Food and Wine Overload: Remembering the 2010 Chicago Gourmet Festival

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka the PRDude)

This past weekend (September 25-26), I had the great fortune of attending the third — and what I’m sure will be an annual event — Chicago Gourmet Festival, “a celebration of food and wine.”  Add beer and spirits to the tag line.

A kid-in-a-candy store event for grownups, the festival reinforces my fair city’s position as one of the top, most progressive markets in the world for innovative food and drink.  I’ll get the public relations-related perspective out of the way now, so I can comment on what I ate, drank and saw.

Events like this — held in our spectacular Millennium Park and framed by a breathtaking skyline — are “good PR” for Chicago, just like the celebration for the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago BlackHawks, which I blogged about in June.  It demonstrated that lots of people can get together for a common purpose, enjoy themselves and not cause any problems.   Well, unlike the BlackHawks party, which was free and reportedly drew 2 million, the Gourmet Festival cost $150 per day, or $250 for both days.  And, there was a Grand Cue event that cost more.

Apparently the organizers did something right: Both days were sold out.

My experience was from two perspectives: A volunteer on the first day, and an unabashed, no-holds-barred consumer of food and red wine (only) the second day.  My volunteer morning earned me the blue wristband that got me in on Sunday.

There are lots of other source for “how to” maximize participation — make that not be shut out of the good stuff — at the festival.  The Gaper’s Block blog addressed the event from a tactics and strategies perspective. And, the Chicago Tribune food critic Phil Vettel wrote a fine overview piece from a critic’s perspective.

S0 here are some random thoughts from a guy who takes his food and drink seriously.

  • The lines waiting to enter Saturday stretched from the entrance across from the Cloud Gate sculpture (otherwise known as “The Bean” to nearly Randolph Street.  Perhaps next year they can have two entrances.
  • My favorite sampling was a fork tender short ribs served with mashed potatoes from Tavern on Rush.  It was meat-and-potatoes elevated.
  • I sampled some excellent reds from vineyards I knew of and many that were new to me. But the best and most surprising wine was a Portuguese table wine served by a supplier hawking mostly, well, ports.  It was dry, with black fruit and some spice, medium-bodied and priced well at $12 per bottle.
  • As expected, there were lines, especially at the five main serving areas. But I struck up some great conversations with people; a sort of “community” was formed.
  • An event like this opens itself up to waste. But I didn’t see much food wasted; in fact, some chefs ran out of food — a good thing in some ways.  Rest assure, no one went home hungry.
  • Most of the spotlight was shown on the high-profile (I don’t like the word “celebrity”) chefs. But I was pleased to visit a separate tent featuring gourmet food products for sale from local producers.   These entrepreneurs give us amateurs the ability to cook almost like the pros.

As for next year, I plan to repeat the process — volunteer one day, enjoy the next.  Just thought of one more thing: I did not have to cook all weekend.

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