Recap of Chicago Gourmet 2011

Better crowd management techniques, more effective use of the space in Millennium Park, and a solution to the plate/wine glass balancing act were just a few of the many improvements to this year’s Chicago Gourmet. After four years the improvements are welcome, but is this luxury festival of wine, food and chef access worth its price tag? Let’s break it down.

Downsides? With the prominent addition of Target, more commercial presence of alcohol lines like Patron and Blue Moon, and decidedly out of place Dominick’s and Buick booths, both the “Chicago” and the “Gourmet” parts of the festival seem to be stretching more towards “National” and “Mainstream”. If this is what they need to grow I understand, but it makes me sad when we have so many local talents that need to be highlighted.

The festival also uses a lot of paper and plastic — each plating of food and most of the spirits seem to require its own vessel. I was hopeful when we were issued wine plates, but they weren’t meant to stop the waste stream. Better recycling is still needed.

This was the first year the festival had rain to contend with, turning the grounds into muck. Most people sensibly wore boots, but it still wasn’t fun to walk around. That’s the chance you take with an outdoor festival, but as a citizen I’m a irked by how torn up the park looked by Sunday evening.

Upsides? The Grand Cru wine event moved from the cramped Choral Room to the roof of the Harris Theater. There was room for more people, more vendors and a gracious lounge space. I liked local sommeliers presenting wine choices at Grand Cru, too.

The elevated areas on the sides of the park were also converted from demo spaces/tasting pavilions to seminar spaces/vendor booths, preventing line back-ups. Entrance and exit gates around the other tasting pavilions also helped considerably. It was crowded, but felt more manageable than in recent years.

The things that worked well from previous years were carried forward. The presence of local chefs like Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard, Jimmy Banos, and more remained high. Between book signings, cooking demos and tasting pavilions, the festival is still a great way to talk to favorite chefs and discover new-to-you restaurants in the area. I definitely added a few restaurants to my list after trying their food at Chicago Gourmet.

Verdict? I think Chicago Gourmet is extremely worth it for one day, but more than that depends on your tolerance for crowds and ability to negotiate two plus days of rich food and drink. I know Saturday sold out months in advance — and it was chocked full with more local talent than Sunday, but the more sedate pace of Sunday is something to consider as well.

In all, a great event. I look forward to seeing Chicago Gourmet continue to improve and grow.

I was invited as a member of the media to cover Chicago Gourmet for free.

  1. Lori left a comment on September 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Considering you got in free, you did not really address your own question. Did you think it was worth the price non-media types paid? I volunteered the last two years to enjoy the festival for free because it is a hefty price to pay for my meager salary. This year they changed the volunteer requirements (instead of working 3-4 hours, each person was to work an 8 hour shift which meant going downtown twice if I wanted that free admission).

  2. Tammy left a comment on September 28, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    Fair enough. Though it’s still an expensive event and there are alternative ways to experience the chefs & their food, I think this is the first year that it’s delivered the value to match its price point. I’m not sure there would be a way to deliver this event in a similar location with as much talent and have it be any cheaper. My concern for the event going forward is fostering the gourmet nature & showcasing Chicago talent while fending off the corporate food & wine sharks that smell blood in the water. I anticipate Chicago Gourmet will change and worry that we’ll see back-sliding into more Target-esque vendors and even more Chefs pimping for companies like Buick, etc.

    Have things peaked and it won’t be as valuable next year? Hard to say. There was a reduction in volunteer opportunities to attend the event as well as a reduction in the number of days local bloggers were invited to cover it. Does this signal a shift in focus from Chicago to more of a corporate-style event? I’m trying not to read into it, but it’s a concern. Maybe Chicago Gourmet is satisfied with their standings in the food festival marketplace, and don’t feel the need to establish themselves quite like they once did. My two cents…

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