Saturday, Tazer and I headed to Lincoln Park in Chicago, to attend our first (but the city's third) Cultivate Festival. When we got there, things seemed somewhat chaotic, as the Chicago Green City Market was happening, along with the usual crowds headed for the Zoo and lakefront. We lucked into a great (free!) parking spot and hoofed it over to the festival grounds, stopping along the way for a peak at the animals and edible gardens at the Farm in the Zoo.
Cultivate Chicago is a creation of Chipotle, the now-ubiquitous Mexican fast-food chain. Even though service has been uneven at times, for the most part they do a pretty good job and definitely are a step above most others, especially for their philosophy on sourcing healthier and more local products. The one-day Cultivate Festival showcases cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs (we were too early for Graham Elliot, our only disappointment of the day), live music, local food artisans, regional beer and wines, a special Chipotle festival menu, and other activities emphasizing fresh and affordable food made with sustainable ingredients.
I'm not a fan of festivals in general, not really liking the crowds, often sunbaked grounds, and general herd mentality. This was one I wanted to check out because food choices are really important to our family and there were some interesting chefs on the schedule.
Upon entry to the festival, we were given a Cultivate passport to track participation in activities. There were six experiences around the festival, from organic farming to avocados to farm facts. Inexplicably, the only time we saw a line was for the Tabasco activity, which we couldn't figure out at all. Once we got four stamps, we took our program to the Info Tent and got a coupon for a free burrito, bowl, salad or order of tacos at any Chipotle.
The festival included such chef luminaries as Paul Kahan (Avec, Big Star, The Publican, and Publican Quality Meat); Curtis Duffy (Grace); Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot, Grahamwich, and Graham Elliot Bistro); Jonathon Sawyer (The Greenhouse Tavern and Noodlecat in Cleveland); and more. Demonstrations were held under tents, using mirrors and large video screens to enable everyone to see. Nicely done.
Cultivate Chicago included a Kids’ Zone dedicated to nutrition and agricultural education, with hot dogs, snacks, T-shirt and tile painting, free seeds for a salsa garden, and more. Tazer enjoyed the food, painted a shirt, but appeared, at 12 years old, a bit above it, though he was happy to get a free Kids' Meal coupon for one of his little brothers.
The Artisans’ Hall featured local vendors offering a wide selection of local artisan-crafted foods for sampling and purchase. Each vendor was hand-selected by Chipotle for their commitment to the local community and environment. It was tough to choose something, as there were so many good menu items -- we ended up trying the Bangers and Bacon sandwich from Spencer's Jolly Posh Foods, most satisfying.
We didn't stay for it, but the musical lineup included Walk the Moon, Youngblood Hawke, Dale Earnhart Jr Jr, The Mowgli’s, and Bestfriends.
We got a taste of Chipotle’s newest concept, ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, which currently has locations in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. I had to try the Rice Bowl (Jasmine rice with pork and chicken meatballs or organic tofu, charred green beans, green ￼curry, and green papaya slaw) - the meatballs were delicious and the curry was really spicy, brave on their part! Tazer tried out their Gorditas (grilled flat bread with steak or braised pork, escabeche, sour cream, and queso fresco), opting for steak and no sour cream. Very tasty. Also available from Chipotle were Esquites (salad of charred corn, shredded cabbage, and crispy tortillas, tossed with roasted tomatillos, sour￼cream, pickled onions, and cotija cheese) and Tacos, neither of which we sampled. Hard to taste a lot of variety when serving sizes are so large!
On our way out, we stopped by the Tasting Hall, which featured 14 different brewers and vintners, including 5 Rabbit, M. Lawrence Winery, and more. Chipotle debuted the Cultivate Farmhouse Ale, created in partnership with 5 Rabbit Brewing Company, available only at the Festival. I didn't drink much, for one I had to drive home, but also because it had the feeling of a bar more than a tasting area. Not sure why. If it was my festival, I'd probably mix the Tasting and Artisan Halls up a bit, so one could more easily eat and drink together, rather than in separate areas.
We were really impressed with how well the festival was run, how much room there was to spread out (even though there were a lot of people, it never felt too crowded). The food was good and varied, the activities gave form to our wanderings, and it was just a good experience overall. Since we had such a great time, we're planning on bringing the rest of the family next year!
Disclaimer: Some of the food items mentioned were provided to me as media samples.
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