Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world.
-- Frank Lloyd Wright
Long overdue, I finally found my way to the Windy City. When the opportunity to speak on a panel at the BlogHerFood15 Conference was offered to me, I couldn’t resist saying yes. A chance to see old friends, meet new ones, share my career knowledge with fellow food bloggers, and finally see what happens when the shores of Lake Michigan meet the skyscrapers of Chicago!
I hit the ground running as soon as I arrived in Chicago Thursday afternoon and didn’t really stop until I left for the airport on Sunday. Let's run through 15 of my favorite moments in order of date, not preference. And I promise you, this doesn't cover it all.
1. When Virtual Becomes Reality: Emily Paster, blogger at West of the Loop and author of an upcoming cookbook called Food Swap, and I met through my virtual cooking community Tasting Jerusalem. Though we had yet to meet in person, we felt that inexplicable online bond that many find hard to comprehend. Happily, we squeezed in time for a real drink in the hotel bar my first afternoon in Chicago and hit it off in person immediately, spending time together throughout the rest of the conference. And I loved that she attended my session!
2. The Pulse of Chicago: Did you know that lentils are in the pulse family which includes dried beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas. Canadian Lentils hosted a dinner at The Little Goat in Chicago, a Stephanie Izard restaurant to showcase how to use these little gems in everything from appetizers through dessert. It was my first taste of Chicago food, Chicago energy, and Chicago hospitality – win, win, win.
3. A Gathering Spot: The open, theatre-like kitchen in the Little Goat restaurant was a magnet for all of us camera-wielding food fanatics. Many of us who couldn’t stop watching Stephanie and her team prep and cook also became fast friends over the course of the evening and conference.
4. Chicago Hospitality: If Chef Stephanie Izard is any indication, the food scene in Chicago is a bit like a giant welcome mat for the city. She let us look over her shoulder, photograph, video, snapchat, periscope and practically take over her kitchen, all the while smiling, cooking, answering questions, and preparing creatively complex but simply fantastic lentil dishes.
5. Old Friends Feeding and Changing the World: So inspiring to see my friends Sarah Wu, of the blog and book Fed Up with Lunch and Amber Stott, of the California Food Literacy Center featured in the Friday lunch keynote all about local food advocacy.
6. High Tech Meets Food Talk: Friday was all about focusing on my 1:30 panel on how to a create a business plan for your online platform. After working by phone and email for a few weeks, I finally met my talented co-panelists: Danielle Wiley, CEO of Sway Group, and Helen Jane Hearn of Wine Spoken Here and HelenJane.com. We were excited to share our 3-pronged presentation on business strategies for your emerging, growth, or established online food-focussed platform.
7. Think Like a Business: We had a lot to cover in our panel (probably to the dismay of the live bloggers who had to keep up) but they did a fantastic job so you can read the transcript here and view our resources page here.
8. Supporting Women Entrepreneurs: The day ended with the BlogHerFood version of "The Pitch" - four women-owned businesses vied to win support for their start-ups. We watched their 30 second videos, a panel of experts questioned them, and then we voted on Twitter. Love with Food, a subscription snacking company founded by Auhui Ong, that donates money with each order to help fight child hunger won the contest but all businesses are worth a look: One Potato founded by Catherine McCord of Weelicious; Feed your Head/Pirate Pastries by Caitlin McGlone; and Chef Julie Yoon's YouTube cooking show. Besides the official "Pitch" participants, I was inspired by many other women founders at the show including my friend Kathy Strahs who just launched her own publishing company, Burnt Cheese Press and published her first book, The 8X8 Cookbook!
9. Schmoozing and Late-Night Dining: After a full day, we enjoyed some wine and snacks in the conference lobby - a chance to catch up with old friends and meet some new ones including the storytelling, guitar-playing JJ French from the band Twisted Sister. Then a few of us headed to Rick Bayless’ restaurant Topolabombo for a late night meal, opting for a simple 3-course version of his menu but his 28 ingredient black mole is anything but simple! Pictured here is the smoky sashimi style scallops with a salsa negra surprise.
10. Key Points from the Saturday Keynote: Lots of interesting wisdom from some long time bloggers about staying happy and motivated as a food blogger. My favorite? Taking a social media "fast". Try it - you might like it! Great to see so many Bay Area locals in that brain trust - Sabrina from The Tomato Tart, Irvin from Eat the Love, Elise from Simply Recipes, and Michael from Food for the Thoughtless. When I went to the mic to ask a question, the little cheer I received was good for my ego too! (did I just admit to that ??? - I'm nothing if not honest people.)
11. A Sense of Serendipity: I skipped the fantastic outing on Saturday to Chicago’s new Eataly for a chance to eat at a local favorite, the Purple Pig. When it was too crowded to accommodate our foursome, we ended up at a Chinese restaurant, with me cringing in fear about eating Chinese food in the uncharted territory of Chicago. Well I was dead wrong. The food at Lao Sze Chuan was epic – probably the best Chinese food I’ve eaten in the states. Touted as the best Peking Duck in America – I can’t prove or disprove this claim but I'd fly there to eat it again. Fresh roasted, sliced tableside, and served with thin delicate pancakes and the most decadent brown-sugar coated skin to whet your appetite. Serendipity pays off – veer off your planned path when you eat in a new city – you may find an occasional dud, but the winners make it all worth the risk.
12. Buffy at a Blogging Conference?: Nobody was more surprised than me when Elisa Camahort Page announced that the conference keynote would be an interview with Sarah Michelle Gellar of Buffy fame. What? Well like all of us, careers take twists and turns and she is now a food entrepreneur launching her new company, Foodstirs. Elisa's interview was engaging and Sarah Michelle was charming, humble, and had the best orange shoes in the room, hands down. And yeah, thank to Elisa, I did take a picture with Sarah Michelle and get an autograph for my own Dormant Chef Buffy-loving husband.
13. Early Morning Walk: The weather was beautiful in Chicago and Sunday's long walk with my new friend Letty from Letty's Kitchen was such an invigorating and beautiful start to my last day in the Windy City.
14. Breakfast and Bombolinos: Sometimes it takes a trip far away to spend time with friends from close to home. On Sunday morning, I went to breakfast with Amber Stott, founder of the Food Literacy Center of Sacramento and two of her rockstar employees. We headed back over to the Little Goat Diner to enjoy their breakfast. But the long wait nudged us across the street to a coffee bar. Turns out this wasn't just a coffee bar - it was a bombobar! They served bombolinos, which are Italian doughnuts stuffed to your liking with filling as you order. If you celebrate Hannukah - you'll see these as Italian soufganiyot. I chose the salted caramel filling, Amber the vanilla creme. I wanted more but controlled myself for the Little Goat corned beef hash to come!
15. An Afternoon of Miniatures, Impressionists, and American Art: With mere hours left of my visit, I checked out of my hotel and wandered a few blocks to the Art Institute of Chicago. I thoroughly enjoyed the Miniatures showing the progression of interior design, the Impressionists, and seeing the iconic American Gothic from six inches away was mesmerizing. And to get me in the mood for the Thanksgiving cooking bonanza, this 1930s piece by Doris Lee was just the thing.
Thanks BlogHer and SheKnows for the chance to speak at the conference and a wonderful opportunity to visit Chicago. I will return ready to explore and eat in a most beautiful, great city, just as Frank Lloyd Wright described it.
If you're interested, the next BlogHerFood conference will be in Austin, TX, October 7-8, 2016.