By noon, I was already bloated. I’d eaten seven whole hot dogs, at least a dozen fried oddities, and an ugodly sugary block disguised as an ice-cream sandwich. I wandered around Ravinia grounds until I found a suitable shaded area, plopped down, released my pant buttons, and closed my eyes. Only eight and a half hours until John Mayer, and seven until Phillip Phillips (the American Idol star with an unforgivable name but irresistible face).
Ravinia in Highland Park is one of those suburban places with a curious urban presence. I’ve driven past the area a few times, nearly running over avid suburbanites on their $4,000 “recreational” bikes. Past concerts and events have included the One Republic, American Authors, Yo Yo Ma, Carrie Underwood, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, John Legend, and Pat Green. One of the biggest events this year was the Food Network in Concert, featuring chefs Sunny Anderson, Jeff Mauro, Marc Murphy, Geoffrey Zakarian, plus musical guests.
The event had public tastings/presentations, in addition to extra-ticketed events with themes like “Around the World in Four Courses” and “Blues, Brews, and BBQ.” The public tastings were terribly long, and most of the time, not worth the claustrophobic crowd. I vaguely remember a corn coconut soup and foie torchon, but the pleasant memories are shrouded by too many warm ceviches and unforgivably dry sliders. The extra-ticketed events, however, were well worth the expense. The food was fresher and more interesting (think foie truffle hot dogs and fresh blueberry pie) and took place indoors so you could recharge and mop the sweat off your face.
The only presentation I managed to sit through in its entirety was the “Chefs Under Fire” panel that included all the big-time names, including Marc Murphy, Geoffrey Zakarian, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Anne Burrell. How did I sit through the whole thing? Well, when I realized I was sitting next to fucking Wyle Dufresne. Oh yes. At first, I thought it was just a guy with serious chops, cargo shorts, and worn messenger bag. No, my neurons cried. That guy is Wyle! Wyle Dufresne! I immediately began sweating, trying to cast inconspicuous glances in order to confirm. God, he smelled good. Should I ask him what time it is, or make a really witty comment? Should I take a stealthy selfie with him?
In the end, I didn’t do anything. Wyle stood up at the end of the panel, and I watched him descend down the auditorium, his hair gliding effortlessly behind him. I immediately whipped out my camera and starting zapping away, fixing my crosshairs right onto those sideburns. There he was, rubbing his dear wife‘s back for being great moderator, and I was just taking pictures like the overzealous paparazzi.
But I digress. The panel was surprisingly entertaining, as the four chefs amused the crowd with anecdotes on kitchen blunders and their opinions on other Food Network chefs. (Apparently Alton Brown is intimidating and “way-too smart”?) I discovered that is everyone is scared of Morimoto, that Alex Guarnaschelli cries a lot, and that Geoffrey Zakarian once got so drunk during a show taping that his sous chef had to finish his dish. Although I’d hardly call any of them serious “chefs” now, I can admire their business savviness. As Marc Murphy said, “A show takes an hour of cooking, but cooking in a restaurant takes all night.” Moral of the story? Become a chef to do what you love. Become a TV personality to make money and live in a big house in LA and have BBQs with Tom Colicchio.
Despite my ambivalence towards the Food Network, I actually had a really wonderful experience. Both the food and presentations were spot-on in flavor, texture, and acidity. The only thing that may have ruined the event was John Mayer, and I made sure to get the hell out of Ravinia before that happened.