If you haven’t read my post about my day of volunteering at the Chicago Gourmet, you may want to consider taking a few minutes to see how I got here.
If you have ever seen an advertisement for a food and wine festival, you usually see well dressed, middle aged professionals in collared shirts, slacks, and ladies in nice dresses. Everybody is always smiling and the sun is always shining. However, as predicted, the rain greeted me when I woke up for the festival, but I didn’t let it sour my mood. I knew this was going to happen – although I wasn’t expecting the rain to be as heavy as it was – and I accepted that I was by no means going to win the best dressed award. I donned a pair of black jeans, a hooded college sweatshirt, and multiple layers of t-shirts on the off chance the sun came out. Having worked yesterday, I knew that a pair of sneakers just wouldn’t cut it and opted instead for my winter boots.
The rain was still falling two hours later when I arrived at the main entrance to the festival. I was 20 minutes early, but I knew that security was letting people in early the day before. No-go on that account. There was a long line about 200 yards long of umbrellaed and ponchoed people waiting to get in. I did manage to see some of the well dressed professionals hiding under their golf umbrellas, but most festival goers decided against looking chic and opted to be warm instead.
I won’t walk you through my entire day, but I do want to take a minute to mention some of the big winners and losers of my experience.
- Edzo’s Burger Shop (Evanston, IL) – People…Nutella Milkshakes! Why has nobody ever come up with this before? They were served in small cups with a mini straw (but wide enough for the thick shake to be sucked through) and a dollop of whipped cream. I also want to mention that owner Eddie Lakin is also one of the nicest chefs I met today and stopped to have a brief conversation about his inspiration for the Nutella Milkshake. He seems like the type of guy who would do anything for his friends and family which makes me love his family owned business even more.
- The Firefly Grill (Effingham, IL) – The Firefly Grill wins for best swag giving a wooden holder for it’s custard filled egg shell stamped with the name of the restaurant and website. The sweet corn custard was incredibly delicious and reminded me of what I always imagined farm fresh, organic food is supposed to taste like. This is a restaurant for city dwellers that would be worth the drive to the countryside.
- Chicago Celebrity Chefs – Rick Bayless was running late when he ran into the pavilion tent and had to rush to set up his seminar that was first on the schedule. Regardless, upon request, he still took the time to stop and take a photo with some of the nice young ladies who were standing next to me. Rick
Tremonto demanded that the woman trying to take his picture join him so she could have a keepsake of the two of them. And Jimmy Bannos couldn’t have been more gracious when I spoke to him of my love of his restaurants. These are some of the culinary geniuses that inspire my food adventure and meeting them was an incredible thrill. But the fact that they were incredibly gracious and kind meant an awful lot to me too.
- Supreme Lobster and Seafood Co. Pavilion – if I’ve learned anything from watching Top Chef, it’s 1) never serve anything fried and 2) keeping hot seafood tasty for hours is difficult. With the exception of Duchamp (scallop seviche) and Oceanique (seared scallop) – the two exceptions that did serve an enjoyable serving – 8 restaurants failed completely to stimulate my taste buds in a positive way and one tried to fry their tuna dish to order. In fact, looking over my notes from the day, I have a giant NO written next to the majority of these restaurants indicating that based on that one bite. I would never go and visit their restaurants regardless of their Zagat and Yelp ratings because their serving was inedible (an ice cold salmon burger for example) or bland. Being from the East Cost, seafood is prevalent in many of my culinary favorites, but this pavilion left me wondering if I can ever count on finding consistent high quality seafood in the Midwest.
- Gibsons Restaurant Group – this tent maintained one of the longest lines throughout the festival doleing out Filet Sliders, Bacon Cheeseburger Sliders, a crab salad, and a chicken wing. After the 20 minute wait, the chicken wing was the only morsel I enjoyed and even that wasn’t worth the 20 minute wait. Perhaps it was only my taste buds or the staff they hired was completely incompetent, but both sliders were far too heavily salted to the point that it took away from any flavor. Case in point, you couldn’t taste the bacon on the bacon cheeseburger, only salt.
- Fall Ingredients – the majority of the dishes I tasted used summer ingredients which disappointed me given that the season is changing and restaurants had an opportunity to show me what might be coming out on their menus in the next couple of months. One chef even mentioned to me that he specifically used heirloom tomatoes because they were “the last of the season.” Granted, the festival wasn’t fall specific, but I walked away greatly disappointed in that there was no culinary inspiration to be had for these seasonal ingredients that are going to be at their finest quality now or in the next month.
In terms of my overall experience, I would be incredibly upset if I had actually paid for this festival. I suppose if you are a wine lover, then paying the premium for entrance is worth the opportunity to try more than 200 different bottles of wine that you otherwise might have 1) never tried or 2) spent well into the thousands to try by buying each bottle. I, however, am more of a wine liker and did not want to sacrifice the time necessary to go to each pavilion and taste the bottles because there was food to be had. Furthermore, the festival is incredibly packed and while you could taste every dish offered, you would spend your entire 5 hours waiting in line and taking only minimal time to enjoy what you were eating. I only made it to 60% of the restaurants serving food and honestly could not have eaten more even though I did wind up tossing more than 30% of the dishes given to me.
I appreciate the Chicago Gourmet for its life as a festival. It brings together the best restaurants from the greater Chicagoland area and invites wineries and spirit companies from around the world in celebration of food and wine. You can be sure that I’ll be back there next year, volunteering one day and enjoying the festival the next, knowing exactly what to expect.