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A Weekend of Glorious Culinary Excess at Chicago Gourmet 2013

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

[Photos: Marc Much]

In what now qualifies as an annual tradition, Millennium Park was once again the focal point of Chicago's culinary scene this weekend when the Illinois Restaurant Association and Bon Appetit put on Chicago Gourmet for the sixth time. As has been the case every year, this year's event was the biggest one ever. Around 175 Chicago-area chefs participated, which is way up from just over 80 in 2009. And as usual, alcohol was abundant, with more than 100 wine and spirit producers joined by a few breweries.

In addition to five (Sunday) or six (Saturday) hours of unlimited eating and drinking, attendees got their fill of cooking demos, panel discussions, seminars, and, for those so inclined, chances to rub shoulders with celebrity chefs.

While there were undoubtedly some in attendance primarily to learn, others just to socialize, and still others only looking to drink, the majority of people arrived fully committed to eating more than they knew they should.

From about a dozen very different versions of ceviche to Sumi Robata Bar's concoction of grilled beef, quail egg, and a whole lot of umami; from eight or so pates on homemade breads and crackers to Big Jones' rutabaga soup with candied apple, puffed barley and pea greens; and from Café des Architectes' collection of sweet and savory macarons to Farmhouse's "Brown Dog Farm Apple Study" (apple puree, apple gelee, pickled apple, apple chip and black walnut cream), the variety of flavors was as impressive as ever.

At this point the event is a fairly well-oiled machine. With the restaurants spread across 11 tasting pavilions in each of four sessions, the lines were rarely longer than five-to-seven minutes. At times, especially in the first and last hour each day, there were no lines at some pavilions. On the other hand, those foolish enough to get in line at 3:30 on Sunday afternoon at the Supreme Lobster & Seafood Co. Tasting Pavilion (the biggest tent, home to six restaurants per shift) had to wait 32 minutes.

But the lines, which gave people time to digest, were made easy thanks to easy access to booze, some passed food, and the generally very friendly crowd. In two full days, only one person was witnessed cutting in line, but Mayor Emanuel clearly had the permission of his escort, Restaurant Association President Sam Toia, and everyone else was still able to get their hands on the same Terry's Toffee that caught the mayor's eye.

As has been the case every year, Chicago Gourmet featured the Grand Cru, an attached but separate event where guests sample high-end wines and spirits. This year the Grand Cru also included food from chefs at 10 of Chicago's Michelin-starred restaurants and 9 equally accomplished chefs from around the world, with half the group in attendance each day.

Chef Ángel Vázquez of Intro in Puebla, Mexico served a braised short rib in mole poblano with banana vanilla, orange puree and micro greens. Cured halibut with oyster cream, fake corral, sugar kelp, trout roe with salsify, pickled red onion, apple, dill, and oyster cress was made by chef Tommy Raanti of Gastronomisk Institutt in Stavanger, Norway.

Of the Chicago chefs, Takashi Yagihashi stood out with a lightly smoked crudo of salmon wrapped around homemade tofu and served with pickled lotus root and a soy-ginger sauce. Graham Elliot also wowed attendees with his twist on a Fig Newton, which invovled foie gras torchon, figs, and sea salted shortbread, and a pistachio crumble.

While all this was impressive, the elephant in the room is the price of attending. Those who pay for tickets are spending a good chunk of money (a significant number of attendees—primarily media and guests of sponsors—do not pay). Including fees, one day at Chicago Gourmet costs about $180 and the Grand Cru is another $220 per day.

How much is a few hours of unlimited quality food worth to you? In a city where people paid $135 for a ticket to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night and where thousands are going to pay the $215 face value of prime Bulls tickets this season (much more for floor seats), it's tough to argue that the culinary event of the year is overpriced.
· All Chicago Gourmet Coverage [-ECHI-]