With a lineup filled with food seminars, cooking demonstrations, wine classes and a beautifully equipped Viking Culinary Stage at the Pritzker Pavilion, you would think that Chicago Gourmet would’ve been a Mecca for home cooks looking to jazz up their dishes. Think again. While some of the seminars were informative (most notably Greg Hall on beer and cheese and Paul Bartolotta on seafood), others were thinly veiled promos for books, products or restaurants.
The cooking demonstrations were almost entirely useless for the home cook. Even with mirrors above the ranges, the audience in the balcony had a hard time seeing exactly what the chefs were doing, making the event more about personality and spectacle than actual cooking. Recipes were not made available to viewers, making it difficult to remember exactly what was being cooked and impossible to replicate anything at home! Note to next years’ organizers: Fix this!
Because of health regulations, spectators were not able to taste the food; due to timing issues, many of the chefs were cut off mid-demonstration. Some chefs did provide interesting tips, though nothing particularly new. Aigre Doux's Mohammad Islam reminded the audience at his demo to always keep a sharp knife to avoid injuries and suggested that old dried spices could be revived by a quick toasting in a hot pan. Terrance Brennan, of Picholene and Artisanal Wine Bar, introduced the audience to Bottarga, a pressed and cured fish roe that can be sliced like salami.
One worthwhile seminar was with Tony and Cathy Mantuano (of Spiaggia) and their new cookbook, Wine Bar Food: Mediterranean Flavors to Crave with Wines to Match. Due to administrative problems, none of their sample food arrived, but their cookbook is a welcome change from the high-gloss-but-impossible-to-replicate-at-home restaurant cookbooks. One suggestion for home cooks was a “mozzarella bar,” an appetizer spread wherein a host would provide a number of different forms of fresh mozzarella and toppings, which could range from olive oils to caviar, allowing guests to experiment. This sounds like an excellent, low-labor home trick and we’re looking forward to trying it!
All in all, the event was much more about spectacle, celebrity and above all, wine than it was about home cooking. Perhaps this was as it should be – cooking lessons are much better taught in a small, intimate environment. However, there is a large market of home cooks who aspire to do better, and we hope that next year's Chicago Gourmet taps into this market.