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7 Takeaways From Chicago's Fanciest Food And Wine Fest

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 28, 2015 2:19PM

Photo via Facebook.

Another September, another Chicago Gourmet gone by. Each year for the past eight years, this massive food and wine festival has taken over Millennium Park, and after eight years, it's definitely hit its stride. Hundreds of guests, chefs, media personalities, bartenders, wine experts and fancy brands hit the ground running for two jam-packed days. Here are some of the highlights (and lowlights, but not many) of Chicago Gourmet 2015.

- Every year, Chicago Gourmet hosts the Hamburger Hop, a competition to see who makes the best hamburger in Chicago (at least among the 15 or so restaurants that show up for the competition). This year's winner was Chef Dino Tsaknis of David Burke’s Primehouse, who cooked up a burger topped with smoked giardinera, porchetta, broccolini, Italian jus mayo, and aged Provolone. At least one judge was hilariously not into some of the more complicated burger toppings:

- During our visit, we watched a ton of chef demos and seminars, but the (surprising) highlight was Chef Emeril Lagasse's demo on Saturday. He played to a packed house, cooking a barbecue shrimp dish from his new book, Essential Emeril. The amount of love in the audience was astonishing, and during the Q&A guests literally begged him to syndicate his most famous show, Emeril Live! "You'll have to talk to my agent," he chuckled. His signature Emeril verbal ticks were in evidence: Cooked food was "feeling the love," spices were "magic" and he disdained cooks who faked their demos by using pre-prepared food. "There's none of this swap bullshit—we're cooking in real time," he said. He didn't say "bam," but an audience member did, which elicited a "that's right, baby," from the chef.

- After this weekend, we're more convinced than ever that sliders should be banned from this planet. While the food options at Chicago Gourmet are limited by the need for pre-prep and mass service, it seemed like an uncanny number of vendors went with slider variations—lamb, pork, beef, and every possible combination thereof, with every possible topping. On the flip side, there were practically no food offerings for vegetarians (or for those of us tired of shredded meat after six hours or so). Next year, add a vegetarian tent, Chicago Gourmet!

- On Saturday night, Chicago Gourmet hosted a new event, Punch Kings, Pigs n’ Tiki, which had by far the best drinks of the weekend. Mixologists from famed bars competed to see who could create the best tiki drink (for a judging panel that included expert Paul McGee). Lee Zaremba of Billy Sunday was crowned Punch King for a drink that included Cruzan Diamond Estate White Rum, Cruzan 151 Falernum, pineapple, kiwi, lemon, ambergris laced honey, Jamaican seasoning and aromatic bitters. It's a miracle any of the judges made it out standing up.

So many punches! @punch_kings @cochon555 #punchdrunk

A photo posted by Paul McGee (@bagchatter) on

We also loved these adorable punch-bowl perched frogs from Punch House:


- As always, wine dominated the event, but it seemed like craft and local spirits didn't have as much of a presence as usual. We were excited to see North Shore Distillery, but aside from that, all of the booze was from easily-recognizable national distillers, who used the event to debut some of their new products.

- Barilla was on hand attempting some damage control, after their GLBT related scandal of a few years ago. Their food truck prominently displayed a poster decrying GLBT bullying, but it's not clear that the campaign was working. After tasting the (admittedly mediocre) pasta they were serving up, one prominent Chicago chef told us, "This must be what bigotry tastes like."


- The single best dish at Chicago Gourmet (at least from among the many that we tasted) was, unsurprisingly, from Fat Rice. They cooked up a saucy curried chicken that was one of the only "challenging" flavors at the event, and while hot sauced poultry wasn't the ideal dish in the heat and the sun, it was so delicious that we scarfed the whole thing down.


Until next year, that's it for Chicago Gourmet!