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Chicago Gourmet: Day 1 Recap

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Sep 28, 2008 5:09PM

The weather couldn't have been any better yesterday as Chicago Gourmet officially kicked off at Millennium Park. A press release sent to us shortly after 9 p.m. last night announced that over 3,000 visitors attended the event, with last night's Grand Cru wine tasting selling out completely.

As one who's long been critical of Chicago Gourmet's ticket price, we have to wonder if the paying customers felt they got their money's worth yesterday. Wine tents outnumbered food kiosks by an overwhelming margin; it essentially looked like the annual Windy City Wine Festival, only with better stemware.

Long lines by those food kiosks snaked throughout the Pritzker Pavilion lawn. We spoke with paying customers who either were denied entry by park security because they brought along their kids (children under 12 were supposed to be allowed free entry) or were critical of the extra fees for the food and wine seminars. Some attendees we spoke to half-jokingly said that Chicago Gourmet was the first food and wine festival they ever attended where they actually left hungrier than when they arrived.

The food and wine seminars (reviews of a few are after the jump) were well coordinated, if hit-and-miss. The seminars located at the Cultural Center's Garland Room and at the Gage Restaurant (24 S. Michigan) flowed smoothly. The early wine seminars at the Pritzker Pavilion's Choral Room, by contrast, were marred by a lack of communication between festival organizers, Millennium Park security and volunteers. Our own Anthony Todd personally witnessed an incident where the COO of Midwest Operations for Dunkin' Donuts (a festival sponsor) with an all access pass being denied entry to a seminar on Opus One wine by already overtaxed and testy security.

The most popular events of the day, by far, were the cooking demonstrations on the Frank Gehry-designed soundstage. Mayor and Maggie Daley assisted Paul Bartolotta, Takashi Yagihashi and Rick Moonen in preparing seafood; Rick Bayless and Mercat a la Planxa's Jose Garces brought down the house with a demonstration of Spanish and Mexican dishes; Carrie Nahabedian and the Airgre Doux husband-and-wife team of Mohammed Islam and Malika Ameen dispensed with a few of their secrets in balancing flavors in their cooking; Terrance Brennan and Michael Kornick whipped up seasonal dishes; an apple pie demonstration closing the coking demos wound up being a contrast in personalities between the ebullient Pichet Ong of New York's P*ONG and Hot Chocolate's Mindy Segal, who did very little to dispel her reputation for being, um, feisty.

By mid-afternoon the communications were ironed out and the festival seemed to finally settle down. The Pritzker Pavilion lawn seemed like a larger version of a Sunday picnic, if that picnic involved 30 wine vendors. With overcast skies at the time of filing this recap, we wonder how it will affect today's attendance. Following the jump are some reviews of a few seminars we attended. Following are our takes on a few of the seminars we attended.

- Unlike a traditional wine class where you would taste several different types of wine, the “Opus One:
Maintaining Innovation” seminar focused entirely on wines from the Opus One winery. Since Opus One only produces one wine, the tastings were of three different vintages. While we appreciated the ability to compare different years of the same wine side-by-side (a rare thing), on the whole the event failed to impress. It was a glorified marketing event, with no wine education or information – a good 1/3 of the seminar was taken up by videos showing montages of their Napa winery. The lecture portion used a lot of words like “innovation,” “passion,” and “vision” more suited to a PR seminar than a wine seminar. Paying guests were heard grumbling on the way out. (Anthony Todd)

- "Our families talked a lot about the similarities of Paso Robles and Southern Rhone," said Jason Haas, GM and partner of Tablas Creek Vineyard and host of "A Rhône Blend: Blended and Unblended." "Where other vineyards knew what they wanted to plant before they found the land, we found the land first and then decided what grapes to grow." What the partner Haas and Buscatel-based Perrin families decided upon was growing syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, and counoise, grapes from southern Rhône used in making Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Attendees had the opportunity to sample wines made from each individual, the 2006 vintage of Tablas Creek's Espirit de Buscatel, and blend their own version of Châteauneuf-du-Pape using the wines in front of them. For nascent wine fans interested in expanding their knowledge base, this seminar was both fun and informative, the oenophile version of playing with one's food. (Chuck Sudo)

- Master Sommelier Fred Dame simply took the piss and vinegar out of wine snobbery and turned it on its ear with "Tasting the Masters' Way" at the Pritzker Pavilion's Choral Room. "Wine is the ultimate con game," Dame told us afterward, confirming something we already knew. Beginning the seminar with a background on how Dame became a MS — by 1984, the Court of Master Sommeliers stopped taking American candidates for the Masters' certification "because they were an embarrassment," Dame said; it took him two years before the CMS would accept his petition — Dame went on to explain to attendees that they were born with the necessary tools to understand wine. All it took to master it was trusting one's senses, continuous tasting, memorization and just a little bit of bullshit. Putting a glass of 2007 Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc to his nose, Dame listed a litany of smells. "Hmmm, starfruit," he said as the class nodded approvingly, then added with a knowing grin, "anyone here ever taste starfruit?" What wine ultimately comes down to, Dame said, is "it's great or it sucks." At the end of the seminar Dame offered his two hard and fast rules on enjoying wine: wine is fun and free wine tastes better than wine you paid for. (Chuck Sudo)

- For his seminar "Savoring Italy: The Mediterranean Seafood Basket," chef Paul Bartolotta, the former chef of Spiaggia and currently chef at BARTOLOTTA Ristorante di Mare in Las Vegas, brought an enormous array of fresh seafood to show off. This was more like a marine biology class than a cooking seminar, but his intense love for fish and the care he puts into sourcing his products came through in a captivating lecture. Frustrated with the inability to get authentically “Italian-tasting” seafood, Bartolotta (with the financial assistance of Steve Wynn) decided to fly ALL of his produce direct from Italian waters. He sources from purveyors in markets all over Italy and picks particular locations for particular species, due to the salinity and temperature of the water and the quality of the fisherman. Most of the crustaceans were still alive when he showed them to us! We were served samples of three appetizers from his restaurant, all made with seafood that he had brought specifically for the seminar, and we can honestly say that he served the best shrimp dish we had ever tasted. (Anthony Todd)