Archive for the ‘Food Adventures’ Category

It’s been a month since we all rang in the New Year. How is your New Year’s resolution going so far?

I was reading an article earlier in the month that said around 50% of New Year resolutions are related to fitness and weight loss. I thought this was crazy considering the sheer amount of people I see exercising throughout the day (making me feel horrible about my own exercise routines) and the reports on the multi billion dollar diet industry. With this, I thought I’d let my readers in on my own weight maintenance.

I have no problem managing my weight. I tend to eat what I want, when I want it, and don’t really think about the consequences except for extremely spicy food. When I see my weight go up a few pounds, I cut back on heavier foods, take single servings at dinner, and usually I debloat and see the scale tip back to normal within a week.

I get comments from some of my friends and family that I’m “so lucky” that I don’t have to worry about my weight and some have accused me “not understanding what it’s like to lose weight.” That’s true. I don’t know what’s its like for anyone to lose weight. By that token, they don’t understand what it’s like to maintain my weight. It goes both directions.

When I hear people claim that they are starting their diet, I also wonder what that actually means. Are they monitoring what they eat? Are they exercising more? Have they joined a gym or hired a personal trainer? Do they understand what a calorie is? Are they going to start eating balanced meals? I figure these are all personal questions, so I stay away from them, but I can’t help but think that I could help them. Why are they so resistant to taking advice or getting a little bit of education and then applying it?

Dieting is hard. If it wasn’t, America would not be the fattest developed nation in the world – 33% of all Americans, 20% of American children, and 18% of adolescents are considered obese.

74% of Americans are consider overweight by the World Health Organization.

I’m 6’0″ tall and like to maintain my weight between 170 – 180 pounds. This is the lower end of my “ideal weight” according to every doctor I’ve ever seen. The World Health Organization approves of this as well.

When the scales do start to rise, I know it’s my body retaining water or storing energy in the form of fat. I do not exercise nearly enough and I won’t fool myself into thinking I have more muscle than I actually do.

I don’t start dieting. I monitor my diet. When I was growing up, this is something I did naturally. My lifestyle in general accommodates the idea of living and eating healthier.

  1. I enjoy a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, I eat many different whole grains. I am okay with eating whole wheat pasta and bread over the more delicious white flour versions.
  2. I refuse to eat processed foods 98% of the time.
  3. I have not gotten my dinner from my local grocers freezer in well over a decade.
  4. I cook the majority of my meals at home. I have no qualms about bring a brown bag lunch to work and eating at my desk while my peers order out.
  5. I know how to read a nutritional label and can determine if my body can handle it.
  6. I shop for food using a list. I do wander through every aisle to see if I missed anything, but I only pick up things I need and not the things that I want.
  7. I don’t need to “treat” myself or “cheat” with a piece of cheesecake, a bowl of ice cream, or a candy bar. If I want it, I have it. This is not that often. I do not eat a whole cheesecake in one sitting.
  8. The scale is not my enemy.
  9. No matter how much advertising is put out there or how available and affordable it is, I know that fast food is not actually food and should never be consumed.
  10. I consider myself a social drinker. When I go out, I will have one or two. When I’m home, I will have one or two. When hosting other people at my home, I will have one or two. A six pack will last me a minimum of 5 days. I use bottles of liquor for cooking purposes. I never drink alone. I know how high alcohol is in calories and how hard my body works to burn it off. Alcohol dehydrates my body, which means I have less water to whisk away the sodium and other things that retain weight.
  11. I use moderation in damn near everything I stick in my body. It’s important.

When I do want to exercise, I don’t make any excuses that gyms are too expensive, it’s too cold outside, I don’t like to work out with other people around, I need other people around to motivate me, or any of the other classics I’ve heard in my life. Exercise is free – I don’t need a gym or any fancy equipment in order to do it. It can be done in my home where I control the warmth.

can do it alone. I need to be self motivated or else I’ll quit.

I’m not here to judge. I’m not here to say that I’m better than anyone or that my way of life is ideal and somehow superior. I am not saying that I have the secrets to weight loss and staying healthy. I am not a nutritionist or a doctor. I am just someone who has always maintained my weight.

