A galaxy of culinary stars at Chicago Gourmet
By Leah A. Zeldes For Sun-Times Media September 24, 2013 7:20PM
Despite its hefty ticket prices, Chicago’s culinary community will turn out in droves for this weekend’s Chicago Gourmet in Millennium Park, as many of the events are already sold-out.
Park, 201 E. Randolph
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Saturday (sold out);
noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Updated: October 26, 2013 6:07AM
The city’s biggest foodie feed, Chicago Gourmet, takes place Saturday and Sunday in Millennium Park. A one-day ticket to this upscale Taste of Chicago starts at a hefty $178.63, with tax and fees, but if you buy into everything on the extensive menu, you’d be out well over $900.
For that, you could have some really luxurious sit-down dinners for two or more at Chicago’s finest restaurants. Is it worth it for tramping around outdoors at a stand-up slurp-and-nibble affair?
Parts of this year’s culinary extravaganza are sold out, so many foodies seem think so.
“Rock star” chefs are the big attraction, according to Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, one of the event’s organizers. “It’s like going to the All-Star game.”
“We do a dozen charity events throughout the year,” says Mark Grosz, chef and owner of Oceanique in Evanston, who participateseach year, “but this has so many chefs, so many restaurants. This is much bigger.”
More than 200 chefs and restaurateurs participate, from Bruno Abate (Tocco) to Bob Zrenner (Hubbard Inn). Billed as a showcase of Windy City cuisine, this year Chicago Gourmet has imported celebrity chefs such as Hubert Keller, Hugh Acheson and Sara Moulton, as well as 10 culinarians from Michelin-starred restaurants overseas, who’ll be cooking for the premium-priced Grand Cru wine-tasting.
The impressive roster of chefs spurred Kennard Bolt of Lakeview to return. When he last attended, the 32-year-old Bolt says the Grand Cru tastings “seemed like it was for distributors already in the industry.” He was unimpressed with the brands, too, but this year’s lineup intrigued him.
“There is a tremendous amount of alcohol at Chicago Gourmet,” says Joe Roireau, corporate executive chef of Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants, another annual participant. More than 350 tipples will flow — fine wines, premium spirits, bottled cocktails and domestic and imported beers.
“In the first couple of years, there was a limited amount of food,” Roireau recalls, “and with the amount of alcohol, that was a bad combination.”
“Everybody was wasted,” agrees David Dworshak, chef and partner of Takito Kitchen. Still, he’s honored to be invited to promote his new restaurant. “I’m a believer in events where you’ve got one bite to impress somebody,” he says. “I like a challenge like that.”
As much as she enjoys tasting, Chris Van Winkle of Edgebrook says, “It’s not even the food so much — it’s a weekend in Chicago in September in Millennium Park. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Van Winkle, 63, attends Chicago Gourmet every year. “One of our passions in life is good food,” she says. “We loved the first Taste of Chicago,” she says, but as the Taste began to fill up with more casual-food vendors, she was glad to switch to the higher-end version.
Van Winkle loves the event, but finds it frustrating. The five-hour time frame is too short for the price, she says. “If there are demonstrations you want to see, then you don’t have time to wait in all the lines.”
To make it affordable, Van Winkle and her husband eat their way through the Dine Around, a lead-up offering free tickets to a diner who spends $35 each at five selected eateries.
“That prompted my husband and me to go to restaurants we wouldn’t have otherwise,” Van Winkle says.
“We’ve changed the concept for better flow,” Toia says of curbing the long lines by limiting ticket sales.
To get the most out of the event, Toia recommends virtual tours via the event website or its mobile app. Among 2013’s features, he says, “I’m really excited about the spotlight on women chefs this year.”
“This year, ladies take center stage at Chicago Gourmet,” a press release says. Tastings from restaurants helmed by women have been segregated into a single pavilion, as if female cooking constituted a separate cuisine category.
Chicago Gourmet goes on rain or shine, Toia says, but he predicts, “It’s going to be 77 degrees and sunny,” and “the lines will be flowing good.”
“Of course,” adds Roireau, “we’re all hoping that everybody’s not so intoxicated that they don’t remember where they ate.”
Editor’s note: As of press time many events were sold out including Friday’s “Hamburger Hop.” Limited tickets were still available for the Grand Cru events, the Late Night Gourmet on Friday and Sunday’s main event.
Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.