Phil Vettel of the The Chicago Tribune described the The Bon Appetit’ Chicago Gourmet Show as the “Disney World of food and wine.” Like the famed theme park, there are so many attractions to experience it is nearly impossible to do it all. When it comes to delectable cuisine served by the city’s top chefs and eateries, this is a good problem to have.
I discovered just how pleasantly overwhelming this event, held last weekend in Chicago’s famed Millennium Park, can be to your senses of taste and smell. After waiting 45 minutes in line just to get through the entrance, I was enamored by all the aromas emanating from the food tents.
There were 11 tents, each with three or four restaurants at a time serving a single sample of a signature dish. Every few hours, another set of eateries rotated into a tent. I had not enough time or room in my stomach to sample everything, but I explored as much as I could. Nothing disappointed.
My first stop was the Target tent. Best to get the big box retail food tastings done before the restaurant chefs could entice me. Besides, it was the largest tent right inside the front entrance. Target provided a variety of small bite foods from packaged prepared sauces to crackers and chips. They were good, but that wasn’t the reason to go to this show.
My next stop was, out of curiosity, the Buick tent. How Buick relates to a food show mystified me until I discovered their free samples of a delicious honey lemonade, served with a complimentary mason-type jar.
I sampled many dishes, from a wonderful, very fresh Ceviche from NoMI Kitchen to a pulled pork sandwich fed to me by Porkies Pig Roast that was tender, juicy and properly smoked.
For my next course I inhaled some duck breast tacos served by Maple Leaf Farms, which has produced quality duck products for 55 years. Though the variety of tents made it tempting to avoid eating one dish twice, those tacos were too enticing to turn down a second helping.
I also couldn’t help dining twice on braised Wagyu beef ribs provided by Kinzie Chophouse, arguably the best steakhouse in the Windy City. Somehow I still had room for a chicken sandwich that rocked my taste buds with unexpected spice. Even the pickle slice served with the sandwich exploded with flavor. There were rosemary green olives that were just full of fresh flavors that just don’t marry well in my mind but definitely worked on my palate.
In addition to the cuisine, celebrity chefs were on hand for talks and demonstrations in two areas of the grounds. I saw Chef Takashi Yagihashi along with his colleague Chef Hideaki Matsuo work their magic. Chef Takashi owns two restaurants in Chicago and one at the Wynn in Las Vegas. He was also on Top Chef Masters on Bravo TV.
Chef Matsuo, who spoke through an interpreter, broke down a whole salmon, sliced the tenderloin into sushi sized pieces, then smoked them in a stovetop smoker manned by Chef Takashi. While the smoker was working, Chef Matsuo made an elaborate garnish with cucumber, carrot, and some microgreens. Once he plated, the edible artwork was the image of mountains with pine trees and chrysanthemums. And he did it all in 20 minutes.
I also observed Gale Gand and Sarah Moulton, two chefs I have watched for years on the Food Network. They have been close friends for many years, which was evident by the way they interacted on and off stage. As they cooked, they told stories of working for Julia Child at various points in their careers. Their segment was 30 minutes of wonderful stories and cooking, and it felt like you were sitting around their home kitchen drinking wine and chatting while making dinner. Sarah made duck breast in a pan sauce and Gale made a puff pastry tart that smelled wonderful and tasted even better.
There were copious amounts of spirits to quench my thirst in the midday sun. Absolut, Stella Artois, Svedka, and Mionetto occupied large tents with lines of people waiting for mixed drinks. Many of the smaller tents featured beverages in small batches, from vodka to wine to beer. Infused drinks were very popular as well, some with fruit and others with herbs. I sipped a wonderful lemonade cocktail.
Bon Apetit’ and the Illinois Restaurant Association put together a truly enjoyable show and the restaurants cranked out large quantities of small bites in very short periods of time.
I would definitely attend again next year, but this time I would bring my wife to enjoy it with me.
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