My diet is my adventure with food. I’d like to continue that trip for as long as possible even if that means denying myself a second helping, a daily breakfast of donuts, or staying away from the fryolator.

Starting is the hardest part. Why not today?

My wife took me out for a wonderful meal for my 30th birthday. For her birthday, I had to reciprocate.

I want to apologize for the lack of pictures on this one. My camera was screwy that day and the lighting was much too low to get anything worth publishing.

Home Bistro is located well north of downtown Chicago right across the street from The Chicago Diner – a vegan staple since the mid 90s. I had purchased tickets to a show for after dinner and was looking for something in the neighborhood. Home Bistro was conveniently a 10 minute drive to the theater and Yelp recommendations were extremely high.

I knew nothing of their menu, their chef, or their ambiance when I called for a reservation. I didn’t really bother to check the website because I would inevitably find something that I didn’t like about it. I called around 2pm and received a voicemail strictly for reservations. This made me feel pretty nervous not speaking with a live person considering my wife’s birthday happiness was on the line, so I hung up and called later in the night when I knew they would be at the end of dinner service. The hostess was very polite, took my name, phone number, and asked if this was a special occasion. “Actually it is,” I said. “It’s my wife’s birthday.”

“That’s our fourth birthday of the night,” she exclaimed with glee. Meanwhile, I felt like a shit on the other side for not being original in my birthday meal. “I also want to let you know that we are a BYOB restaurant. You are welcome to bring your own bottles, soda, or juice with no corkage fee.”

“Really?” I started to feel a little better. Sure, I wasn’t original, but at least I could supply my own libations.

I went to the store and purchased a bottle of Hard Cider (my wife’s favorite) and skipped anything for myself. I was driving and I knew she probably wouldn’t finish the whole bottle. I could drink water and still enjoy my meal all the same.

Our reservation was for six, giving us plenty of time to eat three courses, sit around for a bit talking, and still have time to drive to the theater. I was 5 minutes late. Blood pressure = 160/110. I’m a stickler for arriving early and Chicago traffic was against me at every turn. We were seated promptly in the back of the restaurant and was just starting to get comfortable when the manager asked if we would like to sit in the window. My wife immediately said yes. I was not so eager.

Home Bistro is lovely. It’s quaint. It’s a little quirky. It has a small amount of tables to provide intimacy. The window tables, however, are situated as a live display of how good the restaurant is. The tables (two tables of four) are elevated up about a foot and sit virtually on top of the sidewalk. Everyone that walked by could take a gander at who was eating there and quickly establish the type of people that ate there and the quality of the food based on their facial expressions. This skeaved me out at first, but I quickly got over it. It was, after all, my wife’s birthday, and I focused on her and less on who was walking by. Except for the guy in the black chevy.

Outside the restaurant was an idling black Chevy with a heavy set gentleman in a suit jacket and tie. Just sitting there. Doing absolutely nothing.

My wife ordered first the Cooper’s Pate. It came as two large triangles that resembled uncured charcuterie. It was served alongside pita chips, whole grain mustard, onion jam, and homemade pickles. This in itself is worth going back for. If you’ve eaten pate before, you know it as a smooth spread bursting with flavor and gets an extra kick of flavor from loads of butter. This, however, relied on pork fat for an extra kick which melted on buy tongue beautifully. This was perfection.

I ordered the Fried Oysters served a cloud of grits and garnished with a chili vinegar. I quite like oysters, but found that much of the rich flavor is lost – like most things – when fried and I couldn’t really tell the difference between this and fried quahog clams. Obviously these were bigger, but I missed the briny goodness. The chef was wise enough to serve some of the liquor underneath the grits. However, I am still a big fan of this dish and found the chili vinegar to be a wonderful accompaniment and bring much needed acidity to the fried flavor. The grits served as a dipping sauce tying everything together.

