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Chicago Gourmet: What A Difference A Year Makes

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Sep 28, 2009 4:00PM

Now this is how a food and wine festival should operate!

From the moment we stepped onto the Pritzker Pavilion lawn, both Anthony and I were stunned by the quantum leap forward Chicago Gourmet took in only one year. The Illinois Restaurant Association, stung by the across-the-board negative criticism of last year's inaugural version of the event, worked to address every major issue, and even reached out to media on site to see if we had any questions regarding their approach to this year's event. My one question for IRA President Sheila O'Grady was ,"why couldn't last year's event have been even close to this?"

Moving everything within the confines of Pritzker Pavilion was an obvious decision. The five gourmet food pavilions surrounding the lawn all had lines that were manageable. Moreover, the chefs were also prepared for the throngs of people descending on the event. There was plenty of seating for guests to rest their feet, garbage was collected almost as soon as spent samples were laid down by ravenous guests. The layout of the food, wine and spirits tasting tents was easy to navigate. Guests familiar with the South Beach Food and Wine Festival said that having everything in one central location gave Chicago Gourmet an advantage over that festival. Another advantage: more local chefs participating this year. The food pavilions and demonstrations brought out almost every chef imaginable.

The cooking demonstrations were also markedly improved. This year's main stage setup on the Frank Gehry-designed soundstage looked more like a functioning kitchen, less like something out of the Food Network. Rick Bayless, the most recognizable chef in America right now, and Marcus Samuelsson had a standing room only crowd rapt as they made dueling ceviches. That was followed by a demonstration on cooking with peaches and pork featuring Stephanie Izard, Bill Kim and Mindy Segal that was liberally fueled by beer and wine. Izard can work an audience almost as well as Bayless.

Paid attendees definitely received value for their $150 ticket Saturday. Later that afternoon Anthony texted me: "It's official. I would pay to attend this."