My cousin called me on Friday, as I was en route to Madison, and asked me if I wanted to attend Chicago Gourmet on Saturday. For free. His wife had gotten tickets through work and was kind enough to offer the extra pair to M and Me. So did I want to a Chicago-centric, upscale food and wine expo? Did I ever. Unfortunately M could not come with back to Chicago due to impending work deadlines. Now I felt quite guilty about abandoning M up there in Madison with his deadlines. But I had to take the opportunity. [Note to M: I’m sorry M, it wasn’t all that good you can stop reading now].
The event itself took place in Millennium Park right in the Chicago loop under the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion, where concerts and other goings-on usually occur. The setup itself was reminiscent of the Taste of Chicago (and most every food fest, I suppose), on the perimeter of the fenced-off area were the food pavilions and towards the center were wine and spirits booths. Scattered throughout were an assortment of seating areas where people could stop and nosh.
Inside each tent, or should I say, “Gourmet Pavilion,” there were several restaurants, grouped by theme, each offering tasting portions. Interestingly, the head chefs/owners themselves were often manning the tables, alongside a small staff. Check out Graham Elliot Bowles manning the Graham Elliot booth with a small army’s supply of sweet corn panna cotta.There were 2 rounds of food, one from 11-2:30 and one from 3-6. The gourmet tents were arranged into themes, along the lines of Regional American, Asian, Latin American and dessert, with a different set of restaurants in each time slot. On Sunday, the offerings flipped to French, Mediterranean and Gastropub. Most of the restaurants gave out very generous potions, which was surprising, but welcome. Though this generosity did indeed present a little bit of a pacing problem, I think we did a pretty good job of spreading out our tastings over a 7 hour period (breakfast, lunch, dinner and then some).
At the tents themselves, the turnover was very high, though the length of the lines waxed and waned throughout the day. We did not encounter any places that ran out of food, save for Frontera Grill (no surprise, I guess) and places we tried to visit after about 5 PM. A complaint at last year’s Chicago Gourmet was that there was not enough food (as compared to a seemingly endless wine supply), so I think this year they managed to have a much better supply. Above, at Le Colonial’s, tent there was more than enough Bo Bi, vegetarian spring rolls filled with carrots and jicama, to go around. Note the plum and peanut sauces.
My favorite dish of the day, and my cousins and their friend M agreed, was from the Four Seasons at the regional American tent. It consisted of BBQ pork belly, with a cilantro and corn relish on a homemade buttermilk biscuit. I got there towards the end of the serving time, meaning that I only got one half of a biscuit – but it was well worth it in any case. The pork belly was deliciously crispy and the corn salsa had a citrus-y tang that offset the rich and flaky biscuit.
One of the more complex Asian dishes was put out by Sola, a sesame Tuna Tartare. I encountered a few new ingredients in this dish: hijiki and Wasabi tobiko. Hijiki, the brown flakes, are actually a brown sea vegetable (apparently also dangerously full of arsenic…oops). The tartare had a wasabi kick, as well as a topping of wasabi-infused caviar. And of course I was a sucker for the lotus chip.
The Latin American food tent did not disappoint in terms of showmanship. Yes that’s right, here’s a full pig on a grill at Catalan tapas restaurant Mercat a la Planxa’s booth. This was the first dish I tried all day. The pulled pork was absolutely perfect ( it stood up to my new found pulled pork snobbishness that resulted from my Southern roadtrip), and came served on cannellini beans with asparagus. We saw the pulled pork theme repeated at a few other stands, but Mercat’s rendition blew them all away. I guess it was probably the freshest, but that’s just a hunch.
Of the desserts presented, my personal favorite was the lavender Terry’s Toffee though it was a mean tossup. Japonais’ elegant green tea tart with handmade marshmallows and candied ginger certainly won the prize for the most attractive dessert, though Francesca’s Tiramisu wins for the most generous portions. The same goes for Fannie May, who was serving full wedges of decent cheesecake based on their signature chocolates (though it had frosting – who puts frosting on cheesecake?).Scattered throughout the area were also wine and spirits vendors. Actually, probably about 1/2 of the presenters total were actually vineyards. There were many well known names like Absolut and Mondavi, but also lesser known craft brands and family-owned wineries. Part of the admission fee was one free wine glass, which you then took around to use for tastings. I thought that was a nice green touch, especially after we saw the trash can bursting over with discarded plates and forks from every tasting. I think to truly get the most bang for your buck out of Chicago gourmet you have to be a wine and spirits connoisseur. Not to say it isn’t worth it otherwise, but it is definitely MORE worth it if you have a taste for wine.
As with the Taste of Chicago there were some disjointed random “Freebie” booths scattering throughout like those advertising cars (I forget which one) and also a booth from the Cayman Islands (for your beaches and offshore banking needs). But also, in a Chicago Gourmet turn of randomness there was a roving band of servers from the catering company 5411 Empanadas passing out free empanadas. Featured above is a cheese and Spinach empanada along with the tasting portion of pumpkin seed chicken salad from Stephanie Izard’s future restaurant, Drunken Goat. Also as a ‘gourmet’ step up from Chicago tap water, there were barrels of free Evian bottles. Though mini bottles of posh water were nice, the non-restaurant stands that had my heart were the Illy Espresso carts and the Pastoral cheese booth.
Throughout the day there were 2 stages of cooking demonstrations. We saw haute-Thai restaurateur Arun Sampanthavivat’s cooking demo, but it was too bad the Viking cookware kept acting up! The other venue for the cooking demos was on the stage of the Pritzger pavilion itself, but unusually, the chefs did not face the audience – they faced backwards into the choir loft, where a relatively small crowd of 75 or so got to watch. I thought this was a bit odd, since many of the chefs: Rick Bayless, Mindy Segal, etc. could have probably drawn quite large crowds.
Another feature of the Gourmet Festival was a book signing of celebrity chef cookbooks. You could buy the books right there for a markup, but most people, including myself, came prepared with their own cookbooks. At the signing session I attended there were three chefs: Rick Tramanto, Marcus Samuelsson and Rick Bayless. I was the only person in line for Marcus Samuelsson, there were about a dozen for Rick Tramanto, and hundreds, and I mean hundreds, for Rick Bayless. The line snaked all the way around the entire tent area! I mean, I love Rick Bayless as much as the next, but I must admit, it was kind of awkward. But anyway, while I was waiting to have Marcus to sign my book, I got a nice shot of the both of them.
Chicago Gourmet was an amazing experience. For a whole day we got to sample food from the best chefs in Chicago (in unlimited quantities) and generally just have a good time. Though I did not attend last year, I’d definitely say that the set up this second year was excellent, and that there was plenty of food to fill us to point of bursting. I was glad to have the opportunity to sample a wide range of restaurants that, owing to shortages of time and money, I will probably not be back to for a while. Many thanks to my cousins for thinking of M and me. Though, all things considered, it’ll be a bit of letdown going to the Taste of Chicago from now on….
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