For her entree, my wife ordered the Amsterdam Style Mussels steamed with a beer broth and served with Truffle Fries. The mussels came in an enormous bowl (at least 2 pounds), but the taste was pretty basic. Although tasty, plump, and masterfully seasoned with just a hint of anise, we did not feel that the mussels rendered much flavor from their beer bath, but the Truffle Fries were to die for. Not only were these fries perfectly cooked, but they were served with a truffle aioli that should be mass produced, bottled, and be a requirement that everyone try at least once. This is the kind of condiment that freaky people go to Vegas and pay somebody a lot of money to bath in while being fanned with palm leaves by scantily clad individuals. This aioli made a meal just that much more memorable and something we still think about when planning our meals at home.

I wanted to go a little more adventurous and ordered the Braised Oxtail with Ricotta Gnocchi. If they allowed me to the back of the kitchen, I’d kiss the cook for this one. Oxtail is literally the tail of cattle and therefore extremely tough. When braised for a long time, the bone releases its marrow and the meat breaks down and becomes rich. I wasn’t too sure there was enough food on my plate when it arrived, but these big, bold ingredients quickly filled my stomach. The gnocchi were not traditionally rolled, and I have to say that I rather prefer these to any Italian version I’ve had in the past. I will say that I think the chef over seasoned this dish a little bit, I still finished the whole bowl and wiped the sides with bread. True comfort food at it’s best.

I bet you’re wondering by now: Where does Rahm Emanuel come in? Remember the guy in the Chevy. He’s about to do his job.

Our desserts arrived (not even worth mentioning – skip this course) and the guy jumps out of the chevy. He stands in front of the restaurant and begins to talk into his sleeve. I’ve seen enough political movies to know whats about to happen. Somebody really important is about to show up. Within two minutes, two black Lincoln Navigators pull up in a No Parking zone. Out jump four guys with earpieces. One proceeds to cover the front entrance, two go to the sidewalks, and the fourth opens the door for Rahm Emanuel. He waits for his wife to come around before proceeding into the restaurant. Rahm (may I call you that?) gets maybe two steps in before somebody recognizes him.

“Hi Mr. Mayor,” someone from the back calls out. Rahm gives scans the room, gives a quick wave and then in true political fashion, flashes a smile and nods in my direction. He is quickly whisked away to a back table where he is joined by another couple. Just another night out with friends for Chicago’s fearless leader.

Sitting in the window table, I got to see all of this. The guy in the Chevy checking out the place, the speeding Lincoln, the assassin thwarted, the illegal choke hold…okay not that last part. But it was pretty cool nevertheless. On our way out, the security detail opened the doors for us (they were just standing there anyway) and we walked out into the night air.

So perhaps I didn’t really get to have dinner with Rahm Emanuel. But he did show up at the restaurant that I picked for my wife’s birthday, waved to me (and everyone else in the room), and sat in the back of restaurant right next to where we were originally supposed to sit. That’s good enough for me.

Home Bistro is a win and I will certainly go back there for more meals in the future. I love the idea of BYOB because I think you get better food at a better price because there is so much less overhead. You can bing whatever you want and not feel bad about it. BYOB means no judgement and you get exactly what you want so the restaurant can focus on the food. This is a great idea. Home Bistro does sell a $30 Prix Fixe menu on Wednesday that is booked about a week ahead of time. I do recommend calling ahead and if you’re feeling up for it, ask to be seated at the front window table. While definitely too exposed for Rahm (may I still call you that), there is a delightful elegance to sitting there.

If you are like me, then you have been invited to a least one holiday party in which the host expects you to “Just bring your selves.” I wasn’t raised this way and I feel pretty uncomfortable showing up to even a  simple dinner party empty handed.

I think most people think to bring a bottle of wine, but I’ve noticed that whenever I do bring a bottle, it’s rarely opened. Wine is an acquired taste and you never know if your offering will be well appreciated and enjoyed or banished to the cooking wine shelf to collect dust. So in the spirit of the holidays, I offer you five new ideas that you can bring with you as gifts for your gracious hosts:

1) Champagne: I know what you’re saying. “Isn’t this the same as wine?” No, it’s not. Champagne is luxurious and bubbly and festive and I have never met anyone who didn’t enjoy a glass of champagne at any point in the evening. If you are unsure of your hosts preferences, stick with a Brut which will be sweeter and not as dry. For the holidays, you can bring a Rose champagne which are pink in color just to give a little more festive vibe.

