Shaw's Oyster Fest 2017 is still going strong here in Chicago and the Grand Finale party this Sunday, October 15, is an event not to be missed. Each $70 tickets includes an all-you-can eat/drink affair including classic Oyster Fest dishes, wine/beer/speciality cocktails, an Oyster Roast in the Oyster Hall of Fame Room, live music and the epic oyster slurp-off finale. For a taste of the energy, check out my photos below from last year's festival and get your tickets at the link below. See you there!
Last Sunday, 14 of the countries' finest chefs descended upon Chicago to face off in the ultimate pork showdown at Grand Cochon, the 9th Annual Cochon555 Grand Finale. After months of qualifying competitions, recipe development and extensive heritage swine prep, the group of competitors met at Morgan Manufacturing to flex their pig prowess in the quest for the coveted title of "King or Queen of Porc." Each chef presented 3 different bites for judges and event goers to taste, critique, and vote on. In the end, Chef Jonathan Granada of LA's Otium reigned supreme and was crowned the 2017 King of Porc.
Upon arrival at the grand event, my partner Chris and I embarked on an initial energetic surge, devouring samples, taking photos and blurting analysis between bites in a tornado-like pork fueled frenzy. Moments later, binge eating fatigue set in and we melted into a swine-induced stupor, ambling our way throughout the rest of the festival grinning like morons. I’ve included my top 5 highlights from our evening below, but in retrospect, we should have paced ourselves a bit better to ensure a fair “taste” through all 14 stations (I couldn’t even stomach another bite by station 8 or 9). You can also check out my gallery of favorite images we took from the event here.
1. "Hori's" Shrimp Shumai
I admit, I am extremely partial to dumplings in all forms and fashions. Biases aside, Chef Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi of Houston's Kata Robata turned out some undeniably fine pork shoulder, leg and shrimp shumai topped with ponzu and red chili. Chewy dumpling skin, rich meaty filling, and just enough heat made for the ideal umami bite...and I'll take about 10 more.
2. Every Dish from Chicago's Own Ricardo Jarquin
It might have been my subconscious, or perhaps fate, taking over, but I swear that I did not realize I was eating the Chicago hometown favorite's dishes when I declared that I had found my vote for the night's winner. Only after I had already inhaled one of each of the beautifully plated morsels pictured below did the hovering crowd clear just enough to see the sign declaring Chef Ricardo Jarquin as their rightful creator. There might just be a visit to Travelle Kitchen + Bar in our very near future...
3. Chef Love at Saxon + Parole
I'm a total sucker for happy people that love what they do, and NYC Chef Nicole Gajadhar and her team certainly seemed to be loving their time together serving up some of the most playful creations at Grand Cochon (think pork pastrami egg rolls, blood noodles and chocolate-caramel jowl ganache with cotton candy). If you don’t believe me, just look at the warmth in that embrace right there - I love it!
4. Cory Morris' "Dirty Steak"
Is it a sin to the swine if one of my highlights at a pork cookoff was a big ole hunk o’ beef? Chef Cory Morris of Chicago’s Boleo stole a bit of the pig’s thunder with his caveman size tomahawk “dirty steaks” aka meat grilled directly on coals, serving them with charred spuds in a smoky ode to meat and potatoes. No, we haven’t forgotten about you red meat.
5. Mitch Mayers' Mini Pickles
There’s something undeniably appealing about mini foods, and Chef Mitch Mayers’ chubby little dills (served aside SPAM headcheese, blood rye bread, sauerkraut, and racelette cheese topped with a teensy quail egg and Russian hollandaise) were too cute not to grab my attention. Perhaps the Seattle-based chef had foreseen their appeal, because he was so kind as to provide tiny take-home jars of the little guys for us admirers to snack on later.
Well, that’s a wrap on my highlights from this year’s Grand Cochon. Don’t forget to check out my gallery of favorite photos we took at the event at the link below. If you made it to Grand Cochon this year, I want to hear YOUR highlights, so leave them in a comment. If you missed it, keep your ears open for next year's dates, it is not to be missed!
Shop This Post
Follow TBG on Instagram
Chicago Gourmet is my ideal adult playground; the food is inventive and plentiful, the wine free flowing, and the air perfumed with wafts of butternut squash and sage gnocchi. This year marked the event's 10th year of DECADEnce, and the 2nd for this Chicagoland transplant. Other than melting in the 90 degree direct sunlight (shoutout to the BBQ tent that provided some much needed refuge from the heat and more than a few beers to cool things off), this year's Chicago Gourmet was an absolute knockout.
