Where else but Chicago Gourmet can you attend a BBQ demo while sipping on Chilean wine and munching tiny lobster rolls? This always-anticipated food and wine event, spanning a weekend in September, is a veritable culinary wonderland. This is my third year attending, and despite the crowds, I still think it is one of my favorite, (and most gluttonous) annual experiences.
Chicago Gourmet takes place inside the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in downtown Chicago. The main stage hosts talks and demos by big-name chefs, while the perimeter is ringed with tasting tents where 3 or 4 Chicago-area chefs serve small bites or drinks from their restaurants. Smaller tents scattered around the pavilion host other food and beverage exhibitors, chef demos and beer and wine tastings. Another wildly popular part of the festival (the MOST popular part of the festival?) are the two rows of wine and spirits exhibitors in the center of the great lawn (below).
The festival spanned 2 days, and I attended Saturday. Chicago Gourmet is open for 6 hours each day, and the restaurants swap out after 3 hours, so there is always something new to try. Be prepared for a little bit of a wait though, since the food pavilions are always the main draw and therefore have the biggest lines. It being impossible to experience all of the tents and exhibits in one day, I decided to hone in on international and regional tastes this year. Even with this focus, there was a lot of ground to cover.
Chicago Gourmet’s international and regional experience was concentrated most heavily in the Global BBQ, Beer and Bourbon tent. Inside was the very popular Stella Artois booth, where people seem to flock every year for the wide range of custom glassware that is available for free with each pour of Stella Artois, Leffe or Cidre. Unibroue was also sampling its Québécois beers, including the popular Blanche de Chambly. The food booths inside the tent were evenly split between global restaurants and regional American BBQ. At one point it was possible to get three mini pork sandwiches in a row from Blackwood BBQ, Chop Shop and Porkchop.
In terms of international food, there were several connections made to Chicago’s sister cities (of which there are 28). Saturday’s featured sister cities were Mexico City, Kyiv, Accra, Hamburg and Warsaw. Kasia’s, Bolat and Shokolad reprised their roles from previous years. Here is what I sampled in the international tent:
- Kasia’s Pierogies (representing Warsaw, Poland)- When you are in Chicago you can’t avoid getting a Kasia’s pierogie or two? Kasia’s served up a cheese and potato pierogie, which was a big hit with the crowd.
- Shokolad (Kyiv, Ukraine) – Shokolad presented a hearty roast pork skewer with carrot slaw.
- The Radler (Hamburg, Germany) – The Radler went a little more avant-garde, but still traditional, by presenting a German Blood sausage sliced thinly with scallions and plum topping. I am not really a fan of blood sausage, but even I thought this was delicious.
- Mercadito (Mexico City) – Mercadito served a shrimp taco in a midly spicy chipotle cream sauce, and topped with an avocado slice, which I recognized from their regular menu. I was going into taco withdrawal, so it was definitely worth it.
- Bolat African Cuisine (Accra, Ghana) – Bolat served up a simple but hearty helping of tomato-scented Jolloff rice and sweet fried plantains. Pure comfort food!
Other stalls in the tent were not representing a sister city, like Arun’s Thai, which offered a rich, coconutty Penang curry with chicken. Another standout of the International tent (and Chicago Gourmet as a whole) was Demera, which put out an attractive Ethiopian veggie sampler with beets and potatoes, chickpeas and collard greens on a tiny piece of injera bread. I definitely could have gone for a full-sized helping.
The most impressive offering in the tent, which turned out some of my favorite bites of the day, was from Fat Rice. Sponsored by the government of Macau, Fat Rice pulled out all of the stops. The first bite from Fat Rice was Jagra com ovos, a sweetened “egg jam” and goat cheese dish on a cracker. This was one of the day’s most unusual dishes, and a delicious melding of savory and sweet. Impressively, Fat Rice managed to put out a new dish every hour, which I did not see at any other booth. And I was definitely not the only one who was intrigued enough to come back every hour.
