Sonoran Explorin': Solving Problems You Didn’t Know You Had

I meet an undercover chef and learn about all the things I’m doing wrong at the SAHBA Home Show

click to enlarge EMILY DIECKMAN
Emily Dieckman

At the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association Home & Garden show last weekend, I learned how many things are wrong with my house, and myself, that I didn’t realize. I am cleaning the floors wrong, cooking my food wrong, washing my windows wrong, and organizing my life wrong. Should I get a non-surgical facelift using “NASA technology?” Do I need an air purifier? A sauna? It hadn’t occurred to me to worry about my hearing, but since they’re offering free hearing tests, maybe I should get it checked.

But it’s the WAY they tell you you’ve been living your life wrong that makes events like this so appealing. Because there’s so many bright, shiny products there to help you start living your life right, and they’re all gathered in one convention center. I can’t wait to dive in.

I catch the tail end of a presentation by a woman named Jennifer, who is smartly and nicely telling us about how to get our lives organized. She tells us to keep an eye on our spending habits, especially at dollar stores, because “Americans nickel and dime themselves into debt and bankruptcy every day.” This is so depressing that I get up and leave, weaving my way through displays of luxury spas and past a $17,000 sewing machine.

I’m drawn in by a man wearing a Billy Mays style headset and telling a group of seated people, “The broccoli tastes like broccoli. The carrot tastes like carrot.” It makes me think of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka gesturing at flavored wallpaper and saying, “The snozzberries taste like snozzberries.”

The man, Chef Rob, is doing a demo of Professional Platinum Cooking Systems, subtitled: simply the finest cookware on the planet. He is masterful. He is calling us “you guys” and asking obvious questions, like, “How many of you guys like to keep a clean kitchen at home?” and “How many weeks are in a year, guys?” and “How many of you guys like free stuff?” He tells us about how the pans he is using are dishwasher safe, but then says, “I don’t have a dishwasher. Well, I do have a dishwasher, but he hates it when I call him ‘the dishwasher.’ Everybody give Jason a round of applause.”

Jason, who is washing the dishes, gives us a little wave as he dries a knife. He has a very genuine smile, even though he is sort of being treated like the Igor of this operation for comic effect.

Chef Rob is talking about “the latest science” while Jason hands out brochures and pens to people who want them. Chef Rob says and he’s going to tell us how much this cookware costs very shortly.

But wait! First, he has us all do an exercise where we calculate how much money we spend eating out each year because we are all pigs. It is a lot of money. He calls on people and teases them gently when they share numbers like $6,800, or “almost $8,000.” The point is that if we would all stop eating at Chili’s twice a week, we could afford the cookware, no problem. And we would all be healthier. He hopes he is opening our eyes to the significance of what he’s saying. And we will find out how much it costs very shortly. I realize I’ve been watching this presentation for at least 15 minutes and I have a feeling “shortly” is relative, so I take a lap around the convention center.

I see a few disinterested teenagers selling kitchen counters, and a watch a guy demonstrate a mesmerizingly versatile showerhead. There’s a man in a custom-made Elvis suit selling smokers and hot sauce, and elderly couples trying out mattresses. A passerby tells his friend “This is wild,” and, whatever he may be talking about, I agree.

I wander back to the cookware booth, where Jason asks me if I’m sure I don’t want a brochure. I tell him I’m just here for the Weekly, but that I’m enjoying watching, and I’m fascinated by Chef Rob’s ability to keep people’s attention. Jason agrees Chef Rob is great at what he does—he’s been doing it for years—and tells me he’s on the tail end of a two-hour presentation. Two hours!

They do seven per weekend at these shows, usually aiming to bring in between $50,000 and $60,000 over three days, for which they earn a generous commission. I’m delighted to find that they take turns doing the presentations. Knife-drying, brochure-distributing Jason is also actually Chef Jason! And when Jason is doing the cooking, Rob is doing the dishwashing. It’s weirdly comforting to think about: If you want to be the showboaty chef some days, you’ve got to be the dishwasher on other days. The point is to handle the dishwasher days with grace—and, in this case, keep that commission in perspective.

“I don’t mind when he calls me the dishwasher,” Jason smiles. “I’m the highest-paid dishwasher you’ll meet.”

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