While Chicago's restaurant scene has gained international culinary respect amongst food writers and gourmands, has it earned the reputation through its annual food festival? I would have to say yes and so would others. This past weekend at the Pritzker Pavilion, you saw the growth of the Chicago Gourmet festival and the palpable enthusiasm for our cities restaurants.
Thousands flocked and got an opportunity throughout the day to try food from a variety of local restaurants, wine from all over the planet and what seemed like every liquor brand imaginable. The educational demonstrations were also a big hit and well attended. I got a chance to walk through before the crowds and see the setup and sneak a glass or two of some great wine. I didn't get to sample food before anyone else as the local chefs were set to go at noon and not before. No cheating promise!
The weather was cooperated and everyone seemed to have a smile amongst the tents. The décor and setting though made me feel as if I were transported to some posh location outside Chicago. I enjoyed walking and tasting wine and getting the chance to speak to those who represent the vineyard and sell it on a regular basis. You could ask a question and get an educated answer and probably more information then you wanted. It wasn't an environment where some random volunteer or hourly worker poured your glass and had no clue what was in the bottle.
At noon, the general admission crowd opened the festival and the food tasting began. It definitely changed the atmosphere quickly and for those waiting in line they came hungry, thirsty and enthused for the day. One friend waited in line to enter but got through in about 20 minutes. Considering she started past the bean it could have been far worse!
I asked Graham Elliot how his day faired. He was told to have 1,000 portions for their two and a half hour time slot but were out in ninety minutes! They whipped up an additional 200 and again were out in another thirty. Yet, he had only positive praise saying, "The event has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception, and is now the premier, food and wine event in Chicago." Sentiments echoed by Phil Vittel of the Chicago Tribune when we caught up for a quick chat.
Some food was better than others and that was only to be expected. A few people have criticized the organizers for poor planning and overcrowding the event by selling more tickets which led to long lines. I have to agree the lines were evident but I think the blame is to be shared and not the blame of any one group. The Illinois Restaurant Association, host, could have planned the spacing better but with the growth can you really know what to expect until the day? Chef's could plan for a dish that is quick and easy to plate and ensure they have enough staff and volunteers. One critic pointed out that the Frontera Grill line was 500 deep for guac and tacos. Of course the Rick Bayless line was going to be epic, but how don't you plan to have stuff preplated, like the chips, so the line can move faster? Some lines moved faster then other because while the food may have been overly simple it didn't take a thousand steps to get to the plate.
You could see groups breaking up and getting a few tastes for each person and meeting to discuss what they'd found. Considering the mass of people and each spot providing a plate or cup with spoon, the trash situation could have been a disaster. Yet it was quickly picked up and didn't pile up for long. You could also seek out spots throughout the venue to sit and chat away from the lines or near the small trio of jazz.
The specialty food pavilion was also a nice touch to see some of the industries newest small label products. There was an opportunity to taste and rate them if you wanted. While none were earth shakingly amazing, it was interesting to see what was coming or currently on the market. One that confused me claimed to give you the seared flavor in "spice themed style" (Greek, Italian, bbq.) It was basically a spice blend for chicken that kind of gave you a sear flavor without the high heat crust. The woman at the booth was very enthusiastic and nice and because of that I couldn't ask the question, "But if I just heat the pan or grill really hot with any other spice blend how is that different?"
I left before sneaking in to the Grand Cru pavilion where the uber-wine was being tasted. I was tired from the Hamburger Hop the night before and snuck out for an afternoon nap and some college football.
Personally, I think the event has outgrown the space it's been using at Pritzker. Perhaps taking over more of the area or moving the event down to Grant Park might be better for next year if they plan on keeping the same number of tickets or growing the festival in 2011. The move could allow for more growth and potentially better space usage. I don't think the ticket price needs to change and the Groupon (sponsor of the event) offered for Sunday was no different than 2009s Sunday promotion, offering a reduced ticket during the specific summer time period.
I'm planning on meeting and getting some thoughts from the Illinois Restaurant Association to get post event specifics on attendee numbers and how many people used the dine around, their thoughts on the line issue and possible solutions for next year, and what charities were benefitted and how. I was surprised to hear that Saturday and Sunday attendance numbers were pretty much equal. What was the Groupon effect to that?
I look forward to seeing the event grow adding to Chicago's food mystique. No one can say it wasn't a fun way to spend a weekend while waiting for the Monday night Bear-Packer game!