It's raining. Chicago's legendary winds are gusting, cutting straight through a coat that, in any other city, would even be a little too warm for 50-degree weather. My date is struggling with an umbrella that's clearly not built to withstand this sort of wind.
"One begins to wonder why I even bother with an umbrella," Sean says. Except it's too windy to even close it at this point.
I haven't painted the most wonderful picture, I know. But we live in Chicago, so we learn to deal. The point is, unpleasant weather isn't about to deter us from going to the 2016 Michelin Star reveal.
I'd been looking forward to this since I (well, technically Bernie Pacyniak, Candy Industry Magazine’s editor-in-chief) received the invitation. It came in a sleek black envelope, printed on a ruby red sheet of hard plastic. When Bernie asked if I'd like to go because he was out of town that day, I thought, "In what world would I not?"
Not only was the invitation beautiful, the event itself was held at the Chicago Athletic Club. I'd only ever been in the Shake Shack on the first floor, but it was enough to tell me that the entire building was amazing.
Back in the present, we're only a few steps away from our destination. We roll into the lobby and follow a crowd of well-dressed people to the eighth floor. The elevator doors open to reveal a check-in table set before a bright red backdrop decorated with the words "The Michelin Guide 2016 Restaurants"
"I wonder where it is?" says Sean. He's joking (I hope), and fittingly excited for the event.
We check in, drop our coats off, and wander into the White City Ballroom. It's softly lit. Muted white light bounces off the wooden paneling. There's a tower of bottled water rising up from a table near the entrance, accompanied by three servers with trays of drinks and disarming smiles.
"You need a glass in your hand!" One of them says. She's right. I grab a flute of white wine.
It's early, so the room hasn't filled up yet. We pass by a display of old Michelin Guides, showcasing different editions over the years (pictured above). Mixologists stand behind a handful of drink stations framing the room. Wine, cocktails, scotch, it's all here.
Sean and I make a beeline for the spread of smoked meat, cheese, and bread at the far side of the room. Leave it to the recently graduated Millennials to be the first ones at the food table.
There's bread from Bridor de France, meats from Solex Catsmo. Servers float around with trays of hors d'oeuvres, which we quickly discover are to die for — grilled octopus, white truffles with caviar, macarons.
So, of course, we spend the first twenty minutes enjoying (read: stuffing our faces with) all this food. The grilled octopus is a hit. There's no saying no to them every time they pass by, and Sean is determined to keep going back.
"They can't stop me," he declares. I don't blame him, it's delicious.
After that, we people-watch, trying to figure out who our fellow attendees are. There's a guy wearing a beige sweater that's adamantly not cocktail attire. Nearby, we see a short, but imposing man with a tall blonde girl who may or may not have a tattoo on her back. At risk of being entirely too creepy for an upstanding event, we try and fail to figure it out.
And there's another guy in a blue shirt and red tie, with an unfairly symmetrical face and impressively large hands, who looks like he's in charge of something. We later discover that he's Curtis Duffy, the chef at Grace, one of two restaurants that will earn a three-star ranking tonight. Some people can have it all, I guess.
In the midst of all this, the Michelin Man rolls out into the ballroom with a guide, probably because he can't really see where he's going. I decide I must have a picture with him, so we follow him out into the lobby. He's swamped with adoring fans, but I get my turn.
Back in the ballroom, Sean decides it's time to make new friends. We spot a bearded guy in glasses and a gray sweater standing near the stage, so we ambush him and introduce ourselves.
His name is Jon DuBois, he's the chef de cuisine at Green Zebra, which I learn is a vegetarian Bib Gourmand (Michelin's recognition of good food at an affordable price, and a step below one star) restaurant in West Town. Jon is here because his boss couldn't make it. He's also a meat-eater.
"How does that work?" We ask. He says it gives him a unique perspective on vegetarian food.
It's surprising how enlightening a casual conversation with a chef can be, especially for someone (me) whose most impressive culinary feat is learning how to stir fry meat and vegetables as part of the same dish.
Jon teaches us how to poach eggs (the hardest part is watching it cook, he says, for two minutes without touching it). He explains how butter poaching helps food retain moisture because water and fat don't mix. The fat keeps the water in, and the water keeps the fat out.
He gives us a crash course on different kinds of olive oil and why you shouldn't cook with extra virgin (the organic compounds break down in high heat, so you lose most of the benefits).
But if there's one thing we need to take away from that conversation, it's "Never forget the salt."
Jon is adamant about this. People think if you can taste the salt, it's too much, he says, but that's not necessarily true. Salt enhances flavors in food, so you want to salt a little before, a little during, and a little after for a seasoned taste. And use kosher salt, because it tastes more pure.
We're about to grill Jon for more cooking wisdom when the reveal starts. Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guide, takes over the stage to thank the sponsors and announce the recipients of this yearly recognition. Chicago's resident three-star restaurants, Grace and Alinea, both retain their coveted ranking. Acadia joins incumbents 42 Grams and Sixteen in the two-star category, whileDusek's (Board and Beer) and Parachute join the list of 17 one-star restaurants.
There's rampant applause and cheering as chefs are called onstage. They're each handed a Michelin Guide and brought together for a photo op. And then, they announce, they're going to saber open a bottle of champagne for a toast.
"Someone get this on film," a guy rocking a dark beard and a cheeky smile pipes up. "Because if they don't do it right, it'll be gold."
So we film it. The sabering goes off without a hitch and the audience, every member of which has been surreptitiously handed a flute of champagne, toasts the winners.
The guy who wanted the sabering on film turns out to be a chef at another Bib Gourmand restaurant. He and his date join our rapidly growing group (now up to five) for another round of toasting, just because we can.
With the big reveal over, the rest of the evening revolves around chatting with our new companions, promising to visit their respective restaurants, and plucking macarons off passing carts.
We pause to appreciate the live DJ who is actually scrubbing on a turntable — a rare find nowadays — and the accompanying saxophone player, who grooves along to his own music with enthusiastic abandon, clearly enjoying himself.
At some point, we spot some sleek decanters on the table beside us and jokingly wonder if anyone will miss them if they mysteriously disappear. We eventually come to the right conclusion (yes, they will), but Sean takes some convincing.
"Notice how everyone else has put theirs back?" I ask. He gives me a sad look, like a kid who's just found out Santa won't be coming this year, and returns the decanter.
As the party winds down, our group, friends for a fortuitous and fleeting hour, disperses. We grab our coats and go our separate ways, back into the wind and rain of wonderful Chicago.
The hour, though brief, has taught me a lot. I've learned some casual dishes to cook, gotten some tips from fantastic chefs, and found a couple restaurants to add to my list. So I'll count myself lucky that Bernie couldn't come, and I'll count myself lucky to have brought a date who was so determined to make new friends.
Because an event like this could just be a reception and a ceremony. Or you can make what you want of it, and maybe leave with a net positive in knowledge and culinary wisdom.
Chicago's 2016 Michelin Star recipients
- 42 Grams
- Dusek's (Board and Beer)
- El Ideas
- Longman & Eagle
- North Pond