WORTHWHILE OVERINDULGENCE AT CHICAGO GOURMET

Pope Gregory I once described five ways an individual can commit the sin of gluttony, and this weekend, I committed them all. But you won’t find me sprinting to the nearest confessional, dried barbecue sauce still smeared across my unholy cheeks. No, I don’t feel the least guilty, as I have waited nearly a month for Chicago Gourmet, an event where sobriety and slender waistlines go to die celebration of Chicago food and wine.

The amount of food and drink I consumed is mentally incomprehensible, morally disturbing, physically impossible. I’m talking about 150+ restaurants, 40 food and wine exhibitors, and 300+ different drinks. Besides wearing my extra stretchy pants, I didn’t have a game plan other than to storm the grounds of Millennium Park, grabbing whatever ceviche and cocktail was shoved into my hands.

In retrospect, it wasn’t the smartest game strategy. You see, my first bite on Saturday was an entire lobster roll and pulled pork sandwich from Porkie’s, all downed within five minutes. I then furiously made my way to the first gourmet tasting tent (with my Target tote to pick up swag, of course), grabbing corn tarts (Palmer House) and smoked marlin ceviche (NoMi). I made the Seafood Tasting Pavilion my next target, but was immediately sidetracked by Chipotle’s carnitas tacos, which I ate in line while picking up red pepper tarts (Black Dog Gelato) and root beer floats (Sixteen) from the Dessert Pavilion. The whole time, I was popping red velvet and vanilla mini-cupcakes (CS Magazine) like a drug addict with a bag of mollies. By the time I actually arrived at the Seafood Pavilion, I was already stuffed. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed my smoked buttermilk catfish (Trenchermen), braised pork shank and sweet potato polenta (Hyatt Chicago Mag Mile), and fantastic octopus and farro salad (312). Worried about long lines and precariously-balanced plates, I walked fast and ate faster, food spilling all over my clothes.

Almost two hours into Chicago Gourmet, I finally plopped down onto the red chairs facing the main stage. Twas bright and sunny, not overly windy, a delightful 78 degrees. I pulled out the event brochure for some light reading, only to discover with much dismay that I’d only eaten part one of the gourmet tasting pavilions. I realized each of the 11 Gourmet Tasting Pavilions (with 3-7 bites/per pavilion) had two rounds of tastings — new restaurants, new dishes, new reasons to grow a second stomach.

This was in addition to:
• 40+ exhibitors such as Lifeway, Target, and Labriola Baking Company, handing out delicious (often multiple) tastings of their food
• Global Market, which is just one giant Tasting Pavilion with 10-11 exhibitors
• All the drinking tents in the center of the Great Lawn, with their own array of charcuterie, rolls, and small bites

Undeterred by this realization, I braved through the rest of Saturday, though at a much slower pace. Barely-eaten sliders and half-filled cocktail glasses filled gargantuan trash cans, as others too struggled to get their culinary fix.

But on Sunday, I exercised more discipline by following a detailed game plan:
• To avoid the crowd, I targeted 10-20 restaurants most appealing to me. I then attended the live demonstrations and seminars while others waited in the long lines.
• To ensure maximal coverage, I picked up desserts that weren’t as perishable as ceviche, and ate them later.
• To save gastrointestinal space, I usually only ate half my dish and avoided samples like Archer Farms trail mix and Newton fig bars.
• To stay relatively sober, I drank sparingly and hydrated with lots of Fuiji-sponsored water.

Needless to say, I consumed enough food and drink to feed all of Sierra Leone for a year. I know I always overindulge at these events, but I set a new precedent at Chicago Gourmet that I probably won’t top until next year’s event. Among the cornucopia of food and culinary talent, I particularly enjoyed (and I’m not a snob about where the food comes from):

Meats

• Smoked catfish from Trenchermen: Topped with a refreshing zucchini salad, the catfish was marinated to succulent perfection.
• Seared rabbit sausage from South Water Kitchen: Among the more unique proteins I had, and the rabbit was cooked quite deliciously.
• Octopus and lentil puree from Stetson’s: The three layers worked perfectly together: crunchy salad, silky and savory puree, squishy and smoky octopus.
• Peruvian fish and corn ceviche from Tanta Cocina Peruana : You could actually taste the fish and corn, which is often drowned out in lime juice and sugary additions.
• Thai-inspired fish from Paramount Events: Topped with bird eye chilis and a creamy sauce, it
• Shrimp salad and avocado puree on crostini from Telegraph: Among the most flavorful crostini bites I ate — creamy, sweet, spicy, sour, it hit all the flavor profiles. The only dish I went back for seconds.
• Hot dog from Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap: Nothing beats a good hot dog with onions, nothing.

Vegetarian

• Roasted butternut and farro salad from Davanti Enoteca: Sometimes simplicity tastes the best — the sweet squash and farro just made absolute sense.
• Waldorf salad from American Craft: WTT am I doing wasting stomach space on salad? But dressed in a light sweet cream and topped with candied pecans, it was exactly what I needed.

Sweets

• Sweet corn panna cotta with panna cotta from Terzo Piano: The panna cotta tasted like a rich, sweet cream, which always pairs well with peaches.
• Pumpkin soup with housemade marshmallows from deca: This savory bite reminded me that Fall is just around the corner and that soup can be a dessert too.
• Root beer float with liquid nitrogen ice-cream from Sixteen: This fun little play on a dessert classic was a sight to watch as smoky liquid nitrogen poured out of my glass.
• Brown Dog Farm Apple study from Farmhouse: This delightful apple dessert was creative more than anything, which is an important part of the culinary experience.

But it’s not just the food that makes Chicago Gourmet the most enviable foodie event of the year. Attendees also enjoyed live cooking demonstrations, expert seminars, gourmet tastings, and book signings by renowned chefs and master sommeliers/winemakers. I saw (and admired) Art Smith, Hugh Acheson, Hubert Keller, Lorena Garcia, Sarah Grueneberg, Graham Elliot, Adam Rapoport, Gale Grand, and many other culinary greats. Strangely enough, Hugh Acheson’s unibrow is even sexier in person, and Hubert Keller may be the nicest man in the world. (He also made the best beef cheeks and polenta my taste buds have ever touched). I even met Gale Grand, exec pastry chef at Tru, munching on a lobster roll next to me before her demonstration — and yes, she’s one lovely woman.

I also managed to briefly chat with Adam Rapoport (editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit) and compliment LeeAnn Trotter (NBC5 reporter) on her cute pixie haircut. I don’t think any of the celebrities I met particularly gave a shit about some lowly journalist, but I cared. I cared, dammit. Finally, I attended a private Grand Cru event where I indulged in even more exclusive tastings, such as edible gold and truffled eggs.

You’re probably thinking: dear God, Judy — how did you survive? My answer: barely. But if I were to die anywhere and in any way, it would be at the food marathon that is the Chicago Gourmet, lying in fantastic pile of mushy polenta, dried pulled pork, and empty Vodka bottles.