This past weekend’s Chicago Gourmet event must already be the most-blogged local food event of the year, with the Stew and Gapers Block averaging about a dozen posts apiece, and several other sites not far behind. So far, though, nothing I’ve come across has used to word “clusterfuck” to describe the event. Which is strange, because it’s been running through my head all weekend.
There were minor snafus stemming from lack of organization that I’d be inclined to overlook, considering that it’s the first year the event’s taken place and the PR firm coordinating it was brought on board just three weeks ago, replacing the original team. But the main issue was a lack of food–and for an event that costs $150 per day and bills itself as a gourmet tasting event, that’s a pretty big problem.
At the main event there were about a dozen tents and four chefs’ tables offering food, mostly small tastes of one dish. A few offered more than one thing, like the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and Fox & Obel (although I couldn’t figure out a good way to try Fox & Obel’s olive oil and vinegar with bread, since there were no plates on hand, just napkins). By contrast, there were several hundred wines from more than 75 wineries and distributors. Lots of very respectable names, too, from Cakebread to Caymus–but if this was supposed to be a wine festival with a little food and some cooking demos, it should have been advertised that way. As it was, by 2 PM Saturday there was a long line at every stall serving food.
And the quality of the food? Not bad, especially compared to what was served at the opening night reception (more on that later)–but mostly not life-changing either. The rotating format of the chefs’ tables, though, meant that to taste food from all the big names on the bill–like Stephanie Izard, Mindy Segal, Graham Elliot Bowles, and Kendal Duque–you’d have to be there for about five hours both Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t have that kind of stamina, especially since I seemed to be burning more calories walking around and standing in line for food than I was consuming–I actually got hungrier the longer I stayed.
Despite the long lines the crowds didn’t seem overwhelming, but there were still a few issues with overcrowding, complicated by poor communication among the staff and volunteers. Arriving to a seminar a few minutes late, I was told by the volunteer outside that I couldn’t go in because they were “at capacity” and weren’t letting anyone else in–which seemed strange to me when, having argued my way in with the help of my press pass, I slipped into one of a half dozen empty seats in the seminar room. I realized later that it was also the entrance for the demo viewing area (the volunteer didn’t ask where I was going), and apparently watching Mayor Daley cook halibut was extremely popular. But a woman who was trying to get in at the same time I was (less successfully, I think) was entirely unimpressed, and asked the volunteer why, when she’d paid $150 to get in, she couldn’t watch the cooking demo that was supposedly included. Not a bad question, but there didn’t seem to be an answer.
As for the gala reception Friday night, it was similar to the main event, but with less and worse food and wine (and tickets cost $250). Each of the half-dozen food tables featured a taste of one dish by a chef from one of Chicago’s “sister cities.” Other appetizers circulated occasionally, but never seemed to last long. And the food mostly ranged from mediocre to good, nothing I tried being really exceptional. One of my favorites was a tiny bison empanada–but it was no better than dozens of empanadas I’ve bought on the streets of Santiago for less than a dollar apiece. And I still don’t know what exactly was in a mini cheese ball covered with crushed nuts (maybe ricotta with hazelnuts), but I do know it triggered my gag reflex, and for about 20 seconds all my concentration went into getting it down instead of spitting it onto the floor.
Most of the food, of course, wasn’t that bad. But tables kept running out of the dishes they were serving, lines were long, and people seemed to get a little desperate when they realized how little there was to eat, descending like vultures anytime another bite of something appeared. Trying to cross the room at one point, my friend cut in front of a grandmotherly-looking woman waiting in line for food (because, of course, the line stretched almost to the bar). Thinking he was trying to get in front of her in line, she snapped, “What the fuck?!” Which was pretty much my reaction to the whole thing.