I missed the first two years of Chicago Gourmet (year 1: maternity leave, year 2: vacation, if you must know), so I can't make comparisons between this year's fest, which ended Sunday in Millenium Park, and past seasons.
And I don't care to make the comparison, as others have, to this being the real Taste of Chicago. (Isn't that an insult to the Eli's Cheesecakes and Robinson No. 1 Ribs of the world who've been around for decades and, year in and year out, cater to the masses in Grant Park?)
Nope. Chicago Gourmet stands on its own, in beautiful Millenium Park, as a wine and food festival (emphasis on wine; more on that later) for the gourmands in all -- make that, some -- of us. At $150 a pop, this is not a fest for everyone, and the crowds that strolled the grounds could best be described as well-heeled.
This year, the festival, conceived and organized by the Illinois Restaurant Association, had an big, bold sponsor next to its name -- Bon Appetit magazine -- which added a certain degree of cachet. And attendance this year, organizers say, was up 25 percent to about 10,000 attendees -- which was very clear to those hoping to actually eat something.
There is an incredible amount to see and drink and attempt to eat at Chicago Gourmet. In addition to straight-out tastings, there were food and wine seminars, cooking demos on different stages and book signings. It can be overwhelming, for the eaters as well as the chefs. There were even more chefs added to this year's lineup, to balance out what in the past had been described as a major wine-to-food imbalance, but even if you were a newbie, like me, things still felt a tad askew.
Standing behind his station in one of the tasting pavilions, Urbanbelly/Belly Shack chef Bill Kim looked out at a line that stretched further than he could see -- a line I'd fell into for the tail end of one tasting session, and immediately re-joined for the next session, a strategy which, it turns out, wasn't so original -- and let out a bemused gasp. "Whew. That's a line," he told me. Kim said he'd limited himself just to cooking under this one tasting pavilion this year. "It's too crazy" to do more, he said.
For those who moved through this particular line, under this particular pavilion, it was a good little moment: five dishes from five restaurants (Kim's Urbanbelly, plus Arun's, Le Colonial, Boka and Japonais), right in a row. Arun Sampanthavivat smiling at you as he hands you a plate of satay and cucumber salad -- not bad. But you could only hold so many little plates, and so many of us in line resorted to wolfing down what we could as we moved through. And then, your moment was over.
A friend described the scene under another pavilion as more chaotic, in that there wasn't one continuous line, but rather several separate ones, and it was difficult to see which chef and restaurant you were getting in line for.
If there's a solution to line management at Chicago Gourmet, I don't know it. Lines are inevitable anytime you get thousands of people in one venue. The attitude to take here: Resign yourself to the fact that you're going to miss out on some things. Chicago Gourmet is about Chicago's vibrant culinary scene happening right now and the people shaping it (with some out-of-town celebs thrown in to impress the easily impressed), and getting a taste of all of that under one Frank Gehry-fied "roof."
Another moment: The line at one of the two dessert tents stalled for a bit, as Eddie Lakin of Edzo's Burger Shop hurried to pour shots of his now-signature Nutella shakes. As I got closer, I saw what the hold-up was: a young woman just chatting up Lakin about his hard-working vintage Multimixer machine. He was laughing and waved a goodbye as he handed her a shake, and then she was off and the line was moving again. We all got our shakes.
Finally: It is very easy to get sloshed at Chicago Gourmet. No lines there.