Chicago Gourmet New & Improved

You have to hand it to the Illinois Restaurant Association. Not only do they take constructive criticism, they act upon it. A few years ago, I was fairly critical of Chicago Gourmet, after a weekend spent waiting in lines longer than an NFL rap sheet due in part, no doubt, to a Groupon that flooded the event with discount price party crashers. Add to that the lopsided number of liquor and wine tents vs. actual food vendors, and you had half the crowd smashed by 2 p.m. The secondary tent just west of Millennium Park wasn’t much better, at least in terms of hearing the cooking demos, as the sound ricocheted everywhere, making it impossible to hear the folks up on stage. My how times have changed.


This past weekend’s event – under some of the warmest, most pleasant late September weather I can ever recall – was improved by at least 1000%. Let’s start with the food. Yes, there were still lines, but guests had so many more choices this year: new BBQ pavilions featuring three restaurants at a time, in long blocks, switching out every few hours. You could line up and get brisket from Bub City or a “BBQ Sundae” from Chicago q but still have plenty of time to walk over to another pavilion where another trio of restaurants where serving up something sweet (dessert pavilion) or savory.


BBQ "sundae" from Chicago q

BBQ “sundae” from Chicago q

Just outside of the BBQ pavilion, I talked briefly with Mayor Emmanuel, who was munching on some slow-smoked brisket from Bub City. “Someone here tells me Chicago is the best barbecue city in the country right now, what do you think?” our Food Lover-in-Chief asked. Considering how many classically-trained chefs we have who have turned to Q’, how many new restaurants have sprouted and how rapid our rise has been with BBQ events like the Windy City Smokeout, I told him it’s not that wild a claim. When you go to Taylor, Texas, and make the pilgrimage to Louie Mueller (where Aaron Franklin trained) and the first question Wayne Mueller asks is “how is Barry doing up at Smoque?” that’s a pretty good sign Chicago is on the Map of BBQ Royalty.


In terms of the live cooking demos, the organizers again did an amazing job. In a first, at least at events of this caliber, they ditched the worthless overhead mirrors, and instead, placed tiny HD cameras directly overhead, linking them to enormous HD monitors so everyone in the audience could actually see what was going on above the stoves and cutting boards. This was the case in both the Pritzker Pavillion as well as the Bon Appetit Stage, where I MC’d demos at each. Not only could you see, but the sound issue had been figured out as well, with expert audio making it a pleasure to listen to and understand what chefs were saying, and what audience members were asking during Q & A.


Boston chef Jamie Bissonnette's paella on the Main Stage.

Boston chef Jamie Bissonnette’s paella on the Main Stage.

I ran into Greg O’Neill from Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread and Wine on my way out of the event on Saturday, who recounted those harrowing first years – smashed attendees ignoring the humble cheesemakers he dragged to the event – and even he acknowledged this year’s event seemed to be far better organized, at least in terms of offering more food options. Some of those were located in the new-and-improved “Street Food” pavilion, just south of the Bean. Last year, they had beer and cookbooks, as well as some cooking demos, tucked way in the back. Sound was, to be kind, not ideal. But this year, as you walked into the tent, there were a half dozen vendors – Mexican from the ‘burbs, pierogi from Kasia’s, pani puri (Indian street snacks) as well as Goose Island on tap and an entire section of Artizone food purveyors, showing off what could be delivered straight to your door. This was a much better use of the space, and again, no one was waiting more than a minute or two to try something to eat.


Caramel corn-and-cheese doughnut from Stan's

Caramel corn-and-cheese doughnut from Stan’s


Some other intangibles from this weekend: great music on the overhead speakers; not too loud, and setting the mood as if you were in someone’s cool restaurant. Kudos to the Music Supervisor’s playlist. Also, despite some minor mispronunciations, I appreciated how every 15 min. or so a young woman’s voice would come over the PA system, reminding us of an upcoming demo or book signing, just in case we were knee-deep in bourbon, tequila or wine, or engrossed in conversation about Parachute’s menu while waiting for a bite of Arun’s Thai food. I was particularly thrilled to see the U.S. Postal Service booth (hang on) where they were selling a brand new line of “Celebrity Chef” stamps that had just been released on Friday. Seeing those images of Edna Lewis, Joyce Chen, James Beard and Julia Child reminded me that had it not been for these trailblazers, an event this grand probably would have never come to fruition in the first place. We stand on their shoulders with a mix of admiration and pride. Can’t wait until next year. Cheers.


My favorite stamps.

My favorite stamps.

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