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Friday, December 13

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Chicago Gourmet Sun Sep 28 2008

Eating Up Celebrity Sightings

dtchicagogourmet.jpgI think I'm a little more easily star-struck than I'd like to admit, but there's something exciting about seeing some of the culinary world's brightest local stars in the flesh, in natural lighting...handing you a big plate of spicy steak stew. Thanks, Rick! The celebrity status many chefs have attained in recent years seems at odds with a profession where most of the action is behind the scenes (or at least, behind some sort of warming-plate barrier) and has garnered its fair share of skepticism -- not dissimilar from the criticism that plagues any sense of celebrity today, really. Although, in lionizing the artists and craftsmen who not only create beautiful, thoughtful and culturally rich works which we cannot only see or hear or feel, but also touch and taste and smell, perhaps our adoration is not is as misplaced as critics would have us believe.

BaylessI've eaten at Hot Chocolate regularly over the years, and still got geeked out at the idea of meeting Mindy Segal (she wasn't at the Chef Tasting Table, sadly, when I rolled in for some lovely, malty chocolate milk that was rich without leaving me with a sandy-feeling mouth. Ah well). I've had one wonderful meal at Frontera Grill and watched "Mexico One Plate at a Time" many lazy Sunday afternoons, and seeing Rick Bayless in person still made me smile. It's comforting to see these chefs, familiar to many of us only by name or media image, actually dishing out their creations, dealing with the splatter of sauce, and wiping away the sweat of chafing dish warmth and a surprisingly hot sun. And it's encouraging to see the reactions on the faces of real people enjoying food that perhaps we've only experience before in the pages of a cookbook or through a close-up on TV. More local legends and musings after the fold.

Alpana SinghWhile snacking with the big dogs at Chicago Gourmet was certainly worth spending a weekend in Millennium Park, it's not clear to me that it would be worth paying the full entry price. Listening to everyone's favorite sommelier Alpana Singh describe not only her favorite wine pairings for various Chicago BYOB establishments but her most recent trip to Greece and new antique card catalog certainly gives you the sense she's being restrained (perhaps physically) on Check Please!

The woman is a fountain of energy, and her laugh alone makes me want to rush out and buy every wine she's recommended, just to make her proud, and perhaps convince her to be my best friend. She was even good-natured about being temporarily blinded by my camera flash. I can watch Alpana work her magic for free on WTTW any time I want, and enjoy the wisdom of her expertise any time I order wine with dinner at a Lettuce Entertain You establishment. And it makes me feel a little strange that my peers in her tasting seminar had shelled out $90 to try six wines (try, not guzzle -- there was extreme portion control) on top of the $150 minimum to get in the park for the day. If the point of Chicago Gourmet was to bring the city's most haute cuisine to a less-haute crowd, I can't imagine the price point does much for the democratization of fine dining.

IzardBut a hefty price tag seems to be the curse of celebrity, if wider recognition is its great gift. Stephanie Izard has been making the news in Chicago ever since her Top Chef win this past season by cooking at various events around Chicago and beyond, though plans for her new hometown establishment remain nebulous. While I may have been able to rustle up a $20 to try Stephanie's skate wing and calamari at Scylla, I would be hard pressed to come up with the $125-200 price tag for one of these more recent evenings. At Chicago Gourmet, the line to try Stephanie's dish stretched back into 15-20 minute territory, and while everyone seemed to walk away pleased with whatever was on their fork, they still had to put down at least $150 to even get to the table.

Gaining celebrity status for many chefs often necessitates straying from the kitchen, and in many cases to spending more time with the Glad family of products or on the set of an Applebee's commercial than with actual food. So perhaps we should be glad rather than skeptical when we see these newly anointed media targets working with actual products and creating actual dishes, even if only for two days out in the open air. If they care enough about their craft to literally lend a hand to feeding their biggest fans (or at least their fans with the biggest budgets), maybe we can't fault them for also charging a lot to join them at their private tables. If the market sees your work as valuable, you're allowed to price it accordingly. It's not bad -- it's business. But if celebrity automatically inflates the bill, perhaps we should appreciate even more those chefs who did not take the time to come out from behind the line to participate in Chicago Gourmet this year. The chefs' chefs, who are stars just for the kitchens and their dining rooms. No cameras, no endorsements, and no handshakes with the admiring public. Just food for thought.

Oh, and the Mayor was there as well. Though if you weren't paying attention, you easily could have missed him while training your eyes to pick out Dale Levitski's faux-hawk. It happens.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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