I had the incredible opportunity to work the red carpet and interview local Chicago chefs and celebrities at Chef Judson Allen’s first annual Chef Blend Weekend in January. The purpose of the event was to eradicate childhood obesity and celebrate locally grown food and restaurants.
This event really was a treat, as local restaurants, bakeries, wine brands, and foodies from all over Chicago came together for an evening full of flavor, music and fun. One highlight of the event was seeing Chef Judson’s team surprise him as they revealed a picture of him on the cover of Cuisine Noir. He had no idea that he was going to be on the cover. I love seeing nice surprises.
I also had a ball interviewing Alderman Bob Fioretti, and cutting the rug with him on the red carpet. Who knew that he could dance? You’ll see a couple of his moves in the video below – at the 2:07 mark. Fun!
Check out the event video footage, and be sure to look out for Chef Judson Allen’s Chef Blend Weekend next year!
The Chicago Auto Show is hosting the First Look for Charity event on Friday 2/13, and I’m so excited that I was invited to attend as a food blogger. I had no idea that the Chicago Auto show hosts this fabulous event every year. Who knew? Not me, apparently…
This black-tie event is held at McCormick place with gourmet food and drink, and a sneak preview of the Chicago Auto Show, all in the name of charity. 18 local charities will benefit from this event, which raised $2 million last year.
I was invited to a media preview event, and the food that will be at this event is truly going to be a treat, as you can see from the pictures below. Zed 451 (one of my favorites), Roy’s, Real Urban Barbecue and Adobo Grill are just a few restaurants that will be represented.
In addition to the delicious food, guests also get to roam around the auto show, which will feature live music, and there will also be a Ford Explorer & Ford Fusion given away at the event.
The great news is that there’s still time to get tickets! To get in on all of the fabulosity,
I had the opportunity to interview Sam Toia, the President of the Illinois Restaurant Association during the Chicago Gourmet show, and learned that Chicago Gourmet was key to helping Chicago to host the James Beard Awards it’s 25th year (after being held in New York for the past 24 years). Impressive! So, how did that happen?
Below are my interview highlights from my chat with Sam Toia:
Q: What has Chicago Gourmet Done for the Restaurant Industry in both Chicago and in Illinois?
A: “We are bringing the James Beard Foundation Award ceremonies here in May, and it all started with Chicago Gourmet. It started 7 years ago, and the talent that we have in this town from Rick Bayless, to Stephanie Izard to Graham Elliot is phenomenal. We are able to showcase to the city, the state and the rest of the country that our homegrown talent is as good or better than they have in New York, San Francisco or LA. There are over 180 chefs participating in Chicago Gourmet, so just by that fact you see that every chef wants to participate in Chicago Gourmet.”
Q: How does Chicago Gourmet benefit Chicago from a Financial/Tourism standpoint?A: “The Mayor is working on getting 55 Million visitors a year to the city of Chicago by 2020, and it looks like we are closing in on 50 Million in the next year, so we’re getting close! When people look at what city they are going to travel to, 38% look at the restaurants in that town. They may say “I want to go to Mexique, I want to go to Grace, I want to go to Stephanie Izard, Frontera…Alinea…” – so they look at the restaurants and then make the reservations to come. The front half is business, but the back half is tourism. Chicago Gourmet shows how great the homegrown talent is here, and it’s getting bigger and better every year, and attracting more visitors. It’s great for the industry, the tax base, the restaurants, the museums, and it’s one of the cogs in the wheel to bring more people to Chicago.”
Q: This year, Chicago Gourmet is sold out and the demand is off the charts. Do you have plans to grow it, add more days, etc.
A: Absolutely, we are always looking to grow. We will definitely sit down and go back to the table. We need more real estate. Over the weekend, we bring in about 12,000 people between the Hamburger Hop, and Saturday and Sunday at Chicago Gourmet.
Q: What big things is the Illinois Restaurant Association working on for 2015?
A: “We are bringing the James Beard Award ceremonies here. It was 24 years in New York, and it’s the first time they are out of New York in their 25th year. The James Beard awards are like the Oscars of the food industry, so we will be working on that, and it’s the first Monday in May. We will be working on that as soon as we wrap up with Chicago Gourmet with the ChooseChicago tourism arm here in the city. We are working very diligently on the ceremony coming in May.”
Erica: “Wow – That’s taking Chicago’s food scene to a WHOLE new level – Having the Beard’s here after 24 years in New York? How did you do that?”
