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:
Sam Toia, President and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association and Erica Williams, Food Blogger for http://www.tastebuddiaries.com[/caption%5D
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!:
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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
Tasty Ethiopian from Demera Ethiopian Restaurant
Mercat a la Planxa
More of Mindy Segal’s apple creations
Cheers from Chicago Gourmet 2014!
I went to a fabulous foodie event Sunday night called Fashion Rocks, held at BellyQ. Over 20 of the best Chicago restaurants were under one roof with “fashion installations” by Haberdash, which is a local men’s clothing store in Chicago. What is a fashion installation you ask? Well, it’s a bunch of beautiful men who stand and pose in different scenes and outfits during the night. When I first arrived, they were holding guitars, and I asked “Are you going to play those, or are you models” and they said “We are models” – so of course I had to take a picture. They always looked away from the camera. Fierce!
The proceeds of this event went to Common Threads (my favorite charity), and the West Loop Community Organization. Some of the Common Threads kids were helping the chefs out and they were SO CUTE with their full-sized Haberdash ties. The event was very well attended, and included some of Chicago’s best chefs and food bloggers.
Now on to the food. My top 4 favorites are below:
Pleasant House Bakery with their meat pies – definitely a place that I need to visit in the future. I tried the Steak and Ale pie, the Chicken Balti (which was like a curry chicken, and my favorite), and the Mushroom and Kale pie. These items are also on their menu at the restaurant. The pie dough was so flaky and delicious, and the owners were incredibly nice and down to earth – like the people next door.
Pecking Order served up a Caramelized Chicken and Garlic Rice dish. Very flavorful and comforting. It was like a hug in a bowl. I talked to chef Subido, who said that this item is on their brunch menu, but without the egg. I’ve been there for Sunday brunch and it is a nice alternative to a traditional brunch – very flavorful with different kinds of dishes that you won’t find anywhere else. Turns out that Pecking Order is now offering brunch on Saturdays, and they have updated their brunch menu, so I’m due for another visit. See for yourself: http://www.peckingorderchicago.com/
Antique Taco – This is my second time trying Antique Taco at an event (Also tried them at the Common Threads World Festival), and it’s official. I need to go there. ASAP. They served a Crispy Duck Flauta that was very well seasoned and had some flavorful surprises. Plus, I like their logo.
Frontier – Frontier is known for serving different kinds of gamey meat like Rabbit, Alligator, Antelope, and Kangaroo (yes, Kangaroo). I chatted with Executive Chef Brian Jupiter who is from New Orleans, where he first started cooking different kinds of meats. Most of the meats served at Frontier are local (i.e. the rabbit was from IL) and they cook all of these different kinds of meats in an approachable way, so that they don’t scare people away. If these items are a bit much for you, the menu also includes a nice mix of foods that you are used to eating.
I tried the Rabbit Etouffee at the event, which was really delicious – the flavors were well-balanced and I would have never known that I was eating rabbit. I could have easily been fooled into thinking that it was chicken.
Frontier also has brunch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so they are definitely on my “must visit” list. since brunch is my favorite meal of the day. One item on the brunch menu that has caught my eye is the fried rabbit and cornmeal waffle dish with spiced pear butter and habanero maple syrup. I also have my eye on the bananas foster French toast and the Praline Pancakes – I know that they will be good since chef Jupiter is from New Orleans.
Check out the eclectic menu here: http://www.thefrontierchicago.com/food/
*I also learned that Frontier has a large enclosed patio, which will be great spot for the spring and summer.
I really enjoy going to these events because I can have a little taste of different restaurants and then visit the restaurant later if I like what I taste. Great event for an amazing cause. Bon Appetit!