For the second year in a row, I got to attend both the Hamburger HOP and the Chicago Gourmet. After a long week, I’ll admit I was needing to rally a bit for a fun weekend of food, booze and emceeing some sessions.
If you’ve never been, the HOP is set in a unique Chicago location above the Harris Theatre rooftop in Millennium Park. The smell from the grills is intoxicating, if you’re a meat lover, and the smoke sets a perfect visual for the event. You wander around the 17 competitors tables trying small to medium to HUGE bites of burger all in the quest to vote for your fan favorite. To drink, you can enjoy Blue Moon on tap or a myriad of wine or cocktails. The thing that intrigues me most about the Hop is the lack of consistency amongst the burgers. A table one minute may put up a perfect burger and the next some slippery, overdone mess on a plate. I appreciate the chefs are feeding a ravenous horde of meat fans but if I’m voting and I get the garbage plate; it not only makes me not want to vote for you it makes me not want to go to your restaurant!
Having said that I did have some favorites, Kevin Hickey, Four Seasons, always seems to put out a good burger and a lot of food! Meg Colleran Sahs, Terzo Piano, also for the second year had a good burger. I liked the rye bun but it wasn’t patty melt like. The judge’s award went to Bandera which was another burger in my top three. The mix of pickled elements, salt and cheese went well and Chef Colleen McHugh deserved the accolades. The fan favorite came from Palmer House, located in LaGrange, for “the Benchmark Burger.” Their mix of promotion to get people to vote for them was interesting but I got to their burger early and honestly it wasn’t anything Benchmarking-ly good.
A note to the chefs for next year – please focus on the consistency and when you start putting on brisket, pork belly and god knows what else…it makes me think you’re hiding something or creating a grilled Dagwood! Less is more show a bit of restraint, pretty please.
The other cool thing about this event is that you’ll see some well-known Chicago Chefs wandering the crowd eating alongside you. Between us, I spotted two critics, I think!
With the second entrance added, the line to get in flew compared to last year and the lines inside the festival while present were moving thanks to the new shoot system and trays. It felt more spacious with things being pushed back just a bit more. The weather cooperated despite having to slog through some mud on Sunday. I heard some people complain about dessert and savory being mixed…mind you they were probably slamming Patron or some other concoction. When you attend these events you wander and nibble whatever is present at hand! A few chefs I said hello to also commented on how the event improves year over year.
I was a big fan of the new Culinary Showcase tent. Stella Artois was on tap, 3-4 restaurants were handing out plates, book signings and the demo kitchen was prominent for the chefs to drop some knowledge. I got to hang out and emcee some great chef demos thanks to: Randy Zweiban - Province, Michael McDonald – 160 Blue, Carlos Gaytan – Mexique, Mario Santiago – May St. Café, and Dirk and Terry Fucik – Dirks Fish. All the demos were well attended and it made me realize THIS is why Chicago Gourmet is focused on local. I’d bet a lot of people in the audience had never been to some of the restaurants but now they might try. It also demonstrated the camaraderie amongst the chefs in the industry that many food writers see on a regular basis. I got a warm feeling and it made me smile to see the chef’s enthusiasm be so palpable. I know they’re good restaurants, other food writers know they’re good restaurants but in a finite space of print journalism these guys might not get as much press as the usual suspects.
The other two sessions I worked with were Peter Scott – CEO Premium Port Wines and Joe Spellman – MS at Justin Vineyards. To very packed sessions, these geniuses in their field entertained and taught in a really down to earth manner. When some ask or joke it’s not gourmet? These guys raise the bar in a big way. If you take the time, you can make the event highbrow.
I also got a few seconds to watch Jonathan Waxman – Barbuto in NYC, demo and he was awesome. Just as sarcastic as his TV appearances but so knowledgeable he delivered the quote of the weekend – “Tasting while you cook separates the children from the adults.”
You’ll see this week and next 20 Questions with Adam Rapoport – Editor at Bon Appetit, and Andrew Knowlton – Restaurant Editor at Bon Appetit. I’m looking forward to next year and seeing how the event improves to make it an even better weekend.
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at email@example.com. Joe is retained as a compensated blogger by Pei Wei Asian Diner and also contributes to Eater Chicago.