I was invited to attend … is something with which I often begin articles because I am invited to attend quite a few very nice events. I consider myself quite lucky.
I was invited to attend the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame Dinner where Paul Kahan, Alain Roby, Richard Melman, Hans Aeschbacher, Jean Banchet, and the late Louis Szathmary were inducted. If you follow Chicago restaurant goings-on some of these names should be familiar. If you are obsessed with local chefs, all of them are.
The dinner was held at Castle, the former Excalibur spot in River North. As it’s October, the venue was decorated for Halloween. A very gruesome, tortuous, horrifying, creepy, and just plain gross Halloween.
The dinner was provided by the 25 participating Chicago restaurants and vendors. Each had a table or tables where their food was presented, and some were cooking right there at mobile kitchen set ups. Nothing called the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame Dinner would be allowed to have anything but excellent food. Because of the “competition” of having all that food from some of Chicago’s finest restaurants in one place, the quality was that much better.
The inductees into the hall of fame were all honored, of course, but the overall sense was that they were lucky to be able to work with great food and wonderful people in Chicago, a city they love. These people who feed us nourishing, delicious food feel like we’re doing them a favor by eating it? Au contraire, you humble hall of famers.
After the speeches it was time for a live auction. The live and silent auctions raised money for the Chicago Culinary Museum and for a scholarship fund for culinary students, many of whom were on hand cooking for serving guests. I was very surprised that the all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii (that included $1500 in cash) went for only $3200 especially considering the hosted bars (three in total) were pouring generously.
But really, everyone – myself included – was there for the food. So much great food. Most of the food stations had one dish, but a few offered selections. I tried, truly I did, to taste everything, but there is only so much one person can do.
For being in a state without a saltwater coast, Chicago has a lot of seafood. Chicago Cut Steakhouse featured a lobster roll – no steak at all.
Great Street, a restaurant I didn’t know about until the night of the event, offered several dishes, one of which was a seared sea scallop with butternut squash, bacon jam, and apple. It was a very appropriately autumn dish.
Joe’s served shrimp and bay scallop ceviche and won the prize for best display with an ice sculpture. No, there were no display prizes given out, but that “Joe’s” ice sculpture looked pretty cool. (Please ignore that pun.)
The restaurants have most decidedly embraced the local and seasonal when it comes to produce. Great Street had the butternut squash with its scallop. G.E.B. served pumpkin soup. Xoco’s dessert of tres leches cake was accompanied by candied red kuri squash.
Surprising to me was The Purple Pig because their dish was not pork. It wasn’t even meat. They served salt-roasted beets with pistachios and goat cheese. This was delicious. The salt roasting made the beets slightly less sweet and mildly salty. Though the goat cheese-beet combination isn’t edgy, it continues because it works. The salt roasting was a nice innovation on a classic.
Sure, there were dishes for standard meat eaters, like the crispy pork belly tacos from Hub 51, and house made country paté from Bistronomic. Saigon Sisters had a braised short rib that was so tender I could cut it with the edge of a plastic fork. Great Street had a beef cheek pierogi that melted in my mouth. All tasty, but standard.
Not so standard were two sausages, one alligator, one snail. Chicago’s Dog House served the former with braised onions and a nice sauce. Pretty good.
The plating award (again, no such awards were given out) goes to the Publican. I suppose since Chef Paul Kahan was being named as Chef of the Year that very night, he felt he had to show off what he can do. Or he really is that good. Snail sausage may or may not sound appetizing to you, but I promise it looked appetizing. The sausage slices were served with persimmon, dino kale, and hazelnuts. The sweetness of the persimmon along with the slight bitterness of the kale complemented the sausage well. If no one had told me it was snail, I’m not sure what I would have thought the protein was. Doesn’t matter, it was good.
The French Pastry School is doing something right if its students can create what was available at the dinner. There was a multi-layered, fruity, creamy, crunchy square of perfection I wanted to crawl into it was so good. I refrained myself with just one portion.
Not so with the school’s chocolates. Tiny bombs of sweet. But not too sweet, since the chocolate was clearly of the high cacao variety. I had more than a portion of the chocolates and even snuck some into my purse for later.
Bittersweet’s caramel apple almond tart with salted caramel sauce seemed “healthy” with all that fruit and all those nuts. Those are good for you, right? Very good, though serving the tarts with a fork was completely unnecessary, as each tart could be neatly consumed out of hand after a dip in the sauce.
While I already mentioned it, Xoco’s tres leche cake deserves another mention. By the time I heard the magic words, “tres leches” I was quite full, but I couldn’t help myself. Even bad tres leches cake is good, but this was not bad. It was delicate, moist, topped with crunchy toasted coconut and accompanied by that flame red candied squash so I ate every bit.
The Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame Dinner was a delight. Congratulations to all of the inductees who make eating out in Chicago such a great experience.