Unlike most food and wine festivals with their frustratingly inefficient lines, meager portions and overbearing crowds, Chicago Gourmet is a spacious, plentiful experience in one of Chicago's most visually appealing venues, where lines are never longer than 4-5 minutes (unless you're the uber popular seafood pavilion), and your ticket get you your money's worth and then some (holy overflowing swag bag). Check out my top 10 highlight's from this year's Chicago Gourmet below and mark your calendars so as not to miss next year's festivities!
1. Sixteen's Foie + Chestnut Dumplings
Exec Chef Nick Dostal's perfectly folded foie, chestnut, and mint filled pyramid dumplings swimming in a porcini mushroom broth were hands down my favorite bite of the day. The dumpling skins were pleasantly chewy, the rich filling balanced by the fresh mint, and the broth satisfying enough to drink alone. If I could have loaded my pockets with these little morsels, I would have.
2. Katsuji's Fire + Ice Custard Performance
Executive Chef of Chicago's newly opened Barrio Katsuji Tanabe's feisty personality is a show enough in itself, but he upped the ante by turning habanero and lime cream into instantly frozen custard in his cauldron of liquid nitrogen for each patiently waiting guest. In the most enjoyably disorienting way possible, I simultaneously experienced a mouth of fire from the habanero heat and a soothing creaminess from the frozen lime custard, all while in a haze of nitrogen smoke. I was only anchored back to reality by Katsuji shoving a freshly poured Stella Artois in my direction and commanding me to "DRINK." Who knew what a fantastic combo beer and frozen custard could be, well done Katsuji, now get that frozen towel off your head before you faint!
3. 4CTG's Jello Rainbows
Four Corners Tavern Group knows how to turn out a Insta-worthy dessert (i.e. unicorn donut holes, funfetti cupcakes, donut walls, etc.) and these tasty rainbow jello shots were no exception. I shamelessly took the bait and struck a pose with one of these colorful treats before scarfing it like a college freshman at a house party.
4. An Absolut Ode to Copper
It's a treat to see what kind of transportive worlds are created within the booths at Chicago Gourmet, and this year's over-the-top copper escape in Absolut's tent was my favorite. It certainly didn't hurt that they were doling out the prettiest little copper pineapple pins as swag. What can I say, I guess I'm just a basic sucker for pretty, shiny things.
5. US Foods' Lobster Mound
Confession: the first time we walked up to the US Foods tent and they tried to hand me a split open Frito's bag they called a "Frito Pie," I declined. I know, call me crazy, but at this point in the day my stomach was on the verge of capacity, and filling up on Fritos didn't sound like a responsible allocation of remaining gut space. And then...I saw this epic mound of fat lobster meat...and I got my happy ass back in line. Those sweet, juicy clumps of lobster mingling with crispy, corny Fritos and a squeeze of queso were well worth every bit of remaining appetite.
6. Wafts of Gnocchi Dokey
Partially because we desperately needed to take a seat and rest in some shade and partially because gnocchi are one of the world's greatest treasures, we made our way to the main stage for Chef Tony Priolo and Fabio Viviani's "Gnocchi Dokey!" cooking demonstration emceed by 93XRT's Lin Brehmer. The decadent wafts of roasted butternut squash, pancetta and sage brown butter that emanated from their futuristic Thermador cooktop was other-worldly. That aroma was so impactful that for dinner tonight we will be recreating the dish, in hopes I might be able to stop fantasizing about it and get back to business.
7. Nonna's Classic Meatballs
Even the most critical of meatball snob couldn't resist Nonna's perfectly prepared and sauced orbs of juicy, meaty goodness. Meatballs are far too frequently a huge disappointment leaving much to be desired. But Nonna's delivered a classic in a big way - no nonsense, just goodness. I will be coming for more very soon.
8. The Blanchard's Sunchoke Macarons
There were only two items all day that I went back to snag seconds, and these sunchoke, apple and chive spice macarons from The Blanchard's Chef Ryan Burns were one of them. Sweet, salty, crispy, savory, chewy...my mouth couldn't make up its mind, but loved everything that was going on. This was the kind of inventive creation that makes Chicago Gourmet special.
