she explained, it was validation of the good she’d found in the job—not only for herself, but for the people with whom she worked every day. “We are counselors to 16-year-olds,” she exuberantly reminded the industry greybeards. “We are supplemental income because someone was a little short that month.”

Addressing some of the biggest names in the business, Jackson summoned an extra measure of volume and enthusiasm to let them know, “You wrote the lyrics to our new song. And we will pay it forward.”

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