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Chicago Gourmet Still Going Strong In Year Five

By Anthony Todd in Food on Oct 1, 2012 3:00PM

Chicago Gourmet has gone from "will this ridiculous boondoggle ever work?" to a fixture of the Chicago food scene in five short years. For the first time, all tickets sold out for both days of the festival. This year's event, despite some issues with crowd control and food supply, was the best yet, and the continuing improvements make it a near-certainty that Chicago Gourmet is a permanent fixture of Chicago's festival calendar.

Not much changed from 2011 to 2012, though there were a few notable additions. Our perennial issues with the festival remain. It's far too fixated on wine for our taste, though the liquor offerings improve each year. It's still mind-boggling that there's no massive craft beer tent on hand, given the level of sophistication that beer has attained in the gourmet world, though festival-goers could get all of the Stella Artois they could drink. The wine-to-food ratio is so radically skewed that we could have drunk 10 glasses of wine for each tiny bite of food. In consequence, while the lines for wine were short (owing to the fact that there were seemingly 10 million different brands being poured) the lines for food were, as always, quite long. Our wish for next year? Encourage (or pay) chefs to prepare much larger portions of some signature dishes. That way, the 20 minute wait in line would be worth it, the restaurant would get better advertising than they can from a bite on a plastic plate and the chances of festival-goers getting wine-drunk at 3 p.m. would be decreased.

That said, one notable food option was being ignored when we visited - the new Purple Pig pig roast. An entire pig was sitting there, sad and lonely. If you go to the festival next year, remember that not everything is on the great lawn — the sides and ramps are filled with booths, too, and the waits are practically nonexistent. While you could wait 25 minutes for a glass of Stella Artois in the demo tent, purveyors of five other beers in a tent on the East side of Millenium park were practically begging visitors to come taste. Spread out, people!

Buick was running an interesting promotion throughout the fair - a good example of the sort of synergy we'd love to see at more food events. Rather than simply hiring a famous chef or passing out bites while hoping to get you to take a brochure about their latest station wagon, Buick had a station for visitors to design their own candy bar. You chose a base chocolate, a bunch of mix-ins (including things like lemon zest, caramel, bacon and peppermint) and, not coincidentally, had to answer some questions about your preferences in fine American vehicles. In a couple of weeks, your custom-designed candy bar would be shipped to you. While it's still an advertising gimmick, at least it fit with the spirit of the event, and is an improvement over the crude advertorial seminars of years past.

Chef demos were always well-attended, though the level of attendance varied with the celebrity. Chef Geoffrey Zakarian of New York restaurant The Lambs Club attracted a decent crowd, but Chicagoans really turned out for the hometown Top Chef team of Art Smith and Takashi Yagihashi. Their cross-cultural banter about their mutual love of fried chicken was an example of what makes these culinary demos cool — a chance to pair cooks who don't often cook together and see what turns up.

If we'd had more time, or the inclination, it would have been interesting to measure the response of the public (or this strange, rich, wine-obsessed slice of the public) to various food trends by clocking the lines at different booths. For instance, the lines at the "Whiskey of the World" booth? Long, and surprisingly diverse. The line for Campari? Nonexistent despite the fact that Campari has become particularly trendy in the past few years. Not for this crowd! Similarly, the brand-new gluten free tent, replete with pastries, was completely empty while the next door tasting tents had lines stretching half-way across the lawn. We hope the organizers give these unique options a chance to come into their own.