Chicago Gourmet: A second helping
It took all of five minutes for me to get my hands on some food at this year’s Chicago Gourmet, and that in itself makes it a huge improvement over last year. The nibble was a crostini with a dollop of soft goat cheese and a dried apricot. It was from Pastoral‘s stand, where I remember waiting in line for, no joke, 15 minutes last year. By contrast, there was no wait this year; I just walked up and took it off the table.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the booths had lines. But there was enough food at this year's event that the lines were, for the most part, controlled. Admittedly, I avoided the lines that looked as if they’d be frustrating. Lines to get at Rick Bayless (and his food), Top Chef's Radhika Desai and, inexplicably, the pork belly from Jack Binion’s Steakhouse, seemed silly when mouth-watering delicacies from restaurants like the Bristol and the Gage could be found steps away with no waiting. It’s noteworthy, nonetheless, that last year the option to avoid a line for food didn’t exist. If you did, you’d have gone hungry. With more than 300 wine and 65 spirit exhibitors, compared to 50 chefs, the booze to food ratio was still heavily weighted toward the former, but I left full and happy all the same.
Among the good bites I had were a dish of pork belly and braised apples (Rosebud Steakhouse) and a sweet onion empanada (by a local company I’d never heard of before, 5411 Empanadas). But the food was not the only improvement: There were also actual places to eat it. Several pop-up lounges (a lot more luxurious than you’d think possible) dotted Millennium Park’s lawn, so you could set down your plate, glass of wine and map, and stay a while. Which, this year, is something you’d actually want to do.
For foodies, Chicago Gourmet represented a chance to rub elbows with virtually every top chef in town. Just walking around the lawn on Sunday, I bumped into Martial Nougier of Café des Architectes, Top Chef fan favorite Fabio Viviani, restaurateur Donnie Madia (The Publican, Avec, Blackbird) and Takashi Yagihashi of Takashi. Dozens of other chefs could, of course, be found preparing dishes in their booths or giving live cooking demonstrations in the gourmet pavilion and on the stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. I dropped in on Nougier and pastry chef Suzanne Imaz’s savory macaroon demonstration. The goat cheese and fig-stuffed macaroon was delicious, and an audience member got a chance to squeeze Imaz’s pastry bag, but there’s absolutely no chance I could go home and make that dish tonight. I felt the same way about Takashi’s Asian noodle demo. Though Takashi did some amazing things with a special pasta attachment for his Kitchen Aid mixer, without hand-out recipes, the demos were more show than service.
TABLE fifty-two’s Art Smith, who led a demo along with Bistro Campagne’s Michael Altenberg, was the only chef I saw who offered an actual recipe (albeit via oprah.com). TV personality Smith wowed the crowd with his likeable, self-effacing ways, struggling a few times with the recipe before confessing that his chef de cuisine Rey Villalobos is the real brains behind the operation.
“I come up with the idea and Rey figures it out,” Smith laughed, after asking Villalobos whether or not they brined the chicken they were preparing. “On Iron Chef I was okay because I was like, 'Rey is going to figure this out.' But on Top Chef Masters I didn’t know who was going to figure it out. It was like being on a bicycle without training wheels!”
For Chicago Gourmet, this was the year the training wheels came off, and while I look forward to seeing this event continue to evolve and grow, by all accounts the food and wine fest enjoyed a smooth ride.
Written with Time Out Chicago executive editor Amy Carr.