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
I just returned from a trip to Panama and I really enjoyed my time there, although I had quite the adventure. We accidentally ended up “glamping” (glamorous camping) because we had made flight arrangements to Bocas del Toro, a Caribbean island off of Panama, not realizing that the hotels were 100% completely sold out. Bocas del Toro is a very popular international tourist destination, especially for New Years, where hotels need to be booked 3-4 months out, as the island is very small. We ended up staying two nights in Bocas and two nights in Panama City, which is much more cosmopolitan than I had anticipated.
For the Bocas portion of the trip, a cancellation opened up at the Palmar Tent Lodge, an eco-friendly tent lodge that is off the grid – using rain water for all water needs, solar power for lights, etc. The only available rooms were in dorm tents with 3 bunk beds. I had never done anything like this so I tried to embrace it, but in actuality, there was not much “glam” to the glamping. We were one with the earth. Monkeys playing in the trees, an abundance of insects, lizards, strange sounds in the night, pimped out outhouses as bathrooms, cold rain showers…it was very basic, and took a lot of getting used to. The plus side was the soothing sound of the ocean waves as I went to sleep, and the beautiful night sky where the stars where plentiful and literally shining like diamonds. We looked at the stars in awe for about 2 hours – a very memorable moment. The temperature was also nice and warm, in the upper 80’s – a welcome change from the winter cold in Chicago.
The food in Panama was delicious all-around, especially the seafood. In Bocas, we visited a restaurant called the Pirate, and I had a delicious whitefish covered with a curry sauce, coconut rice, steamed vegetables and sweet plantains. The fish was perfectly cooked – I will note that the fish was a little on the salty side, and we experienced this at multiple restaurants, so perhaps this is the way they season it – still very tasty, especially with the sweet plantains to balance it out.
Panamanian Curried Fish with Sweet Plantains and Steamed Vegetables
Bocas is also known for the very inexpensive lobster and shellfish options. I did not partake as I am allergic, but definitely good to know if you enjoy shellfish.
Many of the smaller restaurants in Bocas had a very lightly fried whitefish that was incredibly fresh and delicious. On a snorkeling trip, we stopped at an ocean restaurant oasis, where they served this fish and I also had an amazing Cuba Libre drink – Coca-Cola, Rum and fresh lime juice. Perfectly balanced and SO delicious.
During my time in Panama City, we took advantage of the many varieties of baked empanadas (meat pies) that were in various hotels and shops. The empanadas were great as a to-go snack to eat for later (i.e. on a flight). Highly recommended.
In Casco Viejo, (the Old Town section) we visited a restaurant called Casablanca, which was located in an open square. We sat outside in the evening and listened to the sounds of a live harp player. The food was delicious – once again I got seafood – a whitefish in a rich buttery sauce. I also had some plantains, which were served in these cute mini fry baskets.
Plantains in mini fry baskets.
Shrimp served in a pineapple
The Casco Viejo area has a number of cute shops and restaurants, including a French Ice Cream shop called Granclement , which also makes the cones from scratch. I thoroughly enjoyed this ice cream – it was very rich and flavorful, and they had a nice variety of interesting options. I had the vanilla bean ice cream because the vanilla flavor was so strong – a refreshing treat for a warm day.
Granclement Ice Cream in Panama with homemade cone
Granclement Ice Cream Store in Panama
One must get coffee in Panama, because the coffee beans are harvested in the mountains of a region in Panama called Boquette. I was told that the coffee is very good and strong (I am not a coffee enthusiast). There are also tours of the coffee farms in Boquette that are available. I didn’t get a chance to make it to this area, but if I return to Panama, I would put this on my list.
Overall, I enjoyed my trip to Panama, and would encourage anyone to visit, and experience the food and culture. Flights to Panama are relatively inexpensive from the states, and the country offers so much to do – whether you want to stay in the city, visit the mountains or take a day trip to one of the islands, there is something for everyone.
Below is a link to a video summary of my trip. Enjoy!
London has the reputation for having bland and uninspired food, but If you look in the right places, there are some tasty finds worthy of the foodie taste buds.