Sam Toia: “There had always been rumbles about moving to San Francisco, or another city, and Mayor Emmanuel reached out and said that it would be great to have the Beard’s here, so we had great cooperation from City Hall and Choose Chicago, and we made our presentation to the Beard Foundation. With the homegrown talent here, it just made sense. San Francisco was trying to get it, and we got it before San Francisco.”
So, there you have it. Chicago should be proud. Keep an eye on the James Beards in May – I know I will be! In the meantime, check out the delectable bites I had from our amazing homegrown talent in the best food city in the world – Chicago!:
[caption id="attachment_827" align="alignleft" width="640"] Lemon Olive Oil Cake from Acanto
Bourbon Mousse with Smoked Bourbon Sugar Bacon from the Dawson
Roasted Apple Ice Cream Taffy Apple from Mindy Segal
This past weekend, I had the honor of representing the Common Threads Associate Board on ABC7 News to talk about the upcoming Common Threads Cook-Off on Thursday, October 7th. See below for the video of the coverage on the event. What a great experience!
Front lobby of ABC 7 Studio
Me and chef Terry Fucik from Dirk’s Fish before our appearance
On October 2nd, culinary creativity will shine at the Common Threads Cook-Off. Chicago’s top chefs & mixologists will create and serve their favorite dish from the garden, the pasture, the seed, the barn or the barrel, while guestsvote for their favorite in each category.
Dirk and Teresa (Terry) Fucik of Dirk’s Fish are one of the +30 chefs competing in thiscompetition, and discussed some of their thoughts around Common Threads, the event, and the competition.
Q: Why are you involved with the Common Threads Cook-Off?
A: Terry and Dirk love children, and have been involved with Common Threads in many aspects, including volunteering in the after-school program with the kids as guest chefs, participating in the World Festival Fundraiser, and volunteering at the Ronald McDonald house. Terry loves teaching and enjoys seeing kids so excited and eager to learn about healthy cooking and eating. She especially likes teaching kids about different cultures, (i.e. how to cook Senegalese Stew) and how food unites us as the human race. She can personally identify with the kids because she taught herself how to cook and started cooking for her family when she was 12. She came from humble beginnings, so she can truly identify with what the kids may need, and appreciates that the recipes are accessible and affordable. “Common Threads is doing it the right way.”
Q. Which category have you selected for this competition?
A: “From the Barn” using Farm-Raised sustainable and certified fish. There is a lot of public misconception around fish farms, and Dirk’s Fish likes to educate people that fish farms are ok, as long as they are farmed properly. It’s not possible to meet consumer demand for fish without farms, as our oceans and lakes are starting to become depleted of natural resources. Just like beef and chicken are farmed, fish can be farmed too. There are good and bad farms for fish, just as there are for other proteins. Dirk and Terry choose farms that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, which focuses on sustainable seafood.
Q: What is your strategy for competing in the Cook-Off?
A: People are so into burgers these days, and they like eating them with a fried egg and a slab of bacon on top, which can sound like a heart attack on a bun. Dirk’s Fish wants to represent the burger in a completely different way, where it’s extremely tasty, and flavorful, yet really healthy. When people hear the word “burger”, they are more willing to try different types of fish, so this competition will feature a fish slider.
You are invited to try Dirk and Terry’s fish slider and the culinary creations of +30 additional chefs & mixologists at The Common Threads Cook-Off at Revel Downtown on Thursday, October 2nd at 6:30pm. We wish Dirk and Terry the best of luck!
Duck is not typically a go-to, everyday food that people eat. In fact, most people don’t even think about duck as an option, except for the holidays. This all changed for me when I attended Duck University for food bloggers, sponsored by Maple Leaf Farms in Indiana. I was excited about this opportunity because I knew very little about duck, and had certainly never cooked it.
Me outside of the Maple Leaf Farms HQ – About to head in for class!
This experience was set up like a real university. The first stop was a tour of the feed mill, where we saw how they make duck feed from scratch. They take incredible care of what goes into the feed, including protein, vitamins and minerals so that the ducks can be healthy and strong. They go through rigorous testing to make sure that the feed is safe for the ducks.
Duck Feed – Full of vitamins and minerals
We then visited a duck farm where the ducks were raised. Biosecurity is a major initiative for food safety and disease prevention, so we were instructed to wear special suits and dip our feet into a foot bath before walking near the ducks.
