This weekend provided several reminders of how important Chicago Gourmet is to the city in their quest to draw tourists by showcasing Chicago's culinary culture. Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a surprise cameo Saturday afternoon jumping in with Rick Bayless during a cooking demonstration. Emanuel stood relaxed among friends and cracked jokes. The crowd seemed to provide the mayor with some validation, as this is Chicago Gourmet's eighth year and guests gobbled up tickets at a record pace.
This year provided that familiar mix of corporate opportunity and culinary curiosity. Target Corp. provided the former as the chain made sure every attendee went home with red-branded bags. Target also set up a large tent with food on the fest grounds. No, it didn't lend any clues on to what's going on with the Streeterville location and their wine bar. Instead they served food prepped from the store's frozen food line.
Culinary curiosity came in many forms, including Friday when Kuma's Too took home the Hamburger Hop's people's choice award for their Sovereign burger. The secret? They swapped the bottom bun out for a waffle topped with syrup providing both a crisp crunch and a sweet compliment to the savory beef patty that was topped with chicken. David Burke's Primehouse's won the 15-restaurant competition's judges' prize with a porchetta burger (smoked giardinera, porchetta, broccolini, Italian jus mayo, aged Provolone).
The afterparties continued to impress. Saturday night's inaugural Punch Kings, Pigs 'n Tiki featured 10 of Chicago's most-esteemed mixologists in competition to whip up the best rum-based punch bowl. Lee Zaremba (Billy Sunday) won for his concoction,"Puka's Empire" (Cruzan Diamond Estate White Rum, Cruzan 151 Falernum, pineapple, kiwi, lemon, ambergris laced honey, Jamaican seasoning and aromatic bitters).
There were a few new additions this year. Food from the Green Egg Tasting Pavilion showed that the smoker isn't just for meats. Using indirect heat, they made s'mores sitting in sugar ice cream cones as a sweet treat to complement some baby back ribs.
Abraham Conlon and the crew from Fat Rice had quite a spread that was hard to miss, with Conlon dubbing it "a Macanese buffet." Sausages and savory pastries were part of the smorgasbord. Conlon also shared that work continues on the Fat Rice cocktail bar that will neighbor the restaurant. They're targeting to open by New Year's Eve.
With eight years of experience, Chicago Gourmet, and chief sponsor Bon Appétit, have a firm understanding of the city's market. Not only did they attract national guests like Emeril Lagasse, but they managed to please locals. Sunday featured a gourmet hot dog talk with Kevin Hickey (The Duck Inn) and Doug Sohn (Hot Doug's). It's always important to pander to your audience.
Sam Toia, the president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association
and the city's tourism arm, Choose Chicago also went the extra mile. He sat at the festival's exit during closing time on Saturday to make sure no guests brought their alcohol outside of the fest's grounds. That task is seemingly reserved for security, but no one — especially not Toia — wanted any alcohol open-container citations issued by Chicago's Finest.