The Chicago Gourmet is an annual festival celebrating food and wine in beautiful Millennium Park. The festival brings together restauranteurs, exhibitors, wineries, spirit companies, and the patrons that love their products. I’ve read that the Chicago Gourmet is very much like the Taste of Chicago only the food is better, the crowds are smaller, and your wallet will be a bit lighter as a result.
The Chicago Gourmet just happened to fall on the weekend before my 30th birthday. What better way to spend my birthday weekend than to be surrounded by incredible food and drink in a seemingly endless buffet. Four months ago, this seemed like the perfect activity to celebrate my milestone birthday until my frugality complex kicked in and I felt an incredible pain when I considered spending $500 for both me and my wife to enjoy the festival for both days.
Perhaps the gods were smiling upon me or this is just another event in a long line of things going my way, but a friend of mine informed me that the Chicago Gourmet hires volunteers to work the festival for a day and reward their volunteers with a complimentary ticket for the other. My two days at the festival went from a mind numbing price tag to a bartered deal in which I give up 8 hours of my life in return for an entire day at the festival, no charge.
I want to cue you into my fantasy mindset when I considered this plan. You see, when I initially thought of volunteering, I imagine that I would get to rub shoulders with incredible chefs and work alongside their staff; get an idea of what they do and how they do it. Maybe they would have me preparing dishes and serving them to guests, or they would give me a knife and cutting board and tell me to dice 50 pounds of onions. I even went so far as to imagine Stephanie Izard or Rick Bayless discovering my unbridled talent and offering me a job at their restaurants because I showed such initiative and one fantasy had me saving their dish by suggesting a change to their own recipe which enhanced it to the next level. Imagination is a funny thing isn’t it?
Before I continue, I want to take a minute to provide you with a brief history lesson. Indentured servants came over from Europe in the mid 1700s to trade their labor for passage to the New World. Farmers needed workers and there were many able bodied people desiring to get to the land of opportunity. For a set amount of time (roughly 1 – 7 years), indentured servants worked for their contract owners without wages. This was different than slavery as there was a legal contract involved. At the end of their contract, their debt was paid and they would earn their freedom. This practice declined drastically in the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence and consequently led to an increase in the slave trade. The organizers of the Chicago Gourmet must be students of history as well.
For one day, I became an indentured servant to the Chicago Gourmet. Like the indentured servants of the past, the degree of difficulty of the placement depended entirely on luck. Some of my fellow volunteers got an easy assignment where they were simply not needed and allowed to wander the festival in search of sustenance and fulfillment. Others had it hard and worked the dining sections of the festival where they encountered projectile vomiting people who didn’t listen to the motto “Beer before liquor, never been sicker” and the countless hoards of faceless paying guests who felt they did not need to find a trash can because that might just take too much time away from boozing it up some more. Did I mention that is was raining too?
The difficulty of my indentured servitude was somewhere in the middle. My wife and I were stationed at the Absolut Vodka tent working under a very nice young woman who, for lack of a better phrase, had no idea what to do with us. At first, we threw dead bottles away and then stood around watching their mixologists concoct their drinks. After about an hour of this, I was asked to stack the extra boxes of Absolut behind the bar, and then proceeded to stand around for another thirty minutes while I watched the mixologists serve their drinks. At this pace, while the work was not hard, I was still standing in the mud doing nothing and the time was not ticking by fast enough. Most people can agree that when you’re busy, the time just goes by quicker.
At some point, we took our first of two “15 minute” breaks and went to the tasting pavilions. This was more to wet our appetite as to what would happen the next day, but I did not anticipate my self not wishing to return to my servitude. This wasn’t uncommon amongst the servants of the 1700s in which some actually did run off. They were hunted down by their owners and made an example of. I wrestled with the idea of removing my volunteer shirt and blending seamlessly into the crowd, but eventually determined that it would be best if we returned to the tent and see if they needed anything.
Three hours (and about 40 bottles of Absolut and countless other liquors later), our volunteering supervisor informed us of our additional tasks of bussing the dining areas and that we could take a lunch break, but not together. We went and took our lunch break together anyways, but I did appreciate that she came back to make sure we hadn’t wandered off into the festival. Granted, she never did come back to check on us, but I like to think that she was doing much more important work than I was. When we came back from our lunch break, Absolut decided that they finally knew what to do with us and we became bus boys for their bartenders. For the next four hours, we emptied trash cans, replenished glassware for the guests, fetched coffee and water for our parched bartenders, and retrieved plates of food for the Absolut models who – I feel is important to mention – ate burgers and chicken wings gladly.
As the seconds ticked away and the sun set over Millennium Park, the crowd began to thin, but many people remained behind to finish their drinks and conversations. Granted, some people were stumbling around while others were just giddy and loopy, but what I didn’t see was any aggressive drunks, fights breaking out, or any of the drama that sometimes accompanies open bar festivals that almost spell certain doom for someone. All and all, it looked like a very nice time for the guests.
As for me, my pants were splattered with mud, my shoes are soaked through, my lower back hurts from standing all day, and I may have contracted smallpox from cleaning up after people. But I’d do it again next year – in a heartbeat. Even now, as I reflect on my day of servitude and the rain is pouring outside and the weather report says water will continue to fall from the sky through tomorrow and turn Millennium Park into a cold, muddy mess, I can’t wait to go back and be a guest. I can’t wait to go the different wine booths and sample bottles that I would never have opened. I can’t wait to try an entirely new set of restaurants’ dishes and determine if I would go to their restaurant to have dinner. I look forward to going back to the Absolut tent and have a shot of Absolut Wild Tea (which was a wildly popular Absolut flavor today) with the mixologists I met. I look forward to sitting through cooking demonstrations and seminars of chefs I may not have ever heard of, but probably have some fascinating information to share with me. I look forward to the reward much more now because I have worked for it and I didn’t simply have to pay for a ticket. Of course, I’ll still hold on to hope that they’ll change the volunteering program and I’ll get a chance to be discovered. A boy can dream, right?
I want to speak directly to those of you who may be reading this as a potential volunteer for the festival and want to know exactly what to expect. I implore you to devoid yourself of any hope of rubbing shoulders with anybody famous and accept that you are there as a grunt to do the work that most people would not want to do. Accept that it may rain and you will be forced to stand outside in it. Accept that you might get a job handing out maps to people or will have to bus tables and pick up chicken bones off the ground. You may have to check people in or you may have to hand out tasting notes to anyone that walks by. You are there as a servant and you will be rewarded with a ticket to the second day. That’s it. If you can accept it, apply to be a volunteer – and do it early. Spots fill up fast.
I do want to thank the mixologists at the Absolut booth as well as the team leader Lauren who (after they knew what to do with us) thanked us many times for our work and made our servitude just a little bit nicer.