In lieu of the annual Millennium Park food festival where hungry fans can go ham on samples and chit chat up close with some of the city’s most well-known chefs, Chicago Gourmet has made its 13th year a mostly-virtual one, a shift for the $200-a-day weekend of eating, drinking, and cooking demos.
The event won’t cost the same this year (prices range from $50 to $175 for the dinner series; it’s $20 to watch a virtual demo; meal kits cost $210). Organizers have worked out riffs on the festival’s usual structure, like a tweaked Hamburger Hop — this year called “Can’t Stop the Hop” — featuring 100 local restaurants. It’s more of a jaunt than a hop this year, as participating establishments offer the chosen burger on their home turf. This year’s tastings come in the form of multi-course dinners at 10 restaurants from September 14 to 30, including Carlos Gaytán’s Tzuco, Michelin-starred Japanese fine dining restaurant Yugen, and lauded Southern American Hyde Park restaurant Virtue, where chef Erick Williams will host a “Dinner in Black” to honor the memory of George Floyd. Diners are required to dress in all black for the occasion.
Williams’ approach underscores the strangeness of the moment — a food celebration happening in the midst of both a pandemic that’s brought sweeping restaurant closures and a national reckoning over racism and police violence against Black Americans. The hospitality industry is facing a reckoning of its own, as allegations against prominent chefs have again brought issues of prejudice, abuse, and appropriation to the forefront.
These issues permeated the James Beard Foundation’s decision to forgo its awards. Chicago Gourmet organizers announced changes to this year’s festival in June due to the pandemic. Organizers maintain that they never seriously considered canceling the event.
“Through the process, our team never used the word ‘cancel’ — we had to find another way,” Illinois Restaurant Association President & CEO Sam Toia writes in an email. “During a period underscored by great loss, challenges, and uncertainty, we wanted the industry to feel supported and celebrated.”
Toia also attributes the decision to move forward to the money the Hop and dinner series raise for the Illinois Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (IRAEF) Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, a new non-profit that will to provide one-time $500 grants to restaurant workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, are a caregiver for an immediate family member with the virus, or are quarantined with a doctor’s note. Workers who have been unemployed for three weeks or more with no unemployment benefits are also eligible. Applications, available in English and Spanish, should open in October.
Chicago Gourmet seems to have stepped up efforts to include more racially diverse pool of chefs than in past years, and Toia plans to create how-to videos and collaborate with community organizations to reach marginalized workers with the relief fund. Still, less than 10 percent of the 100 restaurants in this year’s Hop are BIPOC owned, and 4 percent are owned by Black Chicagoans.
According to Toia, festival organizers held an open call for any restaurant throughout Chicagoland. They also used email and social media to share e-blasts about the Hamburger Hop, reached out to restaurant owners personally, and researched lists of BIPOC-owned restaurants from Black People Eats and the city’s Invest South/West initiative, among others.
Just last year, an ugly incident after Chicago Gourmet between the staff at Mi Tocaya Antojeria and chef Jimmy Bannos (Purple Pig) shined a spotlight on diversity. The Purple Pig does not appear on the list of participating restaurants. Mi Tocaya does.
“During this historic moment in our nation, organizations are being called upon to reflect, listen, learn and meet the moment,” Toia writes. “This time has certainly propelled us to think more deeply and continue to develop new participation, partnership and resource opportunities, both now and long into the future.”
Update: This story now includes comments from Illinois Restaurant Association President & CEO Sam Toia.
And in other news...
—Vandals didn’t like an anti-racist art display in Bridgeport, hosted by Marz Community Brewing’s Ed Marszewski. Marszewski took to Facebook to write how the vandals shattered glass windows at his Co-Prosperity Sphere, just down the street from his family’s culinary complex (Maria’s Community Bar, Kimski, Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream). The display contained yellow neon signs with references to anti-Black incidents that have happened across the country: “I can’t jog,” “I can’t kneel,” “I can’t watch birds,” and “I can’t breathe.” The vandals knocked out the lights in the last display, and Marszewski writes: “Looks like my installation is complete now. Some MAGA types in a black suburban SUV pulled up at 1:15 am [Wednesday], stopped, got out of their car and threw a fire hydrant cap into the window. Block Club Chicago summarizes the incident with one of the best headlines of the year.
— Michelin-starred Korean-American restaurant Parachute from James Beard Award-winning chefs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark has launched a charitable partnership with acclaimed Seattle Korean restaurant Joule. The West Coast spot will feature Kim’s iconic bing bread, stuffed with potato, bacon, white cheddar cheese, and scallions. Proceeds will go to women in the hospitality industry, according to Eater Seattle. The initiative, called “Dining in Movement,” is designed to foster collaboration among chefs from different cities. It’s part of a larger project from Kim, a nonprofit she’s working to establish called the Abundance Setting. She plans to use the organization to help support mothers working in various parts of the food and beverage industry. Parachute has been closed as the owners take a break and is scheduled to reopen next month.