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Chicago's Culinary Ambassador: Judith Dunbar Hines Promotes Chicago Dining With a Passion

Chicago's Culinary Ambassador: Judith Dunbar Hines Promotes Chicago Dining With a Passion

A local Chicago dining establishment (photo by creative commons user Southern Foodways Alliance)

Bill Daley | Chicago Tribune

Who is the face of food in Chicago? You might answer Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless or Charlie Trotter. But, with no disrespect to these superstar chefs, our nod goes to Judith Dunbar Hines, director of culinary arts and events for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Her job is to put the spotlight on Chicago’s thriving food scene. It involves showcasing culinary celebrities, pointing hungry tourists and nosy journalists in the right direction, and nurturing students hoping for a cooking career. The position is believed to be one of a kind.

But then, it makes sense: This is the only major city in the world named for a food. (Checagou, a Native American word meaning wild onion.)

Don’t think this job is just another bit of municipal froufrou in the rowdy music hall that is Chicago politics. Dorothy Coyle, the city’s tourism director, points to a 2007 study that showed 17 percent of American leisure travelers, some 27 million people, spent part of their time doing culinary- or wine-related activities while traveling within the past three years. Hungry or thirsty tourists help fuel Chicago’s economy.

“Besides asking for a map, the biggest thing on a visitor’s mind is what to eat,” Coyle said. "People are able to get to know the city through the food we offer and our restaurants. Dining here really reflects the city itself, and Judith has been instrumental in making that happen.

“She has connected food-related programming into all the tourism campaigns we produce,” Coyle added. “She has helped us bring knowledge from the food industry into areas we might not otherwise have been able to do as efficiently.”

Even if she didn’t own 136 pieces of food-themed jewelry, Dunbar Hines would be the right person for the job as the city’s culinary ambassador. How many other people have washed dishes for star chef Jacques Pepin, managed the television studio kitchen for Martin Yan and won a compliment from James Beard, the father of American gastronomy, for her skill in hulling strawberries? Before taking on her current job in 1997, she was an executive chef, cooking teacher, food columnist, cooking-school owner and caterer.

“I have a very short attention span,” she said with a laugh. “And I like the fun part of the business.”