2) Gourmet Chocolate: Who doesn’t enjoy a nice bar of chocolate every now and then? For a special host gift, stay away from the big chocolate companies such as Lindt and Godiva and give an array of chocolate bars from a company your host may not have heard of such as Vosges-haut Chocolate. This company makes some pretty wild, yet delicious flavors such as their Milk Chocolate Bacon Bar and Black Salt Caramel bar. Wrap three or four of these bars together tied with some ribbon and you have a pretty memorable gift.

3) Dog Chew Toys: If the host has a dog, it’s never a bad idea to bring a new chew toy to keep their canine companion occupied while you enjoy your meal. If you don’t have a pet store near you, your local supermarket probably has some chew toys. But here’s a word of advice: don’t give them a squeaky toy. You may find yourself without an invitation the next time a party comes around.

4) Homemade Preserves: If you spent anytime during the summer or fall doing some canning, your host would love a jar or two complete with a homemade label and gift tag.

5) Small Gift Basket: Lastly, you can put together a small themed gift basket for very little cost. Grab a bag of colored pasta, a small bottle of good olive oil, and a jar of tomato sauce and you’ve given an instant dinner. Raid the sale racks and you’re bound to find a small collection of fun items your host might enjoy.

There are a bazillion ideas that you can give your hosts that would cost about the same as a bottle of wine. The question becomes whether you are willing to take a little extra time to think about your hosts and hostesses and what you might be able to give them for inviting you to their holiday party.

So readers, what host gifts are you giving your party hosts this year? What have you given in the past? Let me know. I’d love to get some fresh new ideas!

A couple of years ago, I joined a wine club that was advertised in Food and Wine. It guaranteed 12 bottles shipped to me every quarter at the reasonable rate of $120 (plus shipping) whereas the bottles separately would have cost well over $200. As an exciting new membership perk, my first shipment was 25% off and included a wine gift set complete with stopper, cork, and other tools that I have yet to figure out their purpose.

I’m sure at some point you may have seen an advertisement for one of these clubs or something like it.  The advertisers always use phrases like “world’s finest”, “exquisite”, and other words that I believe are meant to sucker the everyday wine drinker into thinking this wine is better than what they already have stocked in their house.

The only really frustrating part of my membership was that you had the option to opt out of any shipment 2 weeks prior to it arriving at your house by simply calling their 1-800 customer service line. If you failed in this, a case of wine that you may not have wanted would show up at your door. Sometimes, they would have special “Deal of the Century” cases around the holidays and halfway through summer that you would also have to cancel or else it would arrive on your door. These special cases often cost a deal more than the normal shipments. It reminds me of my adolescence when I was a member of Columbia House record club and the CD of the Month would arrive, often from a group I never heard of or one that I knew there was only one or two worthy songs. At least with Columbia, it was easy to ship a CD back. A case of wine is another story.

From my experience, I can best bestow several pieces of advice on to you:

1. If you are a procrastinator (like me and 90% of the people that I know) who reads your mail, sets it in a pile to deal with later, and never really looks at it again, a wine club is going to cost you a lot more than you initially signed up for. You’ll get bottles you may not be interested in and your credit card will be much higher than normal.

2. Good wine is wine that you like to drink. By no means should you ever trust virtual experts to select the best wines you’ve never heard of and tell you that it is good wine, received 90 points, and best served alongside lamb or veal at around 54.5 degrees. If you want to try some new bottles, most quality wine stores will have tastings weekly or at least once a month. Not only is this an enjoyable time and a reason to get out of the house, but you can try upwards of 20 different bottles at varying price points without any commitment.

3. There are some states that do not allow alcohol to be shipped to homes and only certain wine clubs are available in particular states. Check on this first and make sure that the club is available in your area.

