Chefs on the Grill

By Dana Getz

On a sunny Wednesday evening beneath the hub of tourists surrounding Millennium Park’s bean, around 550 people gathered June 19 to celebrate the sixth annual Chefs on the Grill event hosted at the Park Grill. Guests sampled entrees and creative cocktails from 13 local restaurants, with all proceeds benefitting Special Olympics Chicago/Special Children’s Charities. The event also featured a raffle, silent auction and live performance by local cover band The Walk-Ins, as well as NBC 5 Chicago’s meteorologist Cheryl Scott as emcee.

Chef Cory Morris of Mercat a la Planxa took home the trophy for Champion Chef with his summer-inspired dish of Colorado lamb chops with ramp pesto, pickled ramps and migas. After a brief hiatus last summer, first-time winner Mercat returned for its third year in the competition.

“We took one of our best dishes and added a seasonal twist,” Morris said of his key to success. “It means everything [to win]. It’s good for a lot of people supporting the foundation.”

Chef Brian Jupiter of Frontier earned best cocktail for his Yerba Buena mix of cognac, Absolut craft vodka, agave syrup and lemon.

Park Grill owner Bernie Laskowski started the competition in 2007 to raise awareness about the culinary scene developing in the South Loop—a scene typically associated with the River North area according to Laskowski. The event has since blossomed into both a haven for foodies and a learning experience for local chefs.

“I can’t say there’s competition. All the chefs are very competitive by nature…but we’re also very supportive of each other,” Laskowski said. “It’s more collaborative than competitive.”

When asked his favorite places to eat, he pointed to each of his 11 competitors’ stations, saying his favorite part of the annual event is “all of the chefs getting together to relax and have a good time.”

Laskowski’s own dish was Lechon style roasted pork with cilantro and goat horn pepper sofrito, inspired by a recent trip to Puerto Rico.

“The food in Puerto Rico really was part of my upbringing as a kid being Guatemalan,” Laskowski said. “It’s a reflection of my origin and my love for cooking meat.”

The dish was designed to demonstrate the Park’s concept for their own menu: approachable yet modern. Laskowski said the Park’s clientele consists mainly of well-traveled tourists and businessmen and women, so they aim for something unique but also familiar. To test new dishes they’ll run them on specials first, so Laskowski suggests looking there if you’re feeling adventurous.

Chefs on the Grill began partnering with the Special Olympics during its third summer. All proceeds go toward covering the expenses associated with the 22 sports their more than 5,000 athletes participate in, primarily including transportation and equipment costs.

“It would be impossible for us to do this on our own,” said Susan Nicholl, executive director of Special Children’s Charities. “We would definitely not be able to reach the number of athletes or events held that we have now; it’s creating many more experiences and memories that we can offer them.”