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Can Chicago's Shoulders Support Multiple Food + Wine Festivals?

Chicago Food + Wine Festival debuts this weekend in Lincoln Park.

Tim Love
Tim Love
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Though the Chicago Food + Wine Festival and Lollapalooza share similarities, including the same organizers, there's not much concern over liquor gardening this weekend in Lincoln Park. The attendees at the inaugural Food + Wine fest are a bit older and more refined than the Lolla crowd.

"That's not going to be a problem at Chicago Food + Wine," said Charlie Jones, co-founder of C3 Presents, the group organizing the festival.

Liquor gardeners are those who buried alcoholic drinks in Grant Park before Lollapalooza and then dug the ground up during the festival so they could have cheaper booze and get by security. Jones called them "crafty kids," but the demographics are different at the Food + Wine festival, which starts on Friday and goes through Sunday in Lincoln Park (tickets available here). Eager to establish an identity in their first year, Jones said the festival is buttoned down, and all about having a good time.

His crew will take all tips and feedback from media and festival goers to build a successful annual event, as Food + Wine expands their festivals into other cities. The magazine's festival circuit includes Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. The latter is where Jones and his C3 Presents team have experience organizing.

"Chicago is one of the great culinary cities in America, if not the world," Jones said. "The city can probably handle four or five different types of food and wine events, and when we discussed this one with Food + Wine magazine, this was a market they really wanted to be in, we have great relationships here with the city, and we wanted to bring in a first-class event."

Like Lollapalooza, Jones envisions crowds walking around one side of the park to another, to see chef demonstrations, not bands. But it's a smaller scale, as Lincoln Park will max out at about 2,000 attendees per day. They've signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Park District through 2017, and are comfortable with Lincoln Park. They used the same venue throwing Chipotle Cultivate, the chain's fest that roams around the country.

Jones expects tourists to make up about half the crowd at the three-day festival, which certainly makes Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his cohorts at Choose Chicago happy in their quest to boost culinary tourism. That's one of the difference between Food + Wine's event, compared to Chicago Gourmet, which takes place next month and is sponsored by culinary magazine rival Bon Appétit. Jones feels that Chicago Gourmet — a larger event — has a more local focus.

"I see these types of events almost like you would see great restaurants on a restaurant row," Jones said. "The more good restaurants that are in a specific area, the better for all of them."

That's not to say Food + Wine is ignoring the local talent. Stephanie Izard (who is offering a sneak peak of her upcoming Duck Duck Goat menu), Graham Elliot (who also curated the food offerings at Lolla), Jimmy Bannos Sr. and Jr. and Art Smith are among the guests making appearances. One of the chefs from outside Chicago is Tim Love. He's a partner of Austin's Food + Wine Festival and official chef of the Austin City Limits Music Festival (another C3 fest). Love is eager to share some of that good time in the Midwest, but understands it's a different market.

"There's been a couple of articles that have been written that there's a big shortage of cooks in the world, that nobody wants to be a cook anymore, they want to be on TV and all this other crap," Love said. "I think in Chicago there's a lot of great cooks, and I think it says a lot about the city, about the people."

Love wants the festival to help cultivate young talent to help train future cooks and culinary workers. They'll disguise learning as fun, but there will be more of an emphasis on education in future years. This weekend, Love and company want to establish themselves with a crowd-pleasing debut. He suggests guests to check the event's website and carefully plan their days.

"Throughout the day, you're not going to believe how much food and wine and cocktails are available to you at your fingertips," Love said. "You have to use some real discretion about how slow you have go through because you're going to get so excited about what's available that you can over extend yourself very quickly."