We once met someone who had an eggroll booth at the Taste of Chicago. They got the concession because they were able to crank out eggrolls in the six-figure quantities needed for ten days of crowds— and the reason they could do that was because they already had the eggroll contract for United flights to Asia. Yes, that’s right: the Taste of Chicago was literally passing off airline food as a representative of the best Chicago had to offer.
The Sun-Times reports that after last year’s fiscally disappointing privatized Taste, but more importantly, after decades of mediocrity, Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone is trying to see if there’s a way to improve the mammoth festival, which has managed to both lose money and prompt jokes about its greasy, gluttonously unadventurous food in recent years.
“We have an opportunity to start fresh. I’m trying to bring the focus back on the food and not on the circuses and how this fest becomes a driver to support the restaurant scene,” Boone told the Sun-Times. While she’s not trying to directly rival events such as Chicago Gourmet and the Green City Market BBQ, which showcase the chefs who have earned Chicago an international reputation, but are also far smaller and shorter than the Taste, she clearly understands that where they help advance Chicago’s culinary profile, the Taste hampers it:
“The culinary scene in Chicago has advanced and progressed in wonderful ways. We have Michelin-rated restaurants and world-class chefs. We’ve gotten lots of attention from Stephanie Izard winning `Top Chef,’ “ Boone said.
“I don’t want to say the Taste has gotten too low-brow. One of the great things about it is it’s accessible to everybody. But, I think we can be a little more comprehensive in how we represent what food in Chicago is today.”
It will be a daunting task in a city where even supposed neighborhood festivals are more often put on by professional promoters dishing up the same food regardless of what the local ethnic mix is. It may not be logistically possible to serve a real taste of the city to hundreds of thousands of people at once; for that they may actually have to go out and visit the city they live in. If the Taste of Chicago presents such a blinkered, generic view of the city’s culinary diversity that it actually discourages people from doing so, or fools them into thinking airline eggrolls are an accurate representation of Wentworth or Argyle, then maybe it’s time for it to end, or to change its name.
At least Boone’s emphasis on food, hopefully good food, is a good sign: “The mission was about exposing residents and visitors to the vast array of restaurant and neighborhood culinary treasures throughout the city. The purpose was not about bringing in Bon Jovi and Earth, Wind and Fire and, by the way, while you’re down here, go get a chicken wing.”
What do you think, Grub Street readers? Is it time for the Taste to go, or can this munching be saved?