It’s October, and another Chicago Gourmet is in the books! This year’s Chicago Gourmet festivities, “Lights, Camera, Napkin,” provided a wonderful mix of food, spirits and fun, as it had in the past. I attended on Saturday this year and the mercurial Chicago weather cooperated, but just barely, and the earlier part of the day was 55 degrees and misting. Though there was a brief period of rain, the clouds lifted in the second half of the day. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, I have been going to Chicago Gourmet since 2009, and have experienced almost every type of weather through the years. Stationed in Millennium Park, Chicago Gourmet is a showcase of all things food, and features: diverse bites from top Chicago restaurants, international wine and spirits distributors, cooking demonstrations, book signings, lectures, and big-name brands pulling out all the stops with over-the-top booths. The price for Chicago Gourmet is famously steep (2019 prices: $195 per person per day, or $310 per person for a Weekend Pass), but it earns you unlimited food and drinks, plus whatever additional swag you can get your hands on.
My favorite part of every Chicago Gourmet is checking out the gourmet tasting pavilions, where local Chicago chefs dish out sample-sized portions that represent their restaurants. Sometimes the pavilions are themed (BBQ, Seafood, or a national cuisine), but other times they are drawn together seemingly randomly under the banner of a sponsor (Mariano’s, US Foods, etc.). Halfway through the day, the restaurants change over, giving visitors double the samples to try. My two favorite pavilions, this year, and in years past, are the Dessert Pavilion (with the awkwardly punny name “Keeping Up with the Konfections”) and the Thai Select tent (Thai Select is an imprint of the Thai government).
At the first round of the Thai Pavilion, I sampled dishes from Jimmy Thai Restaurant, JJ Thai Street Food, and Sticky Rice Northern Thai Cuisine. Jimmy Thai served a delicious green curry over homemade somen wheat flour noodles, JJ dished out chicken meatballs with tamarind sauce, and Sticky Rice went regional with Nam Prik Ong, northern Thai dish of ground pork, tomato and chili paste. I appreciated the nod to regional cuisine! Later in the day, the booth switched over to tasters from Star of Siam (our first Chicago Thai restaurant), Herb Restaurant, and Jin Thai Cuisine. The second round’s theme seemed to be Thai comfort food including Basil Chicken from Herb, Chicken Pad Thai from Jin and Mussaman curry from Star of Siam.
The Dessert Pavilion started strong with Recette, Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits and Bittersweet Pastry Shop and Café. My overall favorite bite from Chicago Gourmet this year was the caramel and pumpkin Canelé from Recette. A canelé is a French pastry that resembles a mini bundt cake, with a soft, almost custard-y center and a caramelized exterior (above). We had previously sampled Recette’s pastries at Renegade Craft Fair in Pilsen, and they delivered again at Chicago Gourmet. Bang Bang gave a Fall-appropriate showing with an apple crumble with an unusual-but-delicious miso twist, and Bittersweet introduced me to a whole new chocolate concept: Ruby chocolate mouse. Ruby chocolate, developed by Callebut in 2017, is distinguished by its fruity flavor and pink hue. It may look Day-glo but the color is all-natural!
For the second half of the day, the Dessert Pavilion mixed it up a bit by presenting desserts from restaurants which are not particularly known as dessert places, including a fall panna cotta from Steadfast and a Viennese sachertorte – chocolate cake layered with apricot, topped with a tiny pretzel (above) – from The Berghoff Restaurant. The dessert trio was rounded out by some delicious apple gelato from longtime-favorite Black Dog Gelato.
In my quest to seek out world eats, I found plenty of options. There was a lovely Japan Pavilion, featuring ramen from Strings Ramen Shop and what may have been the most unusual bite of the day: The “Kizuki bun,” a deconstructed Japanese hotdog from Kizuki Ramen and Izakaya.In terms of portions, Piggie Smalls went over the top and made a whole gyro sandwich (who can resist!?).
Other yummy world eats included veggie samosas from Hakka Bakka Indian Kati Rolls (above) and fresh ricotta and mozzarella from the Mozzarella Store, Pizza & Caffé. Tucked away in the Sam Adams Pavilion were samples from Evanston-based Viet Nom Nom and Cynthia’s Gumbo, a Louisiana Cuisine food truck run by Cynthia Boyd-Yette & Terry Yette.
I made a point to attend some of the cooking demos this year, always a fun experience, and especially welcome when the weather outside is a little less than sunny. I am always impressed by the skills of the chefs at these demos, and always learn a thing or two – this time I really learned the unexpected – how to make tofu. There was a great demo by Laura Cheng of Sun Wah and Thai Deng of Haisous on tofu. Laura Cheng owns Sun Xien Soy Products, purveyors of handmade tofu right in Chicago, a spin-off of the popular Sun Wah restaurant on Argyle. After Laura made the fresh tofu, Thai took it and turned it into a Vietnamese-inspired dish, and explaining the fresh herbs one by one as he added them to the dish, including the enigmatic banana blossom and culantro. The session was moderated by Bon Appetit’s Food Director Carla Lalli Music.
Chicago Gourmet also played host to a number of panels and seminars, and I attended a master class on South Asian Cuisine. The session was moderated by Check Please! host and Master Sommelier Alpana Singh and included the following experts: Sujan Sarkar of ROOH; Zeeshan Shah and Yoshi Yamada of Superkhana International; Colleen Sen, Author & Culinary Historian; and Rohini Dey of Vermilion. The panel was an eye-opening look into the state of Indian Cuisine in the US, and a fascinating look at those pushing the boundaries. Though many Americans are not familiar with regional Indian foods, the vastness and diversity of Indian cuisine cannot be overstated!
Rounding out the day were the wine and spirits, and I do my best to sample some of the international offerings on this front. There are some yearly classics: the Stella Artois area, where you can pick up a signature glass along with your beer samples, and Peroni’s bright-orange tent slinging the Aperol Spritz (prosecco, Aperol bitters and soda water), which has perhaps become the signature drink of Chicago Gourmet. I did learn about an entirely new-to-me spirit at the Iichiko tent, Shōchū, a Japanese spirit made from rice, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or barley. Though it may be confused with sake, shochu is actually much more popular than sake in Japan! I sampled a shochu and lychee drink, paired here with salted caramel gelato from Vero Gelato (found inside Mariano’s stores).
One of the best aspects of Chicago Gourmet is that it is different every year. Combining old favorites with new additions, Chicago Gourmet was as fun as ever. From sampling rare Whiskey, to watching world class chefs cook onstage, to tasting new treats from around the world, Chicago Gourmet is a foodie’s dream!