Fall just isn’t complete in Chicago without the usual great food extravaganza that is Chicago Gourmet. The sun may come and go, the theme of the fest may be funny or pensive, and the participating restaurants may change – and yet, year after year, the magic remains. Where else can you find a plethora of America’s most talented and most diverse chefs gathered in one place, sharing their talent and their time with an unashamedly food-obsessed audience? I dare you to give me a counterexample 😉
This was the third time I attended Chicago Gourmet (you can read my reviews of previous editions here and here), and my experience this year was on par with what I have come to expect from one of Chicago’s most popular annual celebrations of excellence in food, held at Millennium Park. This year’s theme – Lights, Camera, Napkin! – highlighted the connections between food and entertainment through a series of super fun cooking demonstrations. In addition, nearly 250 restaurants and chefs held tastings at special pavilions throughout Millennium Park’s Great Lawn, while master sommeliers led interactive seminars and shared drinks with their audience.
I knew from previous years that having a plan in place before attending Chicago Gourmet would help to keep the event streamlined and would avoid the dreaded waste of time. Unlike on previous occasions, I decided to begin my experience with a stop at the Supreme Lobster & Seafood Co. Tasting Pavilion, while the line was still short.
The lobster and heirloom tomato panzanella with cucumber, avocado, Tropea onions and puffed black rice prepared by Coda di Volpe‘s Executive Chef Chris Thompson was my favorite. Pairing chunks of succulent lobster with fresh and high quality veggies was a compelling culinary undertaking, with stunning results both flavor- and presentation-wise:
I then headed to Mariano’s Tasting Pavilion, which as usual showcased plenty of support for small local restaurants and businesses.
Would you believe me if I told you roasted cauliflower was one of my favorite Chicago Gourmet dishes? Truth be told, Dusek’s Executive Chef Michael Galen’s roasted cauliflower was not just any cauliflower. Bursting with spices and served with labneh tahini, this cauliflower benefited from an inspired pairing with delicious and texturally pleasing pomegranate and walnuts.
A gentle final squeeze of Meyer lemon was all that was needed to elevate this rather unassuming dish to stratospheric flavor levels. It really was that good!
At the US Foods Tasting Pavilion, I got the chance to try one of the few vegan dishes of the day, an avocado toast with white beans, artichoke and pepita pesto made by Eris Brewery & Cider House‘s Chef Claire Smyth. Pretty good!
At the same Pavilion Harry Caray‘s Executive Chef Shawn Johnson had a comforting sausage&pepper crostini with salsa verde and chile oil on the menu…
… while Tanta’s Giancarlo Valera was offering foodies a vibrant and complex shrimp&calamari cebiche with a creamy rocoto leche de tigre.
A special note must be made about Tavern on Rush‘s succulent baby back rib sliders with a jalapeno slaw, a creation of veteran Executive Chef John Gatsos. The spicy kick from that slaw woke me up quicker than any espresso ever would, lol. It was sooo good!
After a quick stop at The Burger Federation‘s booth for a taste of their spicy pulled pork banh mi (which was delicious albeit a bit too spicy – or maybe it was me still feeling the heat from Chef Gatsos’ jalapeno slaw?)…
… I headed over to the Cadillac booth to satisfy my craving for something sweet. Plus, you can always count on Cadillac to provide social media-friendly desserts at Chicago Gourmet!
Enter Cadillac’s gourmet cupcakes, a collaboration with Chicago-based, women owned and operated Swirlz Cupcakes!
I opted for lemon curd as a filling because I wanted it to counterbalance the sweetness of the cupcake itself.
The decorator did a marvelous job – she was so skilled and patient!
Here it is: the perfect funfetti cupcake, with a drizzle of addictive caramel sauce over the top. So, so yummy!
After this sweet and decadent transgression, I briefly stopped by the Absolut booth…
…where reps were offering tastings of Absolut Juice mixed with sparkling water and decorated with fresh fruit.
Then, I headed to the Gardens of the Galaxy Veggie Tasting Pavilion, where I sampled veggie sushi rolls (courtesy of Sandy Chen of Koi Fine Asian Cuisine & Lounge / Le Sud / Club 77), noodles with a spicy sauce (Lao Sze Chuan‘s Edison Feng), and crispy wontons with a fiery chili oil (Imperial Lamian‘s Alan Tan).
I also stopped by Martin’s Potato Rolls Tasting Pavilion to get a taste of several comfort food dishes, such as Victory Tap‘s Executive Chef Joe Farina’s much-talked about “mama’s meatballs.” I have tried these meatballs at Chicago Gourmet, and now I know why they’re so famous. The combination of high quality meat, authentic Parmigiano Reggiano and Italian seasoning makes for an unbeatable taste – complex, comforting, and utterly delicious. A classic executed to perfection!
… as well as Bar Takito‘s satisfying grilled skirt steak tacos with chimichurri and crispy potatoes, creation of Executive Chef Juan Barajas.
With these accomplished, it was time for me to proceed to “Mission Impastable,” one of the most anticipated culinary demos of the day, featuring Chefs Fabio Viviani and Sarah Grueneberg, with Chef Mario Rizzotti as emcee. The event gave a super excited audience the chance to learn how to make gnocchi and pasta from the pros, and it was both informative and entertaining. Note to self: for best results, bake (*don’t* boil!) the potatoes for gnocchi!
In-between this demo and the next I stopped briefly at Nutella Cafe’s booth (blame it on my ever-so-sweet tooth!) for an invigorating yogurt and chocolate-based fruity concoction…
… and then I visited Moe’s Cantina River North booth, right when they were hosting an impromptu dancing session – much needed to keep my mind off the gloomy and chilly weather I was experiencing.
Moe’s Cantina was also serving an interesting take on vegetarian tacos featuring quinoa, broccolini, and avocado crema.
I returned to the demo theater just in time for another highly anticipated session. A stunning display of artistry and craft, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto‘s Chicago Gourmet demo involved filleting a 130lb yellowfin tuna. What a treat seeing the Chef carry out such a difficult (to me!) task and getting a glimpse of an infinitely meticulous process!
At the end of this demo I decided to make a stop at the Media Lounge presented by Choose Chicago, which provided Wi-Fi, charging stations, and an array of food and beverages, including specialty cocktails by Cherry Circle Room and BLVD mixologists. I thoroughly enjoyed these crisp and refreshing mini salads – perhaps my body needed them to restore balance after the numerous meat-based dishes I had experienced that day.
Of course, when it came to dessert, I couldn’t hold back. These delightfully moist chunks of cake bathing in sauteed raspberries available at the Media Lounge hit the spot immediately!
I undertook the final leg of my Chicago Gourmet experience alongside my friend Jessica from Bunny and Brandy. We checked out the US Foods Tasting Pavilion for one last round of Italian meatballs, courtesy of Labriola Chicago …
… and our haul also included Executive Chef Brian Jupiter’s famous alligator sausage.
One citrusy salmon lobster croquette later…
… and I was well and truly done with Chicago Gourmet.
I ate way too many meatballs and drank way too little water, but I promise I’ll do better next year. Until then, I’ll keep dreaming of roasted cauliflower, and Nutella treats, and quinoa tacos, and alligator sausage, and… The sky is truly the limit at Chicago Gourmet 😉
*Disclaimer: While I was offered a complimentary ticket to attend this event, all opinions expressed here are my own. I was not financially compensated by any of the companies mentioned or shown in this post.