9. Stan's Caramel + Popcorn + Cheese Donuts
These made the list for most closely following the event's DECADEnce theme by being so intensely rich, just a bite or two left a lasting impression. Topped with caramel and a mix of cheese and caramel popcorn then stuffed with a sweet and salty cheese filling, these "Chicago Mix Bizmarck" donuts were just something else.
10. Florentine's Black Truffle Risotto
One whiff of the Florentine's wild mushroom and black truffle risotto and I blacked out and ate it all before remembering to take a photo or even stopping to take a breath. Just straight forward, rich, creamy, earthy, deliciousness. The kind that made me regret not bringing a to-go container to smuggle leftovers home with.
Phew, that wraps up my highlights from a whirlwind of a weekend. For more, view my gallery of favorite photos we took at the event at the link below. If you made it to Chicago Gourmet this year, I'd LOVE to hear YOUR highlights, so leave a comment below. If you missed it, keep your ears and eyes open for next year's dates, it is not to be missed!
Follow TBG on Instagram
Last Thursday I had the absolute pleasure of hosting an intimate dinner at The Blanchard celebrating my friends and fellow West Point graduates and U.S. Army veterans from Rumi Spice. We started the evening with a welcome champagne and a scallop crudo amuse-bouche. Afterwards, making our way to the dining room to enjoy five incredible courses by Executive Chef Ryan Burns all featuring Rumi’s Afghan Saffron.
Rumi Spice has an impressive story with an even more remarkable mission. Rumi co-founder and fellow former U.S. Army officer Kim Jung, while deployed to Afghanistan, shared an unforgettable meal with a group of Afghan women. Around that table, where food brought a community so closely together, the spirit of Rumi Spice took form. After leaving the military and graduating from Harvard Business School, Kim and co-founders Keith and Emily launched Rumi from its present location on the Southside of Chicago.
Rumi Spice empowers Afghan women, currently employing more than 300 women in Herat Province. This Certified B Corporation helps bolster the country’s economy by partnering with Afghan farmers to bring the highest quality, sustainably farmed saffron to customers around the world. They supply some of the world's finest saffron to global dining destinations including The French Laundry, Daniel, Bouley, and Le Bernardin, and Chicago's NAHA, Acadia and The Blanchard.
On this particular late August evening, we had the pleasure of enjoying Rumi Spice's Afghan saffron highlighted in a pleasantly diverse and expertly executed contemporary French menu from The Blanchard's Chef Burns and company. The evening was made all the more lively by comical banter with David Manilow of Check, Please!, tips for using saffron in your home cooking from Chef Carrie Nahabedian of Chicago's beloved NAHA, and fellow food bloggers sharing past encounters with saffron.
I am incredibly proud of Rumi Spice's work thus far and excited to see them continue their powerful mission in Afghanistan. If you haven't caught the episode yet, watch for Rumi on Shark Tank (spoiler: they land a deal with Mark Cuban). Additionally, use the link below to order your own “red gold” Rumi saffron, saffron spice blends, and saffron gummies.
Early last September I flew to New Orleans from North Carolina for a trip that lasted less than 24 hours. I was paying a visit to one of my best friends who lived in a fantastic loft right off Bourbon Street. He had lured me to town for this irrationally short trip with the promise of Southern Decadence - an annual six day pride event that has been running in the city since 1972.
Although he attempted to warn me of the debauchery that was to ensue at NOLA's pride-Mardi Gras of sorts, I still found myself wide-eyed and jaw-dropped at the events that followed. It might have been a brief one, but that not-quite-24 hour trip was full of some of the most energetic, colorful, and downright decadent memories of late.
View the gallery below of my turn and burn trip:
A Taste of New Orleans at Home
Follow Along on Instagram
It was the summer of 2009, just after the completion of my "cow" (junior) year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and I was living in a former brothel turned volunteer house, complete with a bucket shower and machete-wielding "security guard." We were in Cape Coast, a fishing port city along Ghana's coastline in West Africa. I had journeyed there with a small group of cadets to volunteer for the summer with a organization called Global Mamas.
On weekends we ventured throughout the remarkable country, hiking to the highest point in Western Africa to swim in the Wli Waterfalls, canoeing to visit the Nzulezo community that lived in a village on stilts, and encountering beautiful elephants on our walk through Mole National Park.
