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!: