A confectioner shapes a chocolate sculpture at the Fine Chocolate Show.
I have a (not so) shocking confession to make: I love chocolate. Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, hot chocolate – I love it all. So when I heard about the Chicago Fine Chocolate Show, I knew that I needed to go.
The Fine Chocolate Show was held Oct. 18-20 at Navy Pier, in an exhibition hall right across from where the Diwali cruise embarked. The way it works is this – you pay for admission and then have unlimited run of the samples provided by the vendors. The vendors are hoping that you love their product so much that you choose to buy some (or, should you be a retailer, buy a lot!). What's available may be samples, but trust me, there is plenty of chocolate to be eaten.
I tried some of the darkest chocolate I've ever had (85 percent cacao), several different homemade toffees, and chocolate infused with everything from garlic to lemongrass – and those are just the non-alcoholic samples. There were two different chocolate wines, and a chocolate liqueur.
One of the most interesting things I tried was a product called Crio Bru. They sell cocoa beans that you brew the same way as coffee beans, though the end product tastes nothing like coffee. You might imagine the product is similar to hot chocolate, but it is very different and is not at all sweet. Russ Lavaja of Crio Bru explained that the company started four years ago in Utah with their special roasting process for cocoa beans and is now up to 40 employees. He has been very happy with the response he has been getting, saying, "The show has been going fabulously."
The flashiest thing I saw at the show was courtesy of the Trump Hotel and Tower – hot chocolate poured over ice cream which was frozen with liquid nitrogen. The effect was white smoke pouring over the sides of the cup, almost as if there was dry ice at the bottom. Patrick Fahy, Executive Pastry Chef at the Trump Tower, explained, "We're doing very hot chocolate with very, very cold ice cream." Trump is promoting their restaurants, but for Fahy a lot of it was about being involved in the Chicago business scene. "We're in the city here and wanted to check this out and have some fun," Fahy said.
Many of the vendors were at the show looking to make business inroads in the Chicago area. Bridgette Nickel is the Director of Sales and Marketing for Cary's of Oregon (which makes very good toffee), which is expanding to this region. "We're just introducing the product to the Midwest...we've just hired sales reps for the area," she said. The goal is to get the product into stores. Nickel believes that the industry is definitely on the rebound. "People did stop corporate gifts for a while, but they're starting to come back," Nickel said.
Nicole Boulahanis, Chicago Market Manager for Chopin Vodka (a Polish firm which makes Dorda, the aforementioned chocolate liqueur), has also seen great growth in the recovering economy. "We've gone from 40,000 cases to 80,000 cases in a matter of two years. The economy has definitely gotten better," Boulahanis said.
The show was a lot of fun (if you're like me, and find eating lots of delicious chocolate fun), and definitely worth the price of admission. Many of the vendors were optimistic that the show would grow in years to come. "I think more restaurants will be involved next year," said Fahy.
Whether you're interested in the business of food, or just in the business of sampling food, I recommend keeping an eye out for the show next October.