I am fanatical about food like Pittsburghers are about the Steelers. So naturally, chefs are my superstars. I wouldn’t be upset if Rick Bayless dawned huge diamond studs on his lobes. Anyhow, keeping with this sport analogy, that would make Chicago Gourmet my Superbowl.
Chicago Gourmet took place last weekend, September 24-26th in Millennium Park. This is the third year for Chicago Gourmet and the first that it was sponsored by Bon Appetit. I attended for the first time this year, but I overheard people discussing how much more organized the event was since Bon Appetit had sponsored it. I also heard rumblings that it felt much more crowded than the previous years, which makes sense since it’s gaining in popularity.
So what is Chicago Gourmet? The event itself describes it as “…a world-class celebration of the city’s rich culinary heritage…”. Each day of the event, they offer live cooking demonstrations, book signings, food/wine lectures and food tastings prepared by some of the best chefs in the city. You can purchase one-day tickets or a ticket for the entire weekend. A one-day ticket costs $150 per person or you can participate in the Chicago Dine Around program for a one day ticket. Scott (my fiancée) and I opted for the Dine Around program.
With the Dine Around program, you must dine at 5 of the almost 60 qualifying restaurants within a certain time period and present copies of your receipts the day of the event to gain admission. We scouted out the most reasonable restaurants on the list and ended up spending about $80 per person. We chose to attend the event on Saturday. As an added bonus, it didn’t seem like many others participated in the Dine Around program so the line we waited in was considerably shorter than the line for regular ticket holders and we were admitted without any wait.
Upon entering, you grab a wine glass and a tote bag. To my surprise, the wine glasses were actually glass. Prior to the actual day, I had carefully evaluated the schedule and selected the not-to-miss events. Our first order of business was a live cooking demo with Rick Bayless.
Barbara Fairchild speaking at the Chicago Gourmet kick off.
Rick Bayless during his Luxury Guacamole cooking demonstration.
The cooking demo was a great way for us to start the day – very entertaining as Rick Bayless is so charismatic. We walked away with some great tips on how to always buy great avocados (go to a place where the best avocados are important to the customers) and tips on how to roast your garlic before you chop it up and throw it in your guac.
As the demo was wrapping up, we were eager to get a move on so we could explore the tasting pavilions. Here are some of my favorites:
Arun Sampanthavivat; Arun’s
This chicken satay from Arun’s was one of my favorites. The flavors were perfect and it was easy to bite right off of the stick as you tried to manage a handful of samples at once.
Stephanie Izard; Girl and The Goat
This shredded lamb and pasta dish from Girl and The Goat was delicious. It was warm and hearty and perfect to have in your tummy as you prepare to sample the seemingly endless varieties of wine.
I have previously divulged my reservations about scallops; however, this scallop atop celery puree was simultaneously refreshing and rich and was one of my favorites.
I know, I know – it’s just a cupcake! I have a dangerous love affair with these salted caramel cupcakes from more. In my opinion, they are utter perfection. Sweet, salty, creamy – ugh! I could eat 2 dozen by myself.
Now for the “pretty good” category. Here are some of the things that we tried that were a solid “good”:
This sirloin sandwich from the Lockwood at the Palmer House Hilton was a good start to the day and well positioned by the Stella Artois/Hoegaarden tent.
I am not a big red meat fan, so this tough piece of steak from Japonais complete with pipet of miso jus did not rock my world, but I can appreciate that this probably would be considered good, but not exceptional, to most.
This sesame chicken from Boka was pretty good, albeit room temperature. The bed of rice was a bit strange as it was also at room temperature, fairly mushy and lacked flavor. The wonderful thing about this dish that you couldn’t possibly see, is that we had been waiting in a painfully long line to enter the tasting pavilion in which these were served, when one of the servers for Boka decided to come out and pass samples to the line. What a life saver!
Graham Elliot Bowles; graham elliot
I found this light fig mousse to be a strange companion for a balsamic glaze, but Scott rather enjoyed it.
This spring roll from Le Colonial was good, but slightly boring. I am not a fan of anise (or any flavor that resembles it) and my taste buds are highly trained to detect it. I believe that there was fennel or fennel seed in here (which has an anise flavor)…so I tried to pawn half on Scott.
This pumpkin soup with crab was quite delicious and, unlike some other samples, was still warm.
I really enjoyed the right half of this desert from Japonais, and moderately enjoyed the left half. The little jellies are sitting on top of the halves that would make up a French macaroon. French macaroons are my all time favorite cookie, so I was thrilled to see components of them used differently.
This bathtub full of chocolate caramel and caramel/pear ice cream from Cafe des Architectes was quite delicious. The chocolate shell was harder than anticipated, but still good.
This hot chocolate float with a mini-churro from Hot Chocolate was wonderful. The churro was a little hard (read: stale texture) but the hot chocolate was deep, rich and satisfying.
At this wonderful celebration of all that is gourmet, I am disappointed to report that there were also some not-so-good dishes being served. Behold:
I rather enjoy how this dish photographed, but ugh, it just wasn’t good. I mean, I couldn’t make it past one bite. This was served cold and I felt like I was eating raw bacon. Raw, cold meat with crunchy and sharp dried herbs is not what I want to be chewing. Sorry.
As for the beverages, there were so many to try. It was absolutely necessary to take advantage of spit buckets and rinse out your glass with some of the Fiji water provided (yep, you read that right – rinsing your glass with Fiji water). We sampled dozens of wines, champagnes, Jim Beam cocktails that tasted like apple pie, Grey Goose cocktails that tasted like hummingbird nectar and pumpkin beer. I also learned how to make a sidecar with Hennessy Black – which was way better than I expected!
Food and beverages aside, I thought that the event was set up and organized well. The tents, tables, furniture, plants and decor transported you to a posh outdoor scene where you could comfortably and stylishly taste, sip and mingle. Lines of eager and hungry people backed up quite a bit at some of the tasting pavilions; particularly at Pavilion IV (Latin and Asian tasting pavilion). I think that more visible signs displaying the name of the restaurant/chef and the time that they will be present at each station would help mitigate most queues. I’m not sure what could help Pavilion IV – more efficient service perhaps?
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this event and I would participate in the Dine Around program again in a heartbeat to attend Chicago Gourmet next year. I think that the 6 hour gourmet food-extravaganza is well worth the $150 ticket price (I mean, this is my Superbowl after all), but why not go with the Dine Around program and challenge yourself to make it a great deal? If you did not make it out this year, I hope that you get a chance to next year!