Posts Tagged ‘2011’

I come from a long line of Frenchmen. In fact, my dad has traced our lineage to 17th century France when our ancestors boarded a boat and travelled across the Atlantic ocean on their way to Canada. They settled in Acadia (Nova Scotia/New Brunswick areas) and stayed there for a couple of centuries until they were forced out by the British and emigrated to the United States. Some went down south and wound up in Louisiana where the Cajun culture was started, and others settled in Northern New England.

I don’t embrace much of my ancestral culture, and speak no semblance of understandable French, but I do know a few phrases that are held near and dear to my heart and remind me of home. So from my family to yours and everyone around the world

Joyeux Noel

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Adventures in Food will be on vacation and will return in the new year with all new recipes, ideas, rantings of a mad-man, and plenty more Mircrobrew Mondays. Eat well my friends.

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Lots of people will sit down together at turkey dinners across the country tomorrow and many families will honor the age old tradition of saying aloud the things that they are thankful for. When I was a kid, I always thought this time was a good opportunity to fit in something hilarious like “I’m thankful for Nintendo” or “I’m thankful for air.” I’m not entirely sure what my sense of humor was back then, but at least I thought it was funny. I also find it amusing when husbands take the time to honor their wives in a rare moment of romance indicating to their family and friends how lucky they are to have their wives. Wives of the world, don’t let this dribble fool you this year. If after dinner they immediately head to the television to watch football, nothing has changed.

But I thought it might be fun to write a bit about what I’m thankful for in my life through my environment I know the best: my kitchen.

  1. I’m thankful for olive wood which is not only incredibly light, but marvelously beautiful. I’ve seen a vast collection of kitchen cutting boards, utensils, and  various serving dishes at higher end stores. I’d imagine that in the future this trend will trickle down and more manufacturers will begin using olive wood as well.
  2. I’m thankful for induction burners and the leaps and bounds the technology has developed. When modern induction burners were first on the market, it was almost impossible to set a temperature to anything but boil and they were often bulky and overpriced. Now the technology has produced pretty decent portable induction burner units that have variable temperature settings in addition to full cook top options complete with 4 to 6 different burners. While the better quality burners are still a bit out of my price range, I can see in a couple of years a beautiful shiny new model sitting on my counter top.
  3. I’m thankful for Cuisinart who are quickly becoming my favorite brand of mid range kitchen appliances. Their stand mixer makes me second guess the Kitchenaid version which dominated the market for 40 years and has forced Kitchenaid to rethink their models and offer higher end options.
  4. Lastly, I’m thankful for pie. Pie is without a doubt my favorite dessert. That’s all. I just wanted to mention that.

And to all my readers, friends, and family, Happy Thanksgiving!

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.