Chicago Goes Gourmet: A Taste Of The Kickoff

Chicago puts itself on the front burner this weekend with the inaugural Chicago Gourmet, a weekend-long festival of food and wine attended by chefs and sommeliers near and far. Special MenuPages correspondents Bridget Houlihan and Tammy Green, of the dining podcast Chicago Bites, are on the scene. First up: The opening night reception.

When you know the bartender, the headwaiter, or the bus boy, you’re in for a better dining experience. These are the folks whose service can make or break an evening.

So, when I spotted Carol, an acquaintance I met years ago through work, behind the bar last night at Chicago Gourmet’s kickoff in Millennium Park, I had an inkling it was going to be an amazing night.

“I didn’t even know you were a bartender!” I said, wandering over to say hello, while the press photographers were busy snapping shots of Mayor Daley.

“One of my four jobs,” she replied with a smile. “This is such a cool event, isn’t it?” she said, pouring me a glass of wine. “You’ve got to try the Seven Daughters white, it a blend of seven grapes. You’ll love it!”

Chicago Gourmet aims to solidify the city’s place as an international food contender through a series of cooking demos, seminars, and tastings this weekend. And the food I sampled last night was great, but it wasn’t the most striking part of the launch.

The most striking part was a prevailing sense of excitement. Every chef and attendee I chatted with shared Carol’s enthusiasm for the event and seemed genuinely thrilled that Chicago is finally flexing some culinary muscle. Last night’s reception was attended mostly by presenting chefs, the media, and corporate sponsors, but it was anything but stuffy. It was more like a jolly convention of foodies.

I still have to wonder though if Chicago Gourmet will resonate with the general public. In Chicago, we’re used to having a street fair every 15 minutes during the summer, so a weekend of food is nothing new. And as a result, we’re also pros at eating food on a stick in a tent.

Ticket prices, chocolate pepper macaroons, and worries for the future, after the jump!

John Penn’s salad gives me hope that the British won’t starve!

But we don’t usually have dark chocolate with sea salt on a stick as an option. And until Chicago Gourmet, we’ve never had to pay upwards of $150 just to get in the tent in the first place. This is not the Taste of Chicago. It aspires to something more.

The local lineup showcases Chicago’s best, but just as impressive is the event’s international flavor. Chefs from Chicago’s sister cities throughout the world have flown in to participate, and last night there was much buzz about the 2016 Olympic bid.

In between chats with fellow foodies, I did manage to taste everything. The standouts for me were the tuna tartar starters, and the desserts – especially the chocolate pepper macaroons. Many of the main dish tastings were game heavy – featuring veal and ostrich. I didn’t really like them, but appreciated what they were going for.

My favorite dish of the evening was John Penn’s Haricot Vert Salad, a refreshing medley with some of the tastiest tomato and olive garnish I’ve ever had.

Penn is visiting from England, and when I lived there, I ate to live, not because I wanted to eat. If Penn’s salad is any indication, he has the potential to greatly improve the food scene on the other side of the pond. He’s a culinary teacher too… so he’s passing his knowledge to others! There’s hope!

The Risotto with Veal Sweatbread & Crawfish Moussaka was rich and flavorful, but not my thing.

As many tasting as there were at the reception, there wasn’t nearly enough of it to make a real meal out of it. The ticket price was for quality, not quantity. There were also very few vegetarian options. That’s unusual in a city that is normally veggie friendly.

My initial impression of Chicago Gourmet is good. But I do wish the price tag wasn’t so high (although I’m told that it is much less expensive than similar events in New York) because everyone should have the opportunity to taste the best Chicago has to offer.

Will folks pay the price and show up for events today? Or will corporate sponsors make up the majority again? I’ll keep you posted! No matter what, I’m looking forward to good eats. And I’d better get to it. —BRIDGET HOULIHAN

[All photos by Tammy Green. All rights reserved.]

Chicago Goes Gourmet: A Taste Of The Kickoff