During the week, we were each assigned projects geared towards educating and empowering women who owned local businesses supported through the Global Mamas program. For my assignment I was partnered with an incredible woman named Esther, the proud owner of a roadside tailor shop that trained and employed women from all over the city. I spent my weekdays imparting my limited business knowledge from my courses as a management major in an effort to develop her skills as an entrepreneur. We opened her first business bank account, developed the branding for her line of handmade traditional Ghanaian apparel and wrote a business plan for the school she wanted to establish for girls and women to learn traditional artisanal skills like batiking, sewing and jewelry making.
It's been nearly 10 years since that summer in Ghana, but the incredible people, culture and memories made there have kept it close to my heart and on the top of my must-return-to list since.
Volunteer with Global Mamas
Global Mama's mission is to create prosperity for African women and their families by teaching fair trade practices, offering business education, and providing a global marketplace for women to sell their handcrafted products. To learn more about volunteering, click the button below.
A Taste of Ghana at Home
Follow Along on Instagram
Tempt me with crispy pig ears, duck fat fries and a few chilled glasses of rosé and I'd already tell you it was a date done right. But The Bristol, a restaurant in Chicago's Bucktown Neighborhood, ups the date night ante even further. With its exposed brick, leather banquettes and maple wood tables washed in a warm candlelit glow, the atmosphere at The Bristol proves both intimate and amiable, like the space was intentionally planned to maximize the likelihood of quality, playful conversation.
The American Gastropub-style menu featuring The Bristol's signatures, like the aforementioned duck fat fries ($9), half chicken ($24) and monkey bread with dill butter ($6), got an injection of energy from the recently appointed Executive Chef Todd Stein. It was Chef Stein who introduced the crispy, smokey, highly snackable pig ears ($9) and the endive and manchego salad ($12) that my partner Chris and I so enjoyed on our recent date. That particular evening we also devoured the beef tartare with cheddar-dusted chicharrones ($14) and the rich, velvety ricotta and farm egg filled raviolo ($15) before dunking house made nutter butters into chocolate and caramel crémeux ($8).
The Bristol's menu is built for sharing, and the small tables (perhaps intentionally) mean only a few items can be enjoyed simultaneously. This results in a steady wave of new dishes arriving from the kitchen to replace finished ones at a pleasant pace. The experience is expertly orchestrated by the warm, informed staff that somehow manages to be both ever-present yet never distracting.
Every aspect of The Bristol feels as if the proprietors have strategically crafted an experience that nearly guarantees a highly enjoyable shared meal. With all of these elements working to your advantage, if a date at The Bristol still doesn't go well, then perhaps you should be reevaluating the company you keep.
2152 N Damen Ave | Chicago, IL
(773) 862-5555 | thebristolchicago.com
Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the Yelp Chicago x Chicagogrammers Drink and Learn event. As a full-time freelance restaurant photographer here in Chicago, I shared some of my food photography tips. Since the crowd was comprised of Instagrammers and Yelp Elite-ers, I tailored the talk to capturing food pics for social media when dining at restaurants or at networking events. I promised to compile my presentation into a blog post, so here it is as promised!
1. Research: Plan The Shot(s) You're Taking Before You Walk In
To minimize the time spent (and frustration caused) trying to capture the "perfect" food shot at a restaurant, plan the photos you want to create ahead of time. Before you walk in the door, visit a restaurant or venue's website and/or check out tagged photos from the location on Instagram (search the restaurant's name and select it from the "Places" tab). Look for interesting focal points or design elements at the establishment (i.e. mural wall, attractive bar area, patio or scenic view) that you might want to feature in your image and scan the menu for dishes you will enjoy and want to photograph, then move onto Tips #2 and 3 to prepare for the shot.
BONUS TIP: Maintain an "Inspiration" photo album on your phone containing screen shots of other food photos with various compositions and styles to help kick start your creativity when you plan for future restaurant photos.
2. Use Lighting To Your Advantage
Natural light is your best friend when capturing shots of your meal or of a restaurant, but is not always available for locations with dark interiors, poor weather or after the sun sets. If you've done your research from Tip #1 and know there is a seating area you'd like to capture or a seat by the window where the natural lighting is best, don't be afraid to request a specific table. For dimly lit conditions, consider carrying a pocket LED light or a mini light reflector like the ones on Amazon shown below if you don't mind being "that person" ;)
BONUS TIP: If purchasing and carrying a pocket light to brighten a dark shot doesn't sound like your cup of tea, have a friend turn on their cell phone flashlight and diffuse the light through a napkin to light your photo.