Dressed in our Biosecurity suits
The conditions are clean, and the ducks have plenty of room to frolic about. Maple Leaf Farms partners with over 150 local farmers to raise their ducks, which is great for the communities. The last stop on the tour was the duck processing plant, where they say it is as clean as a hospital. It was reassuring to see the USDA inspectors right there on the line.
Afterwards, we had a classroom-style session.
Did you know….
– Duck Fat is a good fat – It compares favorably to olive oil in terms of the mono-unsaturated fatty acid oleic, and the poly-unsaturated fatty acids linoleic and linolenic acids
– There are various breeds of duckwith different flavor profiles. Maple Leaf Farms raises the White Pekin duck, which is more mild and less gamey than some of the other duck varieties.
– Maple Leaf Farms is the #1 producer of duck in the U.S. with about a 75% market share, producing 13-15 Million ducks annually? (They are like Tyson Chicken, but for Duck)
– Duck is a red meat – It has a different muscle structure than chicken, and it is cooked more like steak vs. chicken. It’s not prone to salmonella, so it can be cooked to medium/medium rare for the best flavor and texture.
My favorite part of the evening was the 5-course duck dinner, where every course had duck, including the dessert (with Duck Bacon). I told chef Dale Miller that I could die right then and be happy, because the food was so creative and tasted AMAZING!
Roasted Eggplant Tomato Bisque with Duck Confit and Frizzled Leeks
Salad with Smoked Duck, Compressed Watermelon, Heirloom Tomatoes
Grilled Duck Breast with “Ramp Charmoula”, Warm Tuscan Potato Salad, Roasted Sweet Corn Crema and Seasonal Vegetables
Gruyere Popover brushed with Duck Fat
Warm Peach and Blackberry Crisp with Almond Duck Bacon Streusel & Vanilla Gelato
Erica Williams and Chef Dale Miller
A lot of people have had bad experiences with duck in the past, saying that it has tasted oily or gamey, but I did not have this experience at all – the flavor is mild, and I did not have any oily aftertaste from anything I ate. It truly depends on the breed of duck, and how it is prepared.
Celebrity Chef Sara Moulton (from Sara’s Weeknight Meals on PBS) also gave a cooking demo on how to cook duck breast, which was much easier than I had originally thought. It really is as simple as scoring the breast, cooking it with the skin down, flipping it over, and cooking it to the desired temperature. It needs to be a little bit pink for the best dining experience. Sara joined us on our tours, and it was fun to hang out with her – she’s very smart and talented, and we were honored to have her accompany us.
Me and Celebrity Chef Sara Moulton
Celebrity Chef Sara Moulton providing a cooking demo on how to cook duck breast.
In addition to this amazing experience, I was able to network with about 19 amazing food bloggers that were inspiring and a boatload of fun!
Now that you are a little bit more familiar with duck, I would highly encourage you to experiment with it. The easiest way is to try some of the pre-cooked products, like the appetizers (potstickers, spring rolls, quesadillas), or the roast half duck. Then you could move to cooking some of the other items on your own, like the duck breast, and if you are ready for the big leagues, you can roast a whole duck. If you can’t find the products in the store, you can always order online http://mapleleaffarms.com/shop and they will ship it on dry ice to your house, or you can ask the meat department manager to order it in for you.
I’m happy to say that I’m a proud graduate of Duck University, and I have a diploma to prove it!
Attending Duck University has broadened my horizons and I now consider duck to add to my current cooking routine – I hope you will too. Stay tuned for future posts with recipes and ideas.
I had the rare opportunity to be an Official Sprinkles Taste Tester at Sprinkles Cupcakes with about 20 other bloggers (shout out to Windy City Blogger Collective) and below are a few things I learned “backstage” that most people don’t know:
I’m an official Sprinkles Taste Tester! Dream come true!
1. The cupcakes are hand frosted with a spatula (not a piping bag), and there is a specific style of frosting the cupcakes so that they all look so elegant and delicious:
o Dollop a big hunk of frosting on the top. Smooth it flat with a spatula, then smooth it out on the sides.
o Create a sprinkles swirl on the top and add the signature candy piece, or dip the cupcake frosting-side down in a bowl of sprinkles.
I learned how to do it, but my cupcakes didn’t look like theirs – it takes a lot of practice to make cupcakes as perfectly beautiful as theirs. In fact, they have a “cupcake graveyard” for cupcakes that don’t make the cut. It’s all about quality control, folks! (My cupcake would have gone to the graveyard).