4. If you have friends that also would join a wine club, there is no reason that you couldn’t split a case with a friend. You get 12 bottles, but if you choose an all white or all red case, you’ll get duplicates of every bottle.

5. If you love any bottle they sell, immediately (and yes, I’m talking to those folks from No. 1) call the wine club and ask for a case. I could never find any of the bottles I enjoyed from my shipment at the wine store and they always cost significantly more because they have to be special ordered. I was infatuated with a 2007 Groote Kaap Pinotage from South Africa that I have been unable to find ever since and the next years vintage tasted significantly different.

I like wine, but I don’t love it. I will probably never join a wine club again and it’s not because of the above five points, but because I’m actually pretty frustrated with the idea of constantly trying new bottles when I find it almost impossible to find anything I enjoy more than my regular staples. I do think that the adventurous wine drinker or someone looking to get more into wine and doesn’t have a decent wine store near them would benefit greatly from a wine club in terms of its savings and ever-changing stock. But for me, I’ll stick to any free wine tasting that comes my way and let the sommeliers and wine experts of the world argue over which bottles they prefer.

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.

Winners

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

    Jimmy Bannos

    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.

Losers

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


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.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that during my first weekend in Chicago, two events were going on that I had enormous interest in attending. The first was the 20th Lollapalooza music festival held in Grant Park. Consequently, about 90,000 of these people were clogging the highway as I rode into town. I was saddened when I found out that the festival was sold out and scalpers were charging upwards of 200% of the face value for tickets. I figured I could just wait for next year.

The second event was a free concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival held at a beautiful park about 45 minutes north of Chicago. In addition to the phenomenal atmosphere and summer schedule, what I found most appealing about Ravinia is that it allows its attendees to bring their own food, beverages, and seating for the lawn. This is unheard of back home in New England where the security personnel make the TSA look innocent.

Not wanting to be outdone by veterans, I concocted a menu of fresh, summer ingredients. For an appetizer, we ate sourdough bread with bruschetta and smoked cheddar cheese with some red grapes. Our main course was a basil pesto pasta and for dessert, we ate cherry pie. My parents bought us a picnic backpack as an engagement gift and although it does not get as much use as perhaps we would like, you can see in the picture below that it comes with pretty much all you would want for a two person meal.

          

I had bought our bottle of wine about a year ago during our vacation to Niagara Falls. We stopped at the Benchmark Restaurant located in the culinary school at Niagara College where they have their own teaching winery. Here I had tasted one of the most delectable bottles of Pinot Noir I had ever tasted in my life. Although for the price point, there are probably better bottles out there, but I like the idea of supporting a student winery. If you are ever in the Niagara area, I highly recommend stopping by their store and tasting a few of their wines. Our bottle was a 2007 NCT Dean’s List Pinot Noir.

     

When I had first heard of the concept of picnicking in the park, I imagined that many people brought only a small cooler, some folding chairs and a sheet to lay out on; you know, normal picnic stuff. I couldn’t have been more wrong. People were carting in wagons full of equipment, bags bursting with food, and 10 and 15 gallon coolers. Below are two of my favorite tables. What impressed me most was these folks took the time to bring a small bouquet of flowers, candles, and tablecloths (and crew socks pulled up with shorts?).

     

The park gets crowded quite quickly. For an 8 o’clock concert, we arrived at 5:30 and could only find seating towards the back of the shaded area. In the pictures below, you can see the mass quantity of people who filled in behind us as well as my favorite sculpture that I found on the grounds.

     

The pavilion area of Ravinia was unexpectedly elegant. The festival not only hosts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the summer, but also includes acts such as Guster, Steely Dan, Jennifer Hudson, and other pop, rock, blues, and jazz acts.

If you live in the area or plan to visit Chicago during the summertime, I highly recommend you see if there is anything of interest to you at Ravinia. It’s easily accessible by train from the city and parking could not be easier. Just ensure that you plan ahead and make an easy dinner that can be grazed and enjoyed for hours.