3. Pre-Determine Your Shot Angle
In a continued effort to photograph your meal in a minimally distracting and time conservative manner so you can get to the truly fun part - eating it, understand the appropriate shot angle for the dish(es) you’ll be photographing and plan for them in advance. Here are some quick guidelines for common shot angles used for photographing food:
90° Angle: eye-level shot appropriate for dishes with height or layers such as burgers, sandwiches and layered desserts.
45° Angle: useful for shooting into bowls and high walled plating vessels (see example photo below) or capturing a dish or meal set against an eye-catching background.
Overhead Angle: works well for crowded table shots with a spread of dishes and for individual dishes with visually appealing plating (see example photo below).
Hands/Feet/Holding: adds visual interest to a hand held dish or object, particularly when shot against an attractive floor or background/wall.
4. Set Boundaries: Abide By the 5-10 Minute Rule
Those of us who photograph our meals before diving into them often have a bad habit of spending so much time obsessing over the “perfect shot” that we waste away the meal distracted by our cameras or or cell phones. After catching myself repeatedly doing just that, I established the 5-10 Minute Rule: capture a "postable" shot within 5-10 minutes of the start of your meal or social engagement and then RELAX, put your phone or camera away and engage with your fellow diners. Edit and share the photo when the meal has ended and you have the time and space to focus on it. There is nothing more frustrating that dining with someone who can't pull their attention away from their mobile device - I implore you not to be that person!
5-10 Minute Rule: Use tips #1-3 to capture a "postable" image within 5-10 minutes of starting your meal, then put your devices down, engage with your fellow diners, and ENJOY yourself (and your meal)!
5. Upgrade From Your Phone To A Camera
Cell phone cameras have certainly come a long way (two thumbs up for the iPhone 7’s new portrait mode). However, upgrading to a digital camera, whether a point-and-shoot, mirrorless or a DSLR, gives you significantly more flexibility and capability to produce quality photos.
When using a camera for food photography on the go, consider one with built-in wi-fi capability so you can quickly download photos right to your smart phone for posting. For easy overhead shots without having to climb on top of a chair, consider a camera with a rotating flip screen that allows you to preview your shots as you take them (see photo on the right).
Bonus Tip: If you already own a DSLR but want to add wi-fi capability, purchase a wi-fi adapter like this Nikon one on Amazon.
Here are three quality, reliable cameras to consider at various price points and sizes and with a range of different attributes and capabilities:
6. Invest In Prime Lenses
Just about any digital camera on the market will aid in your ability to capture a quality image. What really separates your gear from the pack is your choice of lenses. Zoom lenses (the ones that typically come with your camera body) offer flexibility but make compromises in sharpness and focal qualities. Prime lenses (ones that do not zoom) help create a desirable depth of focus, allowing you to capture an image with a sharp focal point and an out-of-focus background. Here are a few of my favorites:
50mm: This lens is my go-to for tight shots, details, and crisp, up-close food photos. I go with the 50mm lens when I know I'll be shooting plated dishes but won't be concerned about wider scenic shots. At just over $200, the 50mm lens will be the single greatest investment you can make to help up your photography game, trust me.
35mm: Once you are ready to move beyond the 50mm, either longer or wider, I recommend a 35mm lens. This is my favorite multi-purpose lens. It can be used for detailed, sharp focus shots like the 50mm but also able to capture a wider scene enabling me to seamlessly move between up-close and context shots.
24mm: When you are looking to make images that capture a sense of place and provide context for your images (i.e. the interior of a restaurant, view from a rooftop, full table shot) you can look no further than the 24mm lens. This is a great addition to your collection after you've toyed with the 50mm and 35mm!
Bonus tip: check out this GIF to help clear up some of the mystery of the effect focal length has on your images. Notice the difference in context and story as you move between lenses.
Here are my three favorite lenses for the Nikon DSLR I typically shoot with:
7. Use Photo Editing Software
I hate to break it to you, but there is no magic formula for editing photos. Like all good creative processes there are fundamentals that will outlast fads. Knowing how to troubleshoot an image (i.e. fix white balance, tone, brighteness, color, etc.) is more valuable than applying filters or effects, although they have their place. With that said, if you edit on your mobile device, I recommend avoiding the phone's built-in editing application and instead, opting for a free editing app like VSCO. In addition to allowing you to manually adjust your photo, VSCO has numerous filters that help quickly add visual interest to an image.
