There's no real way to describe the 11th annual For the Love of Chocolate Gala — which happened on a positively balmy Saturday in Chicago on Feb. 27 — as anything other than a spectacle.
This year's theme was a "Eye Candy: A Feast for the Senses," and a feast it was indeed. With more than 1,300 guests, acrobats, ballerinas, amazing DJs, and — of course — mouthwatering food, the gala was one memorable party.
More importantly, the gala's sponsors and guests raised more than $180,000 for the foundation behind it, which offers scholarships for students attending culinary schools in the Chicagoland area, surpassing last year's take.
And not only is it a good cause, it's also a fantastic time.
At the gala, my buddy Nick and I meet up with Franco Pacini, chairman of the board of the For the Love of Chocolate Foundation, who gave us a tour of the party before the bulk of the guests started flooding in.
Franco is the living embodiment of the life of the party. Amazingly high-energy and always on the go, he leads us from floor to floor, pausing every few seconds to greet a guest or a chef. He seems to know everyone, and approaches them all with equal enthusiasm.
The For the Love of Chocolate Foundation exists to help develop new talents and ideas, he explains as he walks us through the VIP room, which is tucked away on the second floor. It's quiet so far, with elegantly laid-out tables sporting chocolate rocks the size of my palm as center pieces.
Cultivating new culinary talent helps to push the envelope. It encourages new ideas that can go on to play big roles in helping the industry innovate and expand. Which is why the foundation works so hard to raise money for scholarships.
"At the same time, we're promoting the people who hire the chefs," Franco says of the restaurants, bakeries, and confectioners represented at the gala. Big brands like Hershey's are represented here, with a photo booth that takes your picture and then prints it onto the wrapper of a giant chocolate bar, along with artisan candy makers like Amy's Candy Bar.
It's the first year the gala has incorporated sales into the mix, and Amy's Candy Bar is one of the tables offering candy for purchase. It's new to both the confectioners and the guests, but as the night rages on, people become more used to the idea. The turnout's been great this year, they tell me, and the gala always helps raise awareness of their store and drives traffic.
And there's a whole range of confectioners participating, from Vosges and American Licorice Co. to Chicago locals like Whimsical Candy and out-of-towners like Circle City Sweets. Everything is delicious.
We continue on our whirlwind tour of the party, which has taken over four floors of the Union League Club. There's the aptly-named Aroma Market, full of fragrant scents and candles. There's a room decorated with cotton candy clouds and another with marshmallows hanging in the entrance. On one of the upper floors, there's an arcade, complete with fortune-telling and tarot-reading booths, with performers inside who hand out cookies and fortunes that encourage us to "Be generous. Give to a good cause."
As we round out the tour on the top floor, Nick and I breathlessly express our wonder. The colored lights, the circus-themed dancers, and the food are all certainly a feast for the senses. It's only 7 p.m. and we can already tell the party is going to be amazing.
"It's my baby," Franco replies. "Now, go explore!"
He doesn't need to ask us twice.
We spend the next five hours bouncing from floor to floor, sampling the endless array of food and enjoying the spectacular music. We visit the virtual fun house on the first floor and watch as our faces are projected onto whimsical cartoon bodies on the ceiling. We try some delicious boozy snow cones.
A few French Pastry School students are manning the first floor, encouraging people to try said snow cones and some chicken skewers. When one of them seems less busy, Nick and I pounce.
Her name is Alvina Nam, and we pepper her with questions: How long have you been at the French Pastry School? Why did you decide to come here? What do you enjoy about cooking?
She's from L.A., and she just started a six-month pastry program at the French Pastry School. Her love of cooking began in college when she learned to bake and fell in love with it. After graduating, she decided to pursue her passion. She's had some amazing experiences already at the French Pastry School, including working at Acadia, one of three Chicago restaurants to earn two Michelin stars last year. It's an incredible opportunity, especially since she'd like to pursue fine dining.
"There's so much to absorb," she says. "I just don't think there's any other school that matches our school's caliber." And she could go on all day about the faculty, which she describes as incredibly talented and supportive.
"They want to make your dreams come true," she says.
We also talk to Carole-Anne Dallo, another French Pastry School student and a current scholarship recipient. A native of the Ivory Coast, Carole-Anne moved to the United States nine years ago to enroll at a university and study chemical engineering. But she felt something was missing – an outlet for her creativity. Eventually, she found her calling in the culinary arts as well, which she describes as a combination of artistry and science.
She's been in Chicago for two months and loves how thorough the program is. But originally, she wasn't planning to apply for any scholarships.
"They pushed me to do it," she says of the staff at the French Pastry School. They encouraged her to share her story and her love of pastries. With their help, she applied and was lucky enough to receive the scholarship.
"In my opinion, it's the best school of its kind," she says.
Eventually, we leave Alvina and Carole-Anne to their ushering duties and return to exploring the party. As the hours rush by, the party livens up. Musician Anacron, who's DJing the top floor, rouses the crowd with skillfully-melded classics like Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby." The entire front half of the room is bopping along, and dancing guests overflow the dance floor. At one point, the crowd enthusiastically belts out Journey's "Don't Stop Believing."
People are living it up. At midnight, there's no sign of the party winding down. We spot Franco standing a few feet away from the dancing crowd, watching his party unfold. The man has every right to be proud of what the For the Love of Chocolate Foundation has put on this year. There aren't too many opportunities out there that raise money for a good cause while letting people experience a once-in-a-lifetime celebration.
And a celebration it is indeed. Earlier in the night, while exploring the Aroma Market, Nick and I witness a heartwarming proposal (she said yes). As the newly-engaged couple responds to the crowd's congratulations, Nick yells out, "Love wins!"
A bearded man nearby gives us a knowing smirk. "Love always wins," he says.