My attempt at decorating a cupcake sprinkles style…
Still tasted good…
2. They really do use quality ingredients. If you see a strawberry cupcake, they put real strawberries in them. This is why they taste so good. The chocolate that they use is high-quality stuff. Sprinkles doesn’t play…
High Quality Chocolate. Only the best!
3. Sprinkles now offers MINI CUPCAKES! It’s nice to have options. The frosting is piped on these because they are so small.
4. The Sprinkles Cupcakes bakers can frost about 35 cupcakes in about 6-8 minutes. Impressive!
5. There is a Sprinkles cupcake jingle that’s actually kind of hot. It has a rap verse in it & you have to listen. It’s a catchy tune, and you will probably find yourself randomly humming it – or you will sing it while you are eating one of their cupcakes…
I’ve been a fan of Sprinkles after I had my first bite of their vanilla cupcake when they first opened the Chicago location. I always like to judge a good cupcake shop by the vanilla flavor – if they can make a good vanilla, everything else should taste amazing. My other favorites are the Strawberry and the Cinnamon & they are always introducing new seasonal flavors.
Sprinkles put the gourmet cupcake trend on the map and they continue to innovate with their cupcake ATM and amazing flavors. These are just a couple of reasons that there is always a line out the door that I will GLADLY stand in. If you’ve never been, check it out – you’ll be singing that jingle in no time!
This is just a little bit bigger than my KitchenAid mixer at home…
Cupcakes waiting to be frosted
Cupcake box with a special message for mom!
Keeping it real with actual Tequila in the margarita cupcakes
My new t-shirt that I will wear proudly
Our group of Taste Testers from Windy City Bloggers!
Photo Credit: Windy City Blogger Collective
This past weekend, I attended “A Charitable Confection”, which was a dessert-centric fundraiser to benefit a charity called Project Orange Tree. As a food blogger, I received complimentary admission to the event, and I want to share these amazing dessert finds that you absolutely need to know about:
– Brown Sugar Bakery – Brown Sugar is a classic – you really can’t go wrong with Brown Sugar Bakery, especially if you like southern desserts like sweet potato pie, peach cobbler, banana pudding and caramel cake. Stephanie the owner is really sweet, and will work with you on custom orders. This bakery won the Best Bakery award on Steve Harvey in 2013 (you can see the clip on their website at http://www.brownsugarbakerychicago.com, so if that doesn’t tell you anything, then I don’t know what to tell you!) Brown Sugar is truly a Chicago staple.
– Yum Squared Bakery – Yum Squared is a great place for you to go if you need dessert catering for an event. I had a wonderful strawberry champagne cupcake – it was the perfect consistency and the flavor was just the right balance of not being too sweet. I also tried the salted caramel chocolate cake, which tasted just as good as it looked. They offer organic ingredients and also have vegan and dairy-free options, which is a nice touch. http://www.yumsquared.com
– Spin-Spun Gourmet Cotton Candy – Have you ever had salted caramel cotton candy? Probably not, but let me tell you- it’s the best cotton candy I’ve tasted! It’s all-natural, so it doesn’t have the colors that typical cotton candy has (it’s all white), and the flavors were not typical of cotton candy flavors. A couple of other flavors that were on the menu included Coconut and Tabasco-Watermelon. Very creative, and something to keep in mind for a little something different at a party. http://www.spin-spun.com
– BAKE is a bakery in Wicker Park that focuses on classic American desserts, including Whoopie Pies, Pop Tarts, Cookies, Cakes and Pies. I purchased the pretzel cookie, because I love cookies and it looked interesting and I could only imagine the sweet and salty flavor. I could tell that this cookie was made of high-quality ingredients. Check them out at http://www.bakechicago.com.
– This Jam is the JAM! If you like homemade jam and preserves, definitely check out Pear Tree Preserves. I tasted an apple caramel jam that they had, which led me to purchase the strawberry citrus jam. I liked some of the different flavors that they have, including cherry citrus and honey blueberry. I had some of the strawberry citrus jam on my toast for breakfast, and it was delightful. It mainly has a strawberry flavor with a hint of orange, making it taste really fresh, like you just tasted a little bit of summertime. You may find them at a Farmer’s Market in Chicago, and can check out their website at http://www.peartreepreserves.com.
I know that these places will satisfy your sweet tooth because they certainly did for me. Enjoy!
*This blog post is dedicated to Leonore Draper, who was a part of organizing this event and lost her life later that evening. May Project Orange Tree and other anti-violence organizations continue to find & support solutions to stop the violence.