If you've upgrade to a camera and are ready to edit on your desktop, I highly recommend investing in a Lightroom subscription ($9.99/month). Adobe's Lightroom is essentially Photoshop stripped of all non-photo processing elements. It’s a professional tool that allows for maximum processing power and image catalog organization (as discussed below in Tip #8). I especially appreciate Lightroom's mobile application that allows me to access my photo catalog from my phone and edit on the go with most of the same processing capabilities I have on the desktop version.
Bonus Tip: If taking the time to edit your photos using external software just isn't your thing, at a minimum I recommend using Instagram's in-app processing functions to brighten, increase structure and saturation, and adjust shadows before posting.
Low lighting, dark, grainy, shadows
Cropped to 4x5 for Instagram, increased brightness and whites, reduced shadows and warmth
8. Keep Your Photos Organized
If you're anything like me your phone storage is probably nearing capacity with a mass of food photos and your computer not far behind. Implementing a method for organizing your madness is a must for streamlining your process. I recommend creating separate folders on your phone for different categories of photos or for various events you attend to make them easier to find later. On your personal computer, Lightroom is again my absolute choice for maintaining an organized image library. Folders, collections, keywords, and the ability to easily sync to your mobile device - these are just a few of the many benefits of Lightroom.
Bonus Tip: if you are an iPhone user, use the "Favorites" function to quickly identify photos you might want to use for future posts. When viewing a photo, just click the heart outline below it to label it as a favorite. All favorited images are immediately added to a "Favorites" album within your photo library for quick access.
9. Show Us What You Got: Caption With Personality
There are countless Instagram accounts posting drool worthy food photos daily. What sets YOU apart from every other food-capturing fiend out there, is simply...YOU. I highly encourage you to supplement the images you post with captions that reflect your own personality. A short narrative telling a bit of your personal story or providing insight into your experiences is much more compelling than a generic blurb and will help you build a loyal, invested following.
Bonus Tip: Try typing your captions on your laptop instead of on your mobile device - I find it much easier to let my personality show through when I’m freely typing on my laptop rather than thumbing away on my phone.
10. Have Fun and Enjoy Your Meal Already!
I’d be willing to bet that you started photographing your food because you LOVE to eat it...so use these tips to create a photo you like quickly, put down the camera, stay off social media, and just enjoy your meal already!
Follow TBG on Instagram
During the 45 minute or so cab ride from the airport to downtown Hanoi, I contemplated what the city might be like. I knew very little about Vietnam or what to expect from Hanoi other than what I had concocted in my head after obsessively watching Anthony Bourdain's travels unfold on Netflix. As I gazed at the city's "suburbs" passing by in a flurry of bright colors, mopeds and rice fields, my anticipation grew; I knew something good was to come.
After getting dropped off at my hotel in the Old Quarter and taking a brief glance at the sights around me, I was overcome with the nervous excitement of a new love, and the object of my desire, Hanoi. In the next 48 hours I crammed every waking moment taking in the city, strategically weaving my way on foot through the chaos of oncoming motorbike traffic, shopping for handicrafts and artwork at the abundance of colorful shops, fending off highly motivated (may I say aggressive?) street vendors, people watching my way around Hoan Kiem Lake, sipping thick Vietnamese iced coffee sweet with condensed milk, downing $0.25 Bia Hoi beers at "Beer Corner" and my favorite, sampling as much street food as physically possible.
If you eat a single meal in Hanoi at an actual restaurant or even an establishment with a menu, you are wrong, no two ways about it. The street food in Hanoi is unmatched, with street carts or one-man, one-woman, and on several occasion, one-child operations serving a wide variety of Vietnamese dishes and snacks from their overturned bucket perch. While you may question the "sanitary" conditions of such makeshift operations, I actually found comfort in getting to see the exact ingredients I would be eating and how they were prepared and found myself enjoying shopping around for who seemed to have the freshest products and most efficient processes before I took a squat and indulged (plus I've watched enough Restaurant Impossible to know that 1/2 the restaurant kitchens in America are probably less sanitary than these prideful street vendors).
