J'nai Gaither is a food and wine afficionado who experiences new and fabulous restaurants and wine tastings on a frequent basis. Her goal within 2 years is to own land in Argentina and make wine on her own personal vineyard. She aspires to be able to play golf and drink wine all day! This past year she has served of the Gala Committee of the Grand Chefs Gala for Cystic Fibrosis and continues to involve herself in the exhilarating realm of Chicago's culinary landscape.
Here is a bit about her experience at the Gala in her words:
The Fairmont Chicago and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation held the 13th annual Grand Chefs Gala on January 29, 2010. The black tie Grand Chefs Gala is a fabulous event which also simultaneously holds the Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence. The event began with a cocktail hour in an upstairs ballroom of the beautiful Fairmont Hotel. Over 30 chefs set up tables and cooking stations to offer guests hors d'ouevres to introduce them to the tastes of their respective restaurants, and to whet their appetite for the three course dinner to follow. Food at the cooking stations ranged from the relatively simple (i.e. “sushi” roll made up of all fruit from Bistro Dragon), to the downright exotic (i.e. veal heart with frisee and truffle oil). But it's obvious you'd get that depth of range at a prestigious culinary event!
The bars, of course, served glasses of some of the best wine around, and because the theme of this year's event was Green for Life, they served signature “Greentinis”--yummy green drinks made of Agave nectar, lime juice, limeade, and club soda. The drinks were festive and apropos for the occasion. Also apropos for the occasion was the décor. Again, because the theme was Green for Life, each table's centerpiece was a floral/foliage piece of twisted branches and recycled paper flowers which seemed to grow organically from the table. The stage that the emcees shared also reflected the green theme of tree branches and flowers. Green foliage danced along the walls, ceiling and tables thanks to a projector which helped to set the scene. It was a truly a beautiful setting for this event to take place.
***Cystic Fibrosis mainly affects the respiratory system, and clean, or “green” air would help make those affected with CF breathe easier. This is one of the reasons why the theme was “Green for Life.” In other ways, we tried to make the event as “green” as possible. All programs and menus were printed on recycled paper; we cut down on the use of paper used for the event by sending out electronic invites to the “chef's social” and save-the-dates. An environmentalist would've been proud.
Since the Gala was all about the food, check out the three course menu. The soup course was very interesting. It was a creamy porcini mushroom and smoked barley soup. Yes, it was slightly “creamy” but I would also say it was almost paste-like. It wasn't a turn off, however. The color and texture both fit in with the green theme. One might say its look was akin to a mud paste, but it was very good, nonetheless. The salad course was even better than the soup! Had some of my favorite elements in a salad—fresh, green leaves and sweet, delicious fruits. The salad was comprised of arugula, fennel, apples and pomegranates with mandarin orange and vanilla vinaigrette. Now, the entree was the best of all—garlic and parsley crusted filet mignon with cassoulet stew, and baby carrots and leaks poached with olive oil and mustard demi-glace. When you're at a food event to honor culinary creativity, you're going to experience some of the best food around! What a yummy food adventure—and just in three short courses!
So, what were the categories, and who won the Jean Banchet awards?
Best Catering Co: Blue Plate
Best Sommelier: Scott Tyree of Sepia
Rising Chef: Michael Sheerin of Blackbird
Rising Pastry Chef: Stephanie Prida of Blackbird
Best Neighborhood Restaurant: Piccolo Sogno
Best Fine Dining: Paul Virant of Vie
Celebrity Pastry Chef: Cindy Schuman of Sepia
Celebrity Chef: Rick Bayless
People's Choice Award: Curtis Duffy of Avenues
It was an honor to have Jean Banchet himself, who often doesn't make it to the Gala, introduce the distribution of the awards.
***Some of the live auction highlights included a trip to the Canadian Rockies with stays at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and Fairmont Banff Springs; shopping and cooking with Chef Brad Parsons of the Fairmont Chicago. Since we're in a recession, many of the auction items unfortunately didn't receive the price at which they were valued, so the auctioneer switched to Dutch auction, in which the asking price is thrown out first, but instead of increasing in price, if no one wants to pay asking, the auctioneer asks for lower pricing.
The night ended on a sweet note. Dessert stations were set up outside of the ballroom by acclaimed pastry chefs such as Sarah's Pastries & Candies; blood orange/champagne gelato from Via Gelato; homemade caramels from Katherine Anne's pastries, etc. The food was abundant at the Grand Chefs Gala and some of our culinary favorites were on display at this food museum, so to speak. All in all, a successful night which helped to raise approximately $300,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Windy City Wine Guy and readers, thank J'nai for her insight into one of Chicago's greatest culinary events. She seems to be on her way to reaching great heights in the culinary and wine scene. I would encourage anyone else who would like to share their views to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) as a fresh enthusiastic outlook to the wine scene is always welcome!