Below were some of my favorites from my recent trip:
Wagamama – Before my trip, a few of my friends mentioned that I should visit a place called Wagamama – a very prevalent Thai food restaurant in London. It’s everywhere, and has great food. I had a delicious curry chicken dish with coconut rice. They also have several noodle dishes. The one that I had wasn’t my favorite (a little dry), but the rice dish was superb. I also had a couple of dumplings, – very tasty, along with some peach iced tea. A nice London welcome lunch. Check!
Harrod’s Food Halls- Another recommendation that I received was to visit the Harrod’s food halls. Harrod’s is a famous and fancy department store known for high-end clothing and their food halls. ( I remember an episode of Whitney and Bobby’s reality show where Whitney Houston and her daughter were shopping in the store…but I digress…) I didn’t know what to expect, but it was simply foodie paradise. The food halls are split up into rooms that specialize in certain kinds of gourmet food, and you can either buy the food to-go (or as they say in London “take-away”) or you can eat it there. I enjoyed the tea and candy room, which had so many kinds of tea that it would make your head spin, and hundreds of different chocolate delights. I purchased some of the tea in the tea room, which had loose tea, tea bags, in all kinds of flavors, and all of the tea accessories you would want. There was a room specializing in meats and seafood, which included a caviar bar. There was also a section dedicated to jams and jellies, and even a specialty salt section. They had everything, along with glittery cupcakes.
Afternoon Tea at the Capitol Hotel- Time Out London mentioned the Capitol Hotel as an excellent option for afternoon tea. Turns out that it was rated as the best value for your money for afternoon tea. Cost was 20 pounds , which included finger sandwiches (cucumber, salmon and egg), a wide selection of teas, along with a 3-tier tower of pastries and confections. The room was beautifully decorated to the point where I made mental notes for my future home. Great service. The food was good, and I found the scones to be more like a buttery, fluffy southern-style biscuit than the dry scones that we typically tend to eat in the states. I told my friend Caroline “This isn’t a scone, this is a biscuit!” They use clotted cream (much like butter) on the scones along with jam. Tasty. A must-do for a London trip.
Food Market – I visited the Borough food market on a Saturday, which was one of my favorite parts of the trip. There were food vendors selling meat and fruit for the locals to take home (much like a farmer’s market), and there was ready-to eat food that you could eat for breakfast or lunch. I had a Caribbean curry chicken dish, which was absolutely delicious. They gave big portions, and I could have easily split the dish and still been satisfied. I tried goat milk ice cream for the first time, which is supposed to be good for those that lactose intolerant. I had a strawberry flavor, and could taste the “goat” aftertaste – like goat cheese. Not bad, but I wouldn’t be rushing out to eat it. A good alternative for those that are lactose intolerant…
The Baltic – One of my co-workers recommended that I visit the Baltic restaurant for a trendy, gourmet dinner. The food was mainly eastern-European and they had a large selection of infused vodkas. I tried one of the honey-infused vodkas, which was served in a shot glass (for sipping, not chugging). It was served warm, and had a nice, sweet aftertaste. They had several other flavors that they made in-house as well. A great place for drinks. The food was good. I had a beet salad with a very mild and smooth goat cheese, and a chicken dish, which was buttery and flavorful. The restaurant is just a couple of blocks from the Young Vic Theater (where I saw a fabulous musical), so they have some pre-fixe menus before and after the shows (early dinner or a late dinner). I’d recommend the Baltic for a nice dinner on the town.
Pret A Manger – Chicago recently opened this store in the city – straight from London. This is a good store for a quick sandwich, or soup, and they also had breakfast. I noticed that they were advertising porridge, which I did not get the chance to eat. The selections were much different than what you would see in the states. For example, they had cold sandwiches w/shrimp inside. Prawns and shrimp seemed to be a popular item in London, as I noticed prawn cocktail potato chips in the grocery stores, etc. Very interesting.
EAT – I had my first meat pie with mashed potatoes and gravy at EAT. It was a lot like a chicken pot pie – best way I can describe it. Very comforting and delicious. Highly recommended.
If you look for good food in London, you will find it. It does exist. If you find yourself heading to London, these places are good options. Bon Appetit!