After having attended the Chicago Gourmet food and wine festival for several years, I’ve picked up a few strategies for making it through the day with the maximum amount of food and fun. So how do you successfully navigate the gamut of unlimited food and free-flowing booze and plan the optimal experience?
1. Plan ahead. Download the Chicago Gourmet app for your phone in advance. The app has the itinerary for both the days of the fest, and a list of vendors. Make a note of the chefs and restaurants you are interested in seeing, or favorite them in the app. This will help you pick out any must-sees and help organize your day.
2. Get there early and take a lap. Get in the second you can – it will only get more crowded from there. Once you have a map, orient yourselves, and unless there is somewhere you need to visit immediately, take a lap and get the lay of the land.
3. Have the right gear. Even if it appears cloudy, if you are prone to sunburn, sunscreen is a must, and a hat isn’t a bad idea either. Six hours is a long time to be out in the sun, and there aren’t many places for shade on the great lawn. In terms of what to wear, go with something that can take you from high noon to sunset, which may mean layers – knowing Chicago weather – and comfortable shoes. Moreover, stiletto heels will sink directly into the lawn, especially when it starts to get muddy…kind of funny, but you don’t want to be that person. Also, don’t forget your ID!
4. Choose your eating strategy. There are two approaches to this, some people sample only a (relative) few dishes, and savor every bite. I myself like to try as much as possible, which requires not necessarily eating the entirety of every dish (unless it is bite-sized or completely amazing). Portion sizes may vary wildly, and some dishes may just be a nibble while others will feel like an entrée. This is where planning in advance comes in handy, so you can save your appetite for the tasting stations you most want to try. Remember you have 6 hours of noshing ahead of you!
5. Scope out the beverages before committing. With so many wine and spirits vendors it is easy to overindulge. Sometimes the pour the vendors give you ins’t so small either, which doesn’t help matters. It will be impossible to try everything, so don’t even bother with that strategy. Try to scope out the boozy offerings on your lap of the premises, before you ask for samples, so you can save up for ones you will really enjoy. If you are going for more quantity, think of it as the world’s biggest wine tasting, and take just a sip.
6. Don’t feel bad about skipping. Expanding on the last point, there is no reason you have to take everything offered in a tent. Of course, the point of this kind of food fest is trying new things, but if there is one bite that you absolutely know you do not want to sample (or have actually tried before), just forgo it. You won’t feel bad about waste and you will help the line move faster.
7. Stay hydrated. There are free water bottles at stations around the fest, and definitely snag a bottle or two to keep in your bag. As the fest winds down, make sure you have a bottle, because they may run out. In addition to water, some vendors also offer nonalcoholic beverages for when you need a break from wine (I saw San Pellegrino juices, ginger ale, tea and coffee, among others).
8. Take a break. Definitely plan on taking breaks if you plan on staying the full six-hour day. You can even pre-schedule time for breaks, by planning to attend a talk or demo where you can sit down and get some shade and hydration. Another place I like to take a break is in the global tent, which has some areas for seating inside.
9. Go easy on the freebies. A lot of the vendors will give out freebies, which is sweet (sometimes)! Some giveaways are useful, like coupons for discounts or free food, while others, like Frisbees, cheap water bottles or plastic sunglasses may not be as great. Others, like complimentary wine and beer glasses can be hit or miss (but are definitely heavy)! Unless it is a brand you are really into, think before grabbing a freebie, they really can start to weigh down your bag.
10. Know when to tap out. Know when to call it a day. I’ve seen people get (literally) sick from too much food and drink. Know your limits, and there’s no shame in leaving before the closing bell, or just people-watching for a while.
And of course, HAVE FUN! You’re now prepared and ready for any battle…er, I mean food festival.