I shared an Uber ride to Chicago Gourmet 2016. The rider I was matched with turned out to be a smartly dressed and well manicured woman in black sunglasses the size of saucers. As we sat together making small talk, she asked me where I was headed that Saturday morning. When I told her I was on my way to Chicago Gourmet 2016, she pulled off her shades. I could see her eyes well up with tears. Turned out Chicago Gourmet was her late husband’s favorite event every year. In an ever shrinking world that is Chicago, it turned out I knew her husband, the owner of legendary Redhead Piano Bar, Art Bryan. Art passed away last April, she told me. Then she pulled out his picture. Would I mind taking him with me to the festival? Would that be crazy? Crazy, maybe, but I didn’t mind. So, I tucked Art into my purse, and away we went.
Bon Appetit‘s Chicago Gourmet is a feast for all senses, an amusement park for the palate. It is the celebration of all things delectable, and food and wine junkies flock from near and far to taste a bite of this and sip a bit of that. The fact that pricey tickets sell out every year several months before the festival date is proof positive of the event’s popularity. It is well earned, however, it is easy to understand the attraction. Champagne? Right this way. Steak is your game? Try this one. BIG red wine? Chocolate? Seafood? Whiskey? All are well represented here. There is truly something for everyone.
This year I started my festivities at the opening press conference. Milling about the stage at the Pritzker Pavilion was a veritable who’s who of Chicago. Celebrity chefs fresh off the TV screen, political dignitaries, famous journalists, editors of glossy magazines, food photographers and socialites were all represented. The opening remarks were spirited, full of good humor and fueled by champagne. Truthfully, any press conference where chilled flutes of bubbles are passed out would eventually turn into a party. This one was no exception. We toasted the festival. We toasted its first ever host chef Rick Bayless. POP! go the bottles! Remember that time Mayor Emanuel traced a smiley face on the sweating chilled golden bottle of Ace of Spades champagne? Yes, indeed. Thus started my day at Chicago Gourmet 2016.
With Art tucked away in my purse, I had a lot of ground to cover. After all, I promised his widow to take him with me everywhere, and I never break my promises. I walked down seemingly endless rows of all things delicious, this cornucopia of flavors and aromas. Where to first? Well, champagne has always been MY game, so a tour of bubbles was first on my list. And Chicago Gourmet did not disappoint. Chilled bubbly of all types and hues winked at me from every direction. Nicholas Feuillatte, Chandon, Luc Belaire, Anna de Codorniu… Possibilities were seemingly endless. But when it comes to Chicago gourmet, every year my heart belongs unequivocally to Roederer Estate sparkling wines from Anderson Valley in California. Their booth, manned by the same two dapper gents every year, was the highlight of my annual bubbly tour. Brut and rose, non-vintage and vintage, these sparkling wines are spectacular. Just like old friends, we go way back. And I return for yet another sip every year.
When it comes to food, nothing is out of reach at Chicago Gourmet. Some of my favorite bites were the crowd pleasers, some flew under the radar. Gibsons brought the heat with their outstanding filet mignon sliders, the festival’s signature. Supreme Lobster tent impressed with their stellar rotation of chefs and seafood dishes, and sported the longest line. I enjoyed the pork belly meatballs from Hutch; while not the prettiest, they packed a wallop of flavor. I never miss duck from Maple Leaf Farms, and this year was duck bacon with apples and brie, yum. I also discovered truffle sauces from Urbani, three in all, white truffle-porcini being the favorite. Organic tofu bite with papaya slaw and herb salad from ShopHouse Kitchen, Chipotle’s new Southeast Asian sibling, was a welcome fresh and light surprise.
While not the Sporty Spice, I do love throwing parties, so I stopped by the NFL Homegating booth to check out their build-your-own-slider shindig. I even caught the Mayor giving it a whirl, building his own slider. The fun interactive experience started out with the choice of veggie or beef patty. The plethora of condiments and toppings was on hand to help customize each creation. Why have a menu when you’ve got your imagination?
As the day wore on, the flavors started to blur together. They often do at this foodie marathon. I opted to end on a high note, however, with a toast to my unexpected companion Art. He loved BIG reds. So, in honor of him I raised a glass of Cabernet amid the bustle of his favorite festival. I could see now why he loved it so much. Cheers to Art, a fellow bon vivant and a kindred spirit, who undoubtedly is smiling down at me as I write this. See you next year!
Bon Appétit’s Chicago Gourmet takes place every September in Millennium Park in the heart of Chicago.
The Local Tourist’s press access courtesy of Isabelli Media Relations.
All photos by Gourmet Rambler.
In memory of Art Bryan (1960-2016).
“Welcome to my world!”