A full meal from a street cook typically cost me less than $2 and undoubtedly put even the best Vietnamese food I had tried previously to complete shame. Some of the highlights included the most flavorful beef phở (called phở bò) imaginable, rolled-to-order fried pork spring rolls, charcoal grilled chicken bánh mì sandwiches and stir fried garlic beef and rice noodles (cue lustful reminiscent drooling). Vicariously eating through Bourdain's Vietnamese adventures no more, my own deliciously fond memories of Vietnam will keep me going until my next encounter with my newest love, Hanoi.
There are meals over the years that have left a long lasting impression, whether because of the stunning environment, exquisite cuisine or memorable company. Last week’s 16-course experience at Chicago’s two Michelin star rated Sixteen with its elevated sunset-washed views of the city etched its way into my short list of impressionable meals for all three of these very reasons.
Perched on the 16th floor of Trump International Hotel & Towel Chicago, the appropriately named Sixteen provides a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan, the Chicago River and the Wrigley Clock tower from its floor-to-ceiling dining room windows, or better yet, when the weather allows, from its terrace. An opportunity to soak in the city from this ideal gazing point alone is reason for a visit to Sixteen.
With the dazzling vistas and “welcome” champagne already providing a rosy sense of satisfaction, I’m not sure if I was mentally or emotionally prepared for the parade of spring dishes to come from Executive Chef Nick Dostal and Executive Pastry Chef Evan Sheridan. Chef Dostal’s take on contemporary American cuisine highlights the seasonal bounties of local farmers, rangers and fishmongers, preparing and presenting them in an innovative, borderline whimsical manner.
Highlights of the marathon Chef’s Extended Menu included the sublime Burgundy snail and morel pasta, the ethereal Dungeness crab with white asparagus puree and the delightful addition of fresh ginger, and the Oregon lamb, prepared two ways. The evening’s wine pairings themselves put on a spectacular show that highlighted so many perfectly paired diverse whites they may have induced a white wine epiphany for this red wine imbiber.
The experience at Sixteen was made all the more enjoyable by the company it was shared with. The culinary debates, playful banter, and course-by-course analysis made dining at Sixteen a truly immersive experience, and one I am more then pleased to add to life’s list of impressionable meals.
401 N. Wabash Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611
Last week, Chris and I surprised his daughter Kam and took her out for an evening under the White Big Top at Soldier Field for what the billboard's peppering I-290 claimed was "The Best Show Ever." We quickly realized upon entering the Rendezvous VIP tent, that if judged on buffet offerings and tent accommodations alone, Cavalia's Odysseo show might just in fact live up to its Best Ever tagline.
We filled up on a plentiful mediterranean bounty, cheers-ed with complimentary champagne a-plenty, lounged in oversized arm chairs and smuggled just-popped popcorn all in anticipation of the enigmatic spectacle that lay ahead. What was to come in the next 2 hours under the White Big Top was nothing less than a feast for the senses - fleets of snow white horses galloping in choreographed patterns, rhythmic acrobats tumbling with boundless energy, fearless stunt performers leaping, flipping, and twirling through the air, an awe inspiring horse trainer orchestrating nearly a dozen stallions with nothing but the gentlest of commands.
We took a few minutes between acts to pinch ourselves back to reality and gorge on the extensive dessert buffet in the VIP tent before reentering the world of Odysseo for round 2. The second act delivered even more acrobatics, stunning steeds on parade, and live musical accompaniment, culminating with a “is this real life?”-inducing finale replete with a greatest hits of the night’s acts performing simultaneously in, around and over the body of water that appeared where the sandy stage once was.
As the final applause subsided, we made our way backstage to the stables for a visit with the show’s 65 equine stars. We finished the evening with a trip onto the stage itself, stunned by the vastness of the impressive performance space under the Big Top...Odysseo by Cavalia was an experience we will remember for years to come, wondering if it was all just a dream.
Interesting Tidbits about Odysseo
The show features 65 horses of 11 different breeds.
Horses in the show are from Spain, Portugal, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Australia, The United States and Canada.
There are 48 artists including riders, acrobats, aerialists, dancers and musicians.
There are 350 costumes and 100 pairs of shoes and boots in the show. Artists may have up to seven different costumes.
A team of 13 dressmakers, one property master, one designer and one shoemaker worked in the Odysseo studios to create the costumes.
Don't miss your chance to experience Odysseo by Cavalia. The show only runs until May 17, 2017 in Chicago but you can reserve your tickets for one of the remaining showtimes using the link below. Use coupon code SOCIAL for 15% off your ticket purchase!