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MasterChef hand-picks eats at Lolla’s Chow Town

“MasterChef” judge — Chicago’s own — Graham Elliott once agais putting together stellar lineup food options for music fans heading

“MasterChef” judge — and Chicago’s own — Graham Elliott once again is putting together a stellar lineup of food options for music fans heading to Lollapalooza 2012.

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Updated: August 2, 2012 10:56AM

The Australian Black Truffle. Puffs of Doom. Suzy’s Samosas. Chubby Wieners.

Pick the ones who will be appearing at Lollapalooza, as they often whimsically quiz listeners on Eddie & JoBo’s K-Hits radio show.

If you answered all four, you’re correct. But they’re not musical performers.

Instead, they’re just a few of the aptly named food offerings that will be available to the crowds coming to Lollapalooza music festival, which begins Friday.

The “MasterChef” Graham Elliot-curated food row, known as Chow Town, features booths filled with a gaggle of chefs and restaurants, all of whom have been hand-picked by Elliot and his team. These chefs will feed daily crowds of about 100,000 for three days straight, during Chicago’s hottest UV rays, sun up to long after sundown. Some also will be feeding the artists.

The Australian Truffle is an example that the food at Lolla is anything but ordinary.

Chef Frank Brunacci — formerly exec chef at Sixteen in Trump Chicago — and wife Lillian will be bringing 40 pounds of Australian Black Truffle to make Truffle Mac and Cheese, Truffle Corn on the Cob and a Grilled Cheese sandwich with Truffle Brie, black forest ham and white Cheddar for the hungry festgoers.

“Why not make it available to the mainstream,” says Lillian Brunacci, who along with her husband, plans to open a truffle-themed restaurant in Chicago next year. Their appearance at Lollapalooza will introduce them — and the Australian Black Truffle — to the crowds filling Grant Park.

Delicious? Of course. A little decadent for an outdoor music festival? Absolutely not, say the Brunaccis.

While the expected heat may wilt the crowd, not so those doing the cooking. “How do we prepare for the heat? Working outside is cooler than working in the 105-degree kitchens that we’re all used to working in,” says Chef Merlin Verrier, Graham Elliot’s director of operations and Chow Town co-curator. “It’s part of what we do.

“I think that if you are someone that sat in front of a computer in an air-conditioned room, then had to go to your job outside in the heat, it would be much more drastic than a whole bunch of restaurant people that work on the hot line. They are used to working in 100-degree weather. For us that are in the restaurant industry, it’s pretty normal circumstances — besides the fact that you are outside, in Grant Park, cooking for 100,000 people,” says Verrier.

A twice-Michelin-starred chef who has been with the Graham Elliot brand since 2008, Verrier has been overseeing not only the Graham Elliot booth at Lolla since its beginning, but helping choose the lineup for all of Chow Town, a process that consists of asking as well as being asked.

“It’s a mixture of both. We send out invites to maybe a dozen restaurants or so that we feel share the same philosophy of food and music as equals, there are also establishments that reach out directly, and then we look at them as a whole and choose what we feel best represents the city at that time,” says Elliot.

So how does one get the job of picking the food for Lollapalooza?

“The first summer we opened Graham Elliot, we actually did a foie based on the headliners of Lollapalooza that year. So we did a Wilco, Nine Inch Nails foie special. The following year C3 (the company that promotes Lollapalooza) called us and asked us if we wanted to partake at the festival and that’s when we said yes. It was such a big success that year, we also cooked backstage for a couple of bands — and it went well. So they wanted us to come back and kind of oversee and curate.”

Three years later, Ferrier and Elliot, along with the rest of the team at their corporate headquarters, handpick a food lineup that is just as important as the music lineup. It’s representative not only of Chicago, but of what is going on in the culinary world. Highlights from this years lineup consist of: Lou Malnati’s, Homemade Pizza Company, Edzo’s Burger Shop, Franks n Dawgs, Chubby Wieners, M Burger, Kuma’s Corner, Do-Rite Donuts, Rainbow Cone, Chizakaya’s Fillipino, Suzy’s Samosas, Kamehachi Sushi, Mercat a la Planxa. Smoke Daddy, La Colombe Torrefaction, and most notoriously, Grahamwich’s Elliot, Ferrier and company will be there with their famous lobster corn dog and truffle popcorn.

Beyond the Chow Town lineup is the Lollapalooza Farmers Market, where local purveyors like Peeled juice company, Seedlings Farm, and, new to the Lolla Farmers Market this year, the gourmet “puffs” sold by artesian cream puff company, Puffs of Doom.

Rebecca VanderKloot, one of the Puff owners, said that although the overwhelming excitement has sunk in, it’s for the greater good of getting more exposure for their product. “It doesn’t hurt that the Graham Elliot folks and our vendor friends have been so solid with tips and hints. My to-do list is comprised of baking, hydration, refrigeration, keeping tabs on stock and not having a breakdown,” says VanderKloot.

At the end of the day, Verrier says that the experience of being backstage and cooking is what makes all the insanity of selling 15,000 lobster corn dogs daily worth it. “You know, we just want to make those guys happy and comfortable. We’re feeding the masses, we are feeding the headliners, and we are letting them all know that Lollapalooza is the greatest music festival in the world.”

C.F. Hilker is a local freelance writer.

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