Food, glorious food! And wine, cooking demonstrations, goodie bags, absinthe fountains, cupcakes, bloggers, macarons, jenga, even the mayor! Honestly, Chicago Gourmet has it all. The only problem? So much to do and so little time. Compounded by the fact that I contracted man-flu in the days prior, I was afraid I wouldn’t make it through the day, but there was no stopping me on my mission to make the most of my very first visit to Chicago’s most exclusive food and wine event. Unlike Taste of Chicago which attracts people from all over with its free entry and shows, the Bon Appetit’s Chicago Gourmet is a fancier, more food-focused two day affair. Tickets sold entitle the buyer to entry as well as open kitchen and bar sampling of the bountiful food and wine offerings and pairings, as well as front-row seats to demonstrations by Chicago’s most acclaimed chefs. Heaven.
Arriving early for the official opening of this, the fifth annual Chicago Gourmet, is both exciting and awe-inspiring. Keeping my distance so as to avoid infecting unsuspecting foodie victims nearby, I am able to stand by and watch as the chefs, media and VIPs arrive, swooping up complementary champagne, clinking their glasses in greetings to one another and anticipating the day’s events while commenting on the pleasant weather and enthusiastically back-slapping one another. Several minutes later Adam Rapoport, Editor-in-Chief of Bon Appétit magazine takes over to officially introduce the event and then hands over to Rahm Emanuel, current Mayor of Chicago and former White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama (ooooo-eeemmmmm-geeeeeeee!). Also in attendance is Illinois Restaurant Association’s President Sam Toia and Chairman Johnny Colletti, as well as countless celebrity chefs. With the pop of a cork from Will Conniff, the Executive Vice President and General Manager of Southern Wine & Spirits Illinois, we’re set free into the pens to try our hand at attempting to sample every last morsel on offer.
While I will always be a Sydney girl at heart, it is impossible to ignore the scale and impeccable level of detail and organisation involved in Chicago food events. From the website, Facebook page, and especially the incredible Chicago Gourmet App, every last aspect has been predicted, covered and ticked off the list. From the beautiful Bon Appetit tent, Vegetarian Tasting Tour to the Gluten Free Pavilion and exclusive Grand Cru, I am in food-lover’s heaven.
Vegetarian offerings include Grit Cakes from one of my favourite new Chicago bar/restaurants, Untitled, as well as an array of delights from environmentally friendly pickling company Suckerpunch. DC Sarnies offers up the most delicious Portobello Mushroom Burgers I have ever had, surprisingly complemented by the (usually sickly) sweet, brioche-style bread that is oh-so-popular yonder. Tomato, Mozarella and Basil Tartin, as well as Raspberry and Chocolate Tarts from Toni Patisserie and Cafe are a real hit, and even CS Magazine have branded Red Velvet Cupcakes to lure in the crowds.
From here, much time is spent exploring the countless beverage vendors. From one of my favourites, St Germain (mostly due to the packaging, but let’s not forget the exquisite elderflower), to lining up for Belvedere’s Lemon Tea served in adorable jars with citrus-like segmented lids, there is something for everyone. I finally get to try the Skinny Girl Margarita, as seen on the ever-disturbing reality tv show Bethenny Getting Married, and have absinthe distilled through a traditional fountain from Lucid (with cat-eye packaging, how could I resist?). We even get to try some wines from Ricasoli, the self-proclaimed second oldest vineyard in Italy.
And who do you spend a day like this with, indulging in the finest life has to offer, oohing, aaahing, moaning and groaning while you sip, suck, lick, nibble and swallow? The Chicago Food Whores of course, who will do “anything” for food. Vivian and Michelle, accompanied by their respective spouses (one soon-to-be), as well as some friends and the third (but by no means least significant) whore of the food variety, Matt (AKA Diesel), are the experts on food in Chicago. From street food to fine dining, they’ve done it all.
Having wined and dined with the milieu for the better part of the day, it’s time to waft towards the showpiece, the Grand Cru. Presenting the “chance to learn and enjoy tastings with Master Sommeliers, an elite core of Chicago’s top sommeliers, and winery representatives”, the Grand Cru is held on both days of the festival between 2 and 4pm. In addition to the necessary Main Event tickets, attendees are required to purchase individual Grand Cru entry, which at $175 pp isn’t exactly cheap. What lies behind the velvet rope, however, is well worth the cost provided you are an enthusiast of the highest tier, with a penchant for top-shelf liquors, fine wines and indulgences of the most expensive kind.
Here you will find champagnes such as Pol Roger, Dom Pérignon, Domaine Chandon, Krug “Grande Cuvée” and Moët & Chandon. There is Francis Ford Coppola Winery’s Eleanor Red Wine, several well-known New Zealand wines including a Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc, and a Graham’s, Dow’s & Cockburn’s 30 Year Old Tawny Port. For whisky afficionados there is Laphroaig “18 Year” and “25 year” Islay Single Malt Scotch Whiskey, while those of you who prefer a cognac can find Corvoisier’s 12 and 21 year old vintages, depending on your preference. In stark contrast to home’s most prestigious food and wine event Taste of Sydney, where vendors will sing the praises of their top-shelf tipples while gesturing towards unopened bottles, everything here is available for tasting and presented by the city’s most celebrated experts in their respective fields. Even the viands here are on the finer side, with mountains of cheese and baguettes peppered throughout the tent and individual stalls offering delicacies including Honey and Ginger and Fois Gras Macarons, which are clearly objectionable as far as I’m concerned.
Coming back down to Earth after a good two hours experiencing heavenly treats from some of the World’s finest, the only thing left to do is play Jenga, before going round two of the main event food offerings. I discover an Heirloom Tomato, Goat Cheese and Basil Bruschetta, and an array of nibbles and sweets inside the Target tent including Pink Moscato-Poached Peaches with Shortbread. In the Gluten Free Pavillion Piccolo Sogno has the right idea, substituting meat with eggplant for the vegetarians, while Terry’s Toffee has smashed slivers of Mazel Toffee, Orange Blossom and Peanut Butter Chocolate to make your mouth water.
As the day draws to a close we venture out of the park towards one of Chicago’s most famous landmarks Cloud Gate, affectionately nicknamed The Bean. Held in Millenium Park, it’s impossible to ignore the beautiful surroundings, including some of the City’s most fabulous icons, while the sun sets over the horizon. Along the boulevard people from all over have been inspired to bring their own Chicago gourmet, picnicking while watching tourists and locals alike Instagram away in front of the eminent silvery monument.
Thankfully, the Chicago Gourmet contributes to the good of the people and the environment too. This year, all monies raised from the silent auction and raffles will be donated to the Illinois Restaurant Association Educational Foundation to provide scholarships for aspiring chefs and hospitality professionals. In the way of sustainability and awareness, vendors individually took on the task of using the finest local and seasonal ingredients, while many offered vegetarian and vegan options, helping to encourage us animal and planet lovers that we are on the right track.
I can’t wait to sample some of the food in its natural habitat over the next couple of months, and with a list of over 150 chefs, restaurants and sommeliers, I certainly have my work cut out for me. For those of you who can help it, DO NOT miss Chicago Gourmet 2013, September 27-29. Finally, cheers to the Chicago Food Whores and friends for a truly fabulous day, it wouldn’t have been the same without you!
Millenium Park, Chicago, IL