One hour later, the next dish was a curried beef samosa, charmuça. This was followed by Portuguese chicken (Po Kok Gai), a curry-braised chicken served with a coconut sauce, chorizo, potatoes and olives over rice. They ended with Minchi Hash, a minced pork and beef hash with some spice. At they end of the day, Fat Rice put everything out in a buffet, which I think was a fabulous idea.
On the main stage, big names like Rick Bayless, Fabio Viviani, Emeril Lagasse and Carlos Gaytan gave cooking demos (but no food for the crowd). There was some food to be had however, at some of the demos on the smaller Culinary Stage. Catherine De Orio, host of “Check, Please!,” emceed a great demo on the art of pie-making led by Megan Miller of Baker Miller and Paula Haney of Hoosier Mama Pies. Miller and Haney gave tips on pastry techniques as they offered up miniature cherry pies from Hoosier Mama and a slice of maple cream pie from Baker Miller for each member of the audience. If you are looking to have food served to you while you watch a demo and get out of the hot sun, the Culinary Stage demos are a great option, which I had not really explored in previous years.
On the great lawn there were nine chef’s tasting tents, and two of these were dedicated completely to international cuisine: “Italian Invasion” and Mexico. A standout from the Italian tent was Pazzo’s osso bucco ravioli with mushroom sauce. Who doesn’t love a ravioli? I really loved the decadent fall flavors of this bite. At the start of Chicago Gourmet, I made a beeline for the Mexico tent, where I tried each of the tastings from 12-3 and 3-6. The Mexican consulate conducted a ribbon cutting, and the tent remained pretty packed throughout the event. Clockwise from the right, here is what I ate at the Mexico tent’s first round. Mercadito, which also had a booth in the Global tent, served up a crispy Baja-style fish taco. Mezcalina put out a hearty pork pozole soup, which was still refreshing, despite the warm weather. Mexique, known for French/Mexican fusion, turned out a more unique dish with pork belly on sweet potato puree, which was a standout for its unique flavor combination. For those wanting more refreshment, Negro Modelo was also handing out tiny taster cups of beer in this tent.
For round 2 (from top, clockwise): New Rebozo turned out a really complex and savory, homemade mole poblano. On their table inside the booth was a tiny display of all of the moles available at the restaurant, and Chef Paco enthusiastically explained each one. Cantina 1910 tried something a bit different with chorizo, cabbage and pork pambazo, a tiny sandwich dipped in spicy red salsa. Solazo presented a beef taco, simple and well-executed. Ah, how I missed tacos!
At other tents, there were also bites that tended towards the international. One new find was the restaurant E + O in Mt. Prospect, which served a very interesting and tasty cauliflower congee (above). Other standouts were the Bristol’s rock shrimp ceviche topped with crispy chicharones (above) and Nellcôte, who presented an Asian-inspired winner with raw hamachi fish and grilled pineapple, topped with a sea bean and a shiso leaf (below).
Beyond the chef tasting tents, global flavors were represented by big-name brands with international flavors including Barilla pasta, Stoli, Chipotle and Texas de Brazil. International wines and spirits were also heavily represented including Zignum Mezcal from Mexico, Campari and Pallini Limoncello from Italy, Tanduay Rum from the Philippines, Kappa Pisco from Chile, and Glenmorangie Whisky from Scotland. For the world wine travelers, American, French, Italian, German, Chilean, South African, Australian, Argentine and Portuguese wines were available across dozens of exhibitors.
If you aren’t an expert the wine and spirits, this section can basically be overwhelming (and crowded), so I narrowed it down to sampling the international stuff that I thought was really unusual. One such unique offering was Vov, a historic Italian liqueur made from egg whites and marsala wine, which tastes like the Italian custard dessert zabaglione! There’s originality.
As a tradition to end my Chicago Gourmet, I get a tiny Illy Caffè cappuccino, and watch the fair wind down. At my visit to Chicago Gourmet 2015 I was able to taste food and drink from 26 countries, and every continent. It was a great experience to explore the international side of Chicago Gourmet. Hope to see you there next year!
Countries Eaten/Drank (26): Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Macau, Mexico, Philippines, Portugal, Poland, Scotland, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, USA.