Chicago Gourmet, the city’s upscale food festival drawing in the best restaurants and chefs from in and out of town, returned over the weekend hosting several events at the Harris Rooftop Theater at Millennium Park including the ever-popular Hamburger Hop. The cooking competition took place on Friday, September 22 to a sold-out crowd, showcasing the burger-flipping talents of 15 chefs from mostly Chicago restaurants, but there were a few visitors including a Seattle chef who crashed the party.
While the People’s Choice and Judge’s Choice prizes typically go to two different winners, this year was notable in that both trophies went to a single chef — Shota Nakajima of Taku in Seattle. The Top Chef Portland alum made a Osaka Burger with a patty from Slagel Family Farms, tangy kewpie mayo infused with yuzu kosho cilantro, and a daikon carrot pickle. It was a hit among attendees who were more than willing to drop their bottle caps from beer sponsor Blue Moon into the voting bucket at his table after sampling
“I just feel blessed,” Nakajima tells Eater. “I cooked something that I and other people really liked. Chicago’s the best.”
Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat) played host for the night’s festivities and for the panel of judges, which included chefs, restaurateurs, and food media members such as Chicago dining editor Amy Kavanaugh, the 2023 People’s Choice winner Corey Grupe of Burger Federation, and Manny’s Deli owner Dan Raskin.
“I personally woke up this morning and I was hungry already,” Izard says. “My body knew that it was time for this annual event where I get to sit with some of my amazing friends and eat 15 burgers.”
The annual event is a great opportunity for some of the most beloved chefs and restaurants in and around Chicago to flex their take on the burger — while taking some very creative liberties with the ingredients and fixings for their entries as well. Often, this results in some eyebrow-raising offerings from unexpected sources including Lou Mitchell’s. The legendary West Loop diner’s chef Nick Thanas made a Spicy Sweet Powdered Hole Burger that included a classic Lou Mitchell’s donut hole speared to the top of the burger. Djibril Webb, executive chef of Mordecai in Wrigleyville, served up an elevated take on a burger dubbed the Sweet Cheek Burger featuring pickled pepper, scallion aioli, and the eponymous beef cheek jam. Meanwhile, Tao’s Amanda Barnes served up a Korean-inspired take on the burger that included kimchi cucumbers, miso cheese, and a black garlic burger sauce.
The energy of the Hamburger Hop always feels more akin to a family reunion and a cookout all rolled into one, as music hung in the air along with the clouds of charcoal smoke from the constantly burning grills, giving friends in the industry to get together and enjoy the dog days of summer in Millennium Park — all with a healthy dose of competition of course.
“The chef community in the Chicago area is like none other,” Chris Curren, founder and chef of the Graceful Ordinary in suburban St. Charles, tells Eater. “It’s so fun to get to see old friends who we haven’t seen in a while. It’s also fun to compete a little bit with people that you know and respect and love. The energy of the event itself is just a lot of fun.”
“It’s a full circle moment for me,” Dominique Leach, founder and pitmaster of South Side BBQ staple Lexington Betty, tells Eater. “I used to work this event so many times as sous chef for [catering company] Paramount Events, and it’s my first time representing myself and my restaurant. It just feels amazing.”
Leach, who is fresh off a win on the Food Network’s BBQ Brawl, seemed to exude enough energy to light up the Prudential Building across the street. As she talked to Eater, she’d periodically stop to cheer and thank attendees who dropped their bottle caps into their bucket, or to simply chat with her fellow chefs who stopped by to say hello and snag a selfie.
“It’s a day of celebration,” she says. “We get together. We celebrate each other. We celebrate our companies and all the hard work we put into them every day. It’s a great group of chefs — some of the greatest in the world. I’m so happy to be from Chicago.”
Visiting chefs often attend food festivals like Chicago Gourmet thanks to event sponsors who want a table or booth to put their brand in front of customers. There was a little shock in the crowd that a Seattle burger won, but at least there was no arguing that the judges were homers.