Chicago Gourmet 2011 - Neither Rain nor Mud nor Long Long Lines....

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 26, 2011 2:00PM

After months of hype, weeks of anticipation and three days of wine and tweeting, Chicago Gourmet 2011 is finally behind us. Despite the rain and the shoe-ruining mud (we're sending your our cleaning bill, Illinois Restaurant Association!) the event was actually pretty good. In fact, Chicago Gourmet was, dare we say, worth the money this year.

We've been pretty hard on Chicago Gourmet in the past. Plagued by disorganization, bad planning, no water, scarce food and other myriad problems, the event had been slowly improving, but none have come close to this year's level of success. Someone's been paying attention to the critiques, because almost all of the problems were fixed. This year, a bottled water sponsor (Fiji) had swimming pools full of the posh stuff scattered around the place - no worries about dehydration. Food was plentiful, both in the specialized Chef Tasting tents and the many other sponsored pavilions. Extra stages (thankfully covered) allowed a much wider variety of chefs to play to specialized audiences - at the start of yesterday's noon cooking session, guests could watch Jonathan Waxman cook gnocchi on the main stage, taste Rob Levitt's charcuterie on the East Lawn or listen to Dirk and Terry Fucik talk about sustainable seafood.

Thoughtful touches abounded, from both organizers and sponsors. Rather than simply handing each guest a tasting glass for wine, this year the organizers acknowledged that people might want to eat with their booze. Every attendee got a neat triangular plate with a slot for their wine glass, conveniently carry-able in one hand. Sponsors gave out ponchos for the weather, and the amount of indoor space was dramatically increased.

The levels of quality and luxury in the branded pavilions also rose this year. The main sponsors, Bon Appetit and Target, each had huge tented rooms, filled with food, wine, literature, and comfortable chairs. This also helped with the food shortages that have plagued previous events - many sponsors hired dedicated chefs so that guests didn't have to wait in line for the tasting tents.

Of course, the event wasn't perfect. There was still more wine than any 10,000 people could ever drink, and we're sure there are some pretty fierce headaches this morning all over Chicago. There were still lines for some food - the specialized chef tasting tents were a logistical mess, with low capacities and huge lines and the Frontera tent had 100 people in line by 10 minutes after opening. The Pritzker Pavilion is still too small and crowded to host an event of this magnitude. But all-in-all, Chicago Gourmet has finally begun to make itself into an event Chicago foodies can be proud of.