devouring theatre, film, and food
I felt like Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket. Except my Willy Wonka’s factory was the Chicago Fine Chocolate Show and I had 15 tickets, red rather than gold.
Cake pops, cupcakes, confections, toffee, brownies, and confections of every letter lined the halls of the Navy Pier convention hall where the inaugural Chicago Fine Chocolate Show set up shop up on a cold weekend in November. The popular tourist venue had attracted “tourist” vendors from across the nation and around the block. Over 100 choco-businesses provided samples of their tasty delights and hyped their particular take on the decadent treasure of chocolate to the nearly 14,500 attendees. Businesses present ranged from small, local shops with adorable names – Puffs of Doom, Chocolate for the Spirit – to corporate empires like Fannie Mae and Dove.
While chocolate-eating was my primary concern, chocolate-making was also present. Chefs from the French Pastry School of Kennedy-King College at City Colleges of Chicago constructed intricate sculptures made solely of chocolate, and live cooking demonstrations were a feast for the eyes and stomach. But my most significant take-away wasn’t the inevitable stomach ache, but some wise advice from a man who led a chocolate and beer tasting in the afternoon.
Clay Gordon, the bearded founder of TheChocolateLife.com, has made a career out of encouraging everyone to use their taste buds to create unconventional pairings, including beer and chocolate. As an expert on neither, but a consumer of both, I enjoyed mixing and matching beers and chocolate chips, paying closer attention to the tastes I was experiencing. I learned the percentages on chocolate packages don’t speak to the quality of the chocolate, simply the ratio of cocoa to sugar and cream. It’s labeling that includes the chocolate’s origin – which farm grew the beans were grown on – that can actually shed some light onto the chocolate’s story and history. It’s the story behind the chocolate that can be as important as its taste.
After a few beer samples, I approached Clay for a quick interview. He repeated a lot from his tasting, and firmly believes in letting people discover tastes on their own and not judging less developed palettes, but what was most interesting about our discussion was the “dark side of chocolate.” Throughout his tasting, folks walked through the aisle, snooping around at chocolate, hunting for free samples. Gordon shared that at one show, someone had tried to make off with $1,000 worth of samples. The mentality for consumers at a trade show (which regrettably included me) is to stuff their faces and get their money’s worth. Gordon shared that it’s just as important to meet the people behind the chocolate, hear their stories, and respect the work that goes into starting a business and travelling to a trade show.
By the end of the 3 hours, I had an appreciation for the dedication of chocolate business people and a severe stomach ache. I went home, passed out for 2 hours, and awoke as if it had all been a dream. My only evidence that I had been there was one final unused ticket, and a new appreciation for the stories behind the pieces of chocolate, which can make for the most delicious pairing of all.
Learn more about the festival and prepare your stomach for next year at: http://chicagochocolatefestival.com