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Chicago Gourmet Preview: No Way But Up

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Sep 25, 2009 3:40PM

Junmai sake, typified by a clear color and dry flavor.

A couple weeks back a friend purchased Chicago Gourmet tickets via the half-price special Groupon offered. She asked for advice to prepare for the festival. We told her to pack a lunch.

We weren’t kidding.

There’s such a thing as setting a low bar for realistic expectations and there’s tossing the bar away altogether when your plans wind up in the weeds. The Dunkin’ Donuts coffee served at last year’s opening night gala should have served as a portent of the weekend that followed. For the better part of two days attendees paid for the privilege of walking around a food desert overlooking the banks of a river of wine. The full litany of Chicago Gourmet’s miscues has been well-documented. This year, there’s nowhere to go but up.

At first glance it looks as though festival organizers the Illinois Restaurant Association has taken the criticism of last year’s event to heart. Five gourmet tasting pavilions have been set up around Pritzker Pavilion, to go with the tastings on Pritzker’s Great Lawn. With a minimum of four chefs at each station, this should go a long way towards accommodating attendees. Seminars and lectures are also confined to within Millennium Park’s boundaries this year. Power walking through foot traffic between seminars at the Cultural Center, Pritzker Pavilion’s Choral Room and the Gage last year reminded us of college.

The most notable change for Chicago Gourmet this year is the cost. At $150 per day, or $250 for the weekend, the cost of Chicago Gourmet is still a pretty penny. Outside of the separate fees for the Grand Cru wine tastings and GAJA Wine Estates seminar, however, everything is inclusive. The separate ticky-tack fees organizers added to the seminars last year are gone. Attendees won't have to shell out an extra $30 to hear Alpana Singh dole out wine pairing advice she already offers freely.

There is one reason to still be wary. The presenting sponsor for this year’s edition is Southern Wine & Spirits of Illinois, the state’s largest liquor wholesaler. Granted, SWS probably paid handsomely for the right, but access to alcohol was not a problem last year. While organizers have worked to improve accessibility to food, that river of wine will still flow freely.

All the more reason to pack a lunch.