A bevy of Chicago’s most talented chefs and mixologists will be plying their trade at a special event on Feb. 3 serving up plenty of delicious food, and raising awareness and funds for a most worthy cause.
The event is 20th anniversary “Grand Chefs Gala,” the annual fundraiser that for the past two decades, which has benefited the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Being held at the Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier, the evening will feature 50 of Chicago’s most talented chefs and mixologists in a celebration that will also honor veteran restaurant visionary Richard Melman, founder and chairman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Melman will be receiving the organization’s Chicago Classic Award recognizing his immense contribution to Chicago’s culinary scene.
The gala’s emcee will be Jeff Mauro, Food Network star and owner of the Pork & Mindy’s restaurant, who says hosting this event hits close to home for him. “I also hosted last year,” said “The Kitchen” co-star, “and I’ve been touched by cystic fibrosis. A friend of mine I grew up with had cystic fibrosis. She was a soldier, a fighter against that disease. Watching her, a developed such a respect for people facing that challenge. So I’m happy to help this great organization raise money to hopefully get closer to finding a cure.”
Mauro is also excited that — along with his initial restaurant in Bucktown — “we have partnered with the Chicago Cubs, and we will have a concession in the bleachers at Wrigley [Field], beginning this coming summer.”
Long known as “The Sandwich King,” Mauro laughed when reminded he often has said, “my favorite color is pastrami.” “It’s true,” Mauro said. “Pastrami is my favorite meal, and it took us about six months to perfect it. At Pork & Mindy’s we have a house-cured, hand-cut, house-smoked pastrami that I’m very proud of!”
One of the chefs participating in the gala is Ryan Pfeiffer of Blackbird, which was recently honored with a Jean Banchet Award for restaurant of the year. Being one of the top chefs in the nation, Pfeiffer stressed that one of the things he loves about his work is that it’s an industry that is always raising the bar.
“If you’re not interested in improving and evolving, then you shouldn’t be in this field,” said Pfeiffer. “When it comes to the restaurant business there are only two constants: Things are always changing, and the rate of change will always increase.”
As for participating in Friday’s event, the chef said, “even more important than the recognition [of his recent award],” was that he and his restaurant partners enjoy helping others “and reaching out to support efforts like this, in whatever way that we can.”
Pfeiffer is obviously happy to be a participant in the Chicago dining scene, which he indicated “is on an incredible upswing. Chicago is great, because no one says how great we are, but simply tries to maintain a certain high standard, but below the radar. … It’s not like New York or California, where people in the business always promote where they’re from. In Chicago, we’re a lot more humble — just trying to quietly do good work. The number of great restaurants in Chicago today is amazing — and keeps growing all the time. … What’s also exciting is how the general public has become so acclimated to fine dining,” the chef added. “Everyone today is a restaurant reviewer, thanks to things like Yelp and Open Table,” he quipped.
“As much as it may hurt some chefs’ egos, I think it helps our industry. Those people are the reason we have jobs!”
One of Chicago’s exciting up-and-coming chefs at the gala will be Diana Davila, the Boka alumnae who also worked in Washington, D.C., — who is planning on bringing her family’s Mexican heritage (plus her culinary schooling in Mexico) to her new Mi Tocaya Antojeria restaurant, set to open in Logan Square this spring.
The Chicago native grew up with parents who were adventurous when it came to trying new places to eat in the area. “My mom would check out the latest Chicago magazine and want to try someplace new. We went out to eat a lot and that was something I learned about at an early age. It was always an adventure.”
Davila hopes to share her own exposure to the wide range of the way Mexican dishes are prepared, in her new restaurant. “I was very privileged, when I was younger, to spend every summer in Mexico — first with relatives — but then traveled throughout the country. We would stay at my mother’s sister’s house, but also go to many places in other parts of the country. Every region of the country does things differently. There are a million ways to do enchiladas or many other dishes. … But it’s not like trying to exactly reproduce this recipe or that recipe. So many things I watched being prepared in Mexico were not done by a specific recipe — it’s all by feel and touch and taste.
“Whatever pot you like — that’s the measurement,” she said with a laugh. “But I observed that even for those people who made the same five dishes their entire lives — they were always perfecting upon it. That’s a good lesson for any chef — no matter what the cuisine.”
For information visit www.grandchefsgala.com.