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City's Elite Chefs Delight and Overload the Senses at Chicago Gourmet 2012

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Chicago Gourmet 2012 kicks off
Chicago Gourmet 2012 kicks off

Eater Chicago correspondent Daniel Zemans braved the lines and masses at Chicago Gourmet to deliver this report.

[Photo: Daniel Zemans and Andrew Stamm]

This weekend Millennium Park was transformed into the high-end gustatory Disneyland that is Chicago Gourmet. For the fifth year in a row, the area east of the Bean was home to a who's who of the city's culinary elite, with virtually every prominent area chef in attendance. The event, which ran six hours on Saturday and five on Sunday, featured small plates from around 160 restaurants; wine, beer, and liquor samples from hundreds of producers, dozens of seminars, cooking demonstrations starting every half hour on one of two stages, and a host of seminars and book signings.

Seeing, eating and drinking everything was simply not possible. The flip side of that was there was really something for everyone. There were people determined to try as much food as physically possible, more than a couple people who took full advantage of the unlimited supply of alcohol, starstruck fans eager to meet their favorite chefs and a contingent of people who may have been there more for the scene than the food. Between the prices ($159 for a day or $265 for both), corporate sponsorships, and the see-and-be-seen element, snark from some quarters about the event is expected. But as West Randolph Street proves every Saturday night, passionate food lovers and social butterflies can eat together in harmony and sometimes they are actually the same people. Whatever it is that brings people to Chicago Gourmet, the success of the event is undeniable. Tickets this year were the most expensive to date, but this was also the first time the entire weekend completely sold out.

And those who took the plunge were rewarded with clear blue skies and temperatures in the mid-70s to go along with a breathtaking array of food. With very few exceptions, each chef made a dish that was not available in his or her restaurant. The event afforded them an opportunity to show off to a crowd of potential customers who have announced their willingness to spend a decent chunk of money on food, and most chefs seemed to take it as a personal challenge to try to make something that stood out from the crowd. And because each chef brought around 1,500 servings for their respective session, eager diners had no problem sampling everything they want.

The whole event provided a bit of a sensory overload, but a few dishes really stood out from the crowd. I thought the best bite of the event came from Chef Paul Fehribach of Big Jones. He served a house made benne cracker made from heirloom sesame from the Sea Islands and topped it with housemade pimiento cheese, housemade andouille sausage, a pickled shrimp, and a sweet green tomato piccalilli. Other standouts included:

· Lobster rillettes on homemade Ritz crackers with pepper jelly and fennel from Jared Van Camp of Nellcôte and Old Town Social
· Sixteen's Thomas Lents' chestnut soup with pumpkin foam and foie gras
· Chilled corn soup with vanilla oil and shrimp and corn relish by Ryan Poli of Tavernita
· Mario Santiago of May St. Cafe made a guava jalapeno dulce de leche flan
· Butternut squash bisque with maple infused bacon and a spiced pecan from Red Door's Troy Graves
· Milk chocolate croquette with banana marshmallow, rosemary infused caramel and arbequina olive oil from Mercat a la Planxa

Culinarily speaking, the lack of any noticeable trends was striking. Sure there was an overarching emphasis on local and seasonal food, but for most of these restaurants that's moved from trend to simply how things are all the time. Compared to past years, there was a massive drop in the use of pork belly, particularly as the centerpiece of the dish. I'm not close to ready to declare the bacon trend dead (and Baconfest will certainly sell out in minutes once again next year), but even the most devoted pig eaters had to appreciate the diversity of meats at Chicago Gourmet.