I am used to events in which well-prepared food — and carefully paired drinks — are front and center for the general public.
Many years ago when I worked for the Chicago-based National Live Stock & Meat Board, I was actively involved with the National Beef Cook-Off, which was then held annually in various cities around the country. Although the event pitted amateur cooks against one another in an effort to determine the year’s best beef dish, I also met and worked closely with several noted food professionals (chefs) who served as judges — Julia Child, James Beard and Bert Greene to name a few.
The Cook-Off was quite a spectacle — 50 contestants in roped-off areas with stoves, cooking utensils and recipe ingredients, all working frantically to prepare their creations perfectly and on deadline for the judges, who were waiting with great anticipation in another room. Creativity (supplied by the contestants) and professionalism (supplied by the judges) always results in great food — and the annual winning dish at the National Beef Cook-Off proved this to be true on a yearly basis.
So it was no surprise to me that last week’s 9th Annual “Chef’s on the Grill” event, hosted by the Plaza at Millennium Park and in partnership with the Cultural Mile Association, was a huge success. How could it not be? Executive chefs from nearby restaurants prepared their signature dishes with paired cocktails while the rest of us drifted by their cooking stations, sampled their wares and chatted about food, Chicago or whatever we felt like chatting about. Good food, drink and conversation on a summer’s eve in Chicago, surrounded by some of the most beautiful and architecturally-significant buildings in the world? It doesn’t get any better than this.
Actually, it does get better. Proceeds from the event went to Recipe for Change, which teaches inmates at Cook County jail how to get jobs in the culinary world.
Asked which of the ten dishes they liked best, event visitors Takis Sarantos and his wife, Beth, Glenview, Ill., had differing opinions. Takis favored the “Bison Bacon Butter Burger,” prepared by chefs Alfredo Sandoval and Gary Baca of the Park Grill. Beth, on the other hand, cast her vote for the “Grilled Short Ribs,” prepared by chef Mario Garcia of Kitty O’Shea’s. I asked Takis if the two of them have disagreed throughout their marriage. He looked at me with a “I’d-better-not-answer-that-here” look. And he didn’t.
Though I couldn’t argue with the Sarantoses’ food selections, the dish that commanded my attention was not even a dish at all. It was the “Smoked Bloody Maria,” a signature cocktail from chef James Jung, South Branch Tavern and Grill. It was the usual “Bloody” but with dashes of lime, jalapeno and Serrano powder. Guaranteed to make a hot summer’s night much hotter.
I took my cocktail to a nearby bench and looked at the throngs marching through Millennial Park. Thoughts of food and cocktails whirled through my mind. I recalled that W.C. Fields once said, “I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.”
I took another sip and smiled.