Over the weekend, Chicago Gourmet returned to Millennium Park after a pandemic year hiatus and the party was smaller than other years. This year, the main event didn’t make use of Millennium Park. Instead, it was mostly confined to the Harris Theater rooftop with two sessions of the VIP Grand Cru, where exclusive wine makers pour beverages in a section north of the park’s stage.
But there were beaming smiles, reunited friends, and a sorely needed celebration of Chicago’s food scene. Chicago Gourmet, now in its 14th year, has become both a tourist attraction and a place where the city’s best chefs can promote themselves through cooking demonstrations, panel talks, and with special bites. This year, Grand Cru tickets cost $255. Next year’s event will hopefully revert to multiple dates with tents set up on the park from September 23 through 25, 2022.
Guests needed to bring either a printed copy of their COVID-19 vaccination record or a copy of a negative novel coronavirus test taken within 72 hours. Unvaccinated attendees were required to wear masks.
The Grand Cru took place on Saturday with two sessions and attendance was strong thanks to the weather. The night before, the festival brought back its popular Hamburger Hop event. Last year, the hop was a virtual event where customers could order carryout from participating restaurants. This year, the pre-pandemic format returned with chefs creating special burgers in a judged competition. In a lesson from last year’s take-out only event, the burgers will be available for purchase at participating restaurants for the duration of September.
About 70 restaurants competed and from then two were named winners. Chef David Wang, who handles operations for the Toasted Hospitality (Slightly Toasted, Lightly Toasted, Asadito, Wok n’ Bao) took overall honors with “You Quiero Pambazo.” The burger featured queso fundido con chorizo, escabeche relish, shoestrong potatoes, on a Turano Baking potato bun. Wang took double honors in the People’s Choice category, which was determined by ticket holders.
Prior to Friday’s event, Chicagoans had a chance to buy the burgers and vote online for their favotire. Epic Burger chef Nick Barnhart was for the mini-chain’s Jalapeño Cheese Bomb Burger with two-smashed patties with jalapeño cream cheese, fried shallots and bacon with veggies and “fiesta” ranch.
Below, take a look through some of the pictures from Saturday. Eater Chicago staff also offers a few observations from the event.
It’s certainly a victory for Choose Chicago and the city’s food industry to be in the position to throw this type of party during the pandemic. There are good vibes in sharing face time with chefs like Thai Dang, Stephanie Izard, Sarah Grueneberg, and Joe Flamm. Chicago Gourmet added an infusion of new talent including Justice of the Pies Maya-Camille Broussard, along with the team behind 14 Parish, the Caribbean restaurant in Hyde Park. A worker shortage forced organizers to scale down this year’s event — many restaurants didn’t enough staff to bring to Millennium Park. It also affected who showed up when: Staff from smaller restaurants rushed back to their venues after the early session ended at 5 p.m. Not that they’re not immune to labor conditions, but it was reps from many of the larger companies: Gibsons Restaurant Group, One Off Hospitality Group, Boka Restaurant Group, which had presences at the later session. The big dogs just have more resources to cover dinner service. — Ashok Selvam, editor
The surest sign of a classy wine tasting is when the wineglasses get washed out with Evian. There was actually a semi-logical reason for this: there was no running water in the tent, and Evian sponsored the event, so there were plenty of bottles around. Still. This was the most ridiculously delightful sights of the afternoon. But there were some sublime moments, too, especially Sarah Grueneberg’s mozzarella, served pure and unadorned without extra salt or oil at the Monteverde table: only after appropriately savoring it were tasters supposed to chase it with a shot of tomato sauce. — Aimee Levitt, deputy city editor
Chicagoans have now had several months to reacquaint themselves with social mores, and the Grand Cru crowd resumed juggling wineglasses, tasting plates, and sample packs of Martha Stewart-branded CBD gummies with ease. “Martha does it all!” the vendor gushed. Despite the imperfections — a few smashed wine glasses, a huddle of excited bees hovered around the Luxardo tent — but patrons seemed largely unperturbed, happy to tip back tastes of port and repeatedly loop back to Stephanie Izard’s table for a bao or five. — Naomi Waxman, reporter