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Coming To Chicago: Chipotlepalooza

Coming To Chicago: Chipotlepalooza

Cultivate Chicago, a day-long festival that will offer the unusual combination of indie bands, artisanal food and wine producers, craft brewers and high-profile chefs in an outdoor setting, is the brainchild of Chipotle Mexican Grill. We’re all for brand positioning, but does it really take all this to sell fast casual Mexican food these days?

Cultivate Chicago sounds like traditional Oktoberfest re-imagined for 21st century urban hipsters. The Oct. 1 (a Saturday) event will provide plenty of ways for attendees to entertain themselves. One area of Chicago’s Lincoln Park, dubbed Brewer’s Hall, will host 11 craft brewers. Another, Artisan’s Hall, will showcase the wares of 15 Chicago-area small-scale food companies. The Music Stage will feature a procession of top-shelf musical acts that includes opener The Cave Singers, The Rural Alberta Advantage, White Rabbits, Mayer Hawthorn and closing act Calexico.

Throw in the fact that admission is free and this combination of music, food and drink, all centrally located in an easily accessible park in a major city, and you know the venue will be packed. These elements make for a terrific festival in their own right, one people would be willing to pay a lot of money to attend.

But Chipotle is delivering even more, and they’re aiming right at the heart of Chicago’s foodie demographic with it.

As a fast casual taco/burrito chain whose menu is unchanging, Chipotle is anything but chef-driven. Yet it’s bringing in a small army of high-profile chefs to entertain the crowds on its behalf at Cultivate Chicago.

Some of these culinary headliners are familiar faces because of their frequent TV exposure (Amanda Freitag and Jonathon Waxman from New York City; Atlanta’s Richard Blais: Napa Valley’s Michael Chiarello). Others are local luminaries (Chicago standouts Paul Kahan, Tony Mantuano, Bruce Sherman and Paul Virant).

But it’s the inclusion of three additional chefs, each a Chipotle employee, that really caught our eye.

Many within the restaurant industry were surprised when 2009 James Beard Rising Star Chef Nate Appleman left his job at Pulino’s in New York City late last year and wound up at Chipotle. He brought a lot of culinary firepower to bear on what is essentially a high-volume burrito-rolling operation. Why, people wondered, did Chipotle need him?

Appleman will be cooking for Chipotle at Cultivate Chicago. So will another Chipotle in-house chef, Kyle Connaughton. Before joining Chipotle earlier this year, Connaughton worked in England as head developmental chef for The Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen. Located in Bray, England, The Fat Duck holds three Michelin stars and is routinely ranked as one of the top two restaurants in the world. A third well-credentialed Chipotle chef, Joel Holland (Spago, Nobu, Restaurant Terroir), a 2010 hire, will show of his skills in Chicago, too.

Wonder what these guys have been brewing up in the company’s R&D lab? We’ll soon find out. Chipotle says its culinary crew has come up with four new items just for Cultivate Chicago:

• Carnitas Tostados with green-tomatillo salsa, pickled onion and cabbage, and queso fresco.

• Chicken/Steak Soft Tacos, with roasted tomato salsa, grilled veggies and shredded cheese.

• Pozole Soup, vegetarian soup with shredded cheese and crispy tortilla strips.

• Barbacoa Chili, with bell and poblano peppers, sour cream and crispy tortilla strips.

This mini menu gives Chipotle fans a chance to sample some of the chain’s familiar ingredients that have been incorporated into new dishes. These items, however, won’t be free. The revenue generated from their sales will go to Family, which supports artisan food growers in Illinois.

So what else have these three Chipotle chefs been up to? We’ll probably find out more when Chipotle debuts its ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen concept in Washington, DC. ShopHouse was supposed to open this summer, so it’s running a little bit behind schedule. But given the caliber of chefs Chipotle has working on this project, it could be worth the wait.

Chipotle indicates it may host similar versions of the Cultivate Chicago event in other cities in the future. Given the chain’s massive customer base, we think it would draw huge crowds no matter where it went.