COVID had forced Chicago Gourmet to scale back its event for the last two years, but this weekend was a return to form for the food festival and its auxiliary events like the popular Hamburger Hop. A sold-out crowd on Friday, September 23 packed the Harris Rooftop Theater at Millennium Park for the hop, a cooking competition featuring 15 chefs plating up creative spins on the namesake dish.
The People’s Choice segment of the competition was spread out in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic with diners encouraged to order the burgers directly from the restaurants over the course of weeks of online voting. This year, the in-person event was back and attendees once more voted by dropping bottle caps from beer sponsor Blue Moon into buckets at the chef’s table. Even Mayor Lori Lightfoot appeared.
“Every time I come to this event, it gets better and better and better,” the mayor said in her opening remarks. “That’s because of our incredible restaurateurs who are so amazingly creative and have bonded through the toughest of times. I’m glad to say that I know you’re back and we’re trying to do everything we can as a city to make sure you stay back, you grow, you flourish. The customers are coming back. We’re breaking records in the number of people who are coming to our city. What that means for you is butts in seats in restaurants and that’s what we want.”
The judging panel of chefs and journalists included former Chicago Tribune food critic Phil Vettel and Virtue chef de cuisine Damarr Brown. The Best Burger award went to Corey Grupe of Burger Federation, but diners will need to catch a flight to try his work. The restaurant is located in Terminal 3 of Chicago O’Hare International Airport. His entry, “The Little Miss Figgy Burger” combined sweet and creamy camembert and fig fondue with a bit of heat from bacon vindaloo and pickled pepper relish.
“It’s utterly amazing,” Grupe says. “We just kind of had fun with it. I love figs. It’s sweet, spicy, hotness. I did not expect to win. It’s such a great event and it’s so much fun. I just love coming to things like this.”
They beat out other remarkable offerings including a thick lamb burger covered in charred feta and tzatziki sauce from D’Andre Carter of Soul & Smoke and an Italian spin from Gene & Georgetti’s Cristiano Bassani that effectively put a Caprese salad on the patty along with just a taste of truffle butter.
James Beard Award-winning chef Kwame Onwuachi, who is working on opening a new restaurant in New York, took home the People’s Choice prize with a burger featuring gooey taleggio cheese and smoked mozzarella and a generous serving of freshly grated truffles. Working as a brand ambassador for event sponsor Lexus, he was set up at the entrance to the event apart from the other contestants and also dishing out chili honey eggplant and banana pudding.
“I just wanted to do something a little different to stand out from the crowd,” he says. “I knew it was going to be good.”
The hop customarily levels out the playing field by requiring competitors to use patties from Buckhead Meat (part of food distributor giant Sysco) and buns from Turano Baking Co., though they took plenty of liberties with their preparations and condiments. Rohini Dey, owner of Indian-Latin fusion restaurant Vermillion, went particularly wild with an ode to Chicago deep-dish covered in Indian butter chicken tomato sauce and masala fries plus rojo chimichurri slathered on the bottom bun. TriBecca Sandwich Shop’s Becca Grothe went with one of her popular menu items, the Sloppy Joe-like deconstructed patty Midwest classic “Maid Wrong Burger.” Bar Goa and ROOH chef Sahil Sethi didn’t compete but still had a spot in the main tent to provide some solace to vegetarians in the form of a spin on an Indian street food snack: fried potato chaat flavored with fennel, mint, tamarind, and grape chutney and topped with crispy bits of fried chickpea flour.
Beyond the hop, Chicago Gourmet’s two Grand Cru sessions on Saturday, September 24 were sold out, as was a new event on Sunday, September 25: an Oktoberfest celebration called Prost! in the Park.