CHICAGO On Saturday and Sunday, local chefs and 8,000 foodies who love them overtook Millennium Park for the second annual Chicago Gourmet. Presented by the Illinois Restaurant Association, the food and wine festival offers book signings, cooking demonstrations, tented liquor lounges, and wine and restaurant tastings.
New to the event this year were five gourmet tasting pavilions that saw side-by-side chefs whipping up dishes that shared a common theme. In one of the pavilions, for example, Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard and Blackbird's Paul Kahan prepared regional American fare; in another, Rodelio Aglibot of Sunda and Le Colonial's Chan Le doled out Asian dishes.
The gourmet pavilions were the restaurant association's response to a common criticism from last year's guests, many of whom felt the event didn't offer enough food. “Our customers yelled loudly on this point and we responded,” said Sheila O'Grady, president of the restaurant association. This year, the association put together a culinary committee of chefs, who met regularly for 10 months to create the programming for the gourmet pavilions. With about double the number of chefs at this year's event, “as [restaurant critic for The Chicago Tribune] Phil Vettel wrote, if you didn't think there was enough food this year, Shamu, go see your cardiologist,” O'Grady said.
When planning for the first festival, before they had the benefit of customer feedback, O'Grady and her team visited highly regarded food and wine festivals in Aspen, South Beach, and New York “to do some reconnaissance,” she said. “We cherry-picked what we thought were the best features of the events and took note of things that we didn't think worked too well.”
One of the things that struck O'Grady at the other festivals was that “none of the chefs were from the [host city],” she said. ”We'd be at South Beach, and they'd have about a dozen chefs from Chicago at the event. So I realized how lucky we are in Chicago to have agreat chefs by the dozen.” More than 110 chefs participated in some aspect of Chicago Gourmet over the weekend, and all of them either head up local restaurants or have a Chicago connection. (For example, Marcus Samuelsson, who's based in New York but co-owns Streeterville's C-House restaurant, participated in a live cooking demo.)
Another aspect of other festivals that O'Grady wanted to revamp: “They have these fabulous chefs there, but they're all just doing cooking demos or book signings, and you're not getting to taste their food,” she said. ”I thought, hey, if you have all these chefs under one roof, so to speak, people have to be able to experience their food.”