MIAMI – For the third time in less than an hour, I’m reaching for my SPF 30 sunscreen, feeling like one of the ubiquitous retirees or black hat-clad hasidic men who’s been in the sun too long. It’s a near-record day of heat in Miami, with the mercury pushing 84, and it’s still February. I know, a Midwesterner’s dream. But I’m not lying on the beach, novel in hand, daiquiri by my side. I’m walking toward a massive pavilion of sponsored tasting tents in South Beach, where a few thousand food and wine enthusiasts are scrumming for nibbles of whatever they can get their hands on. Welcome to the 11th edition of the Food Network’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival.
Unlike its Aspen counterpart (which celebrates its 30th anniversary this June), the younger event in South Beach was created by Lee Brian Schrager, surely Southern Wine & Spirits’ MVEE (Most Valuable Employee Ever). Whereas Aspen draws a respectable 5,000 attendees each year for its “foodie summer camp” in the mountains, Schrager and his team have grown this annual bacchanal into a three (and a half) day spectacle, pulling ten times the amount of people to the area at the end of February (I’m guessing the Miami Convention & Visitor’s Bureau also has a soft spot for the bon vivant).
Part of the draw is star power. Aspen certainly has its share of culinary gurus and doyennes, leading cooking demos, signing cookbooks and hobnobbing over cocktails at the Hotel Jerome. But the “Classic at Aspen,” as it’s called, is really run by Food & Wine Magazine, and by extension, its parent, American Express. Thus, most of the seminar leaders, speakers and panelists are drawn from the magazine’s pages (full disclosure: I’ve been the moderator of the Aspen Trade Program the last seven years, and will do so again in June). The big difference is that the South Beach event is owned by Southern, and led by the Food Network, drawing on its stable of stars; Food & Wine Magazine – like dozens of other companies – is just one of the many sponsors of the event.
What does that really mean? Well, a lot more Guy Fieri, Paula Deen and Emeril Lagasse, for one thing, and by the looks of the lines and the picture-takers/fanboys, it seems to be working. Like a fine dining experience, all of the events in South Beach (#SoBeWFF for all you hashtag-seeking Twitterers) are a la carte. So assuming you’ve spent some money flying down to Miami and getting a hotel – I would highly recommend you stay south of 40th street; I stayed all the way up at 68th & Collins and had a $20 cab ride that took 20 minutes any time I wanted to get near the action – you’re still going to have to decide what you want to see, taste and splurge on. Best if you made up your mind in October, when tickets go on sale; the official guide I saw had several “sold out” events on it, and the guide is printed in November.
Most of the events at SoBeWFF take place at night, although they keep that large, tented Whole Foods Tasting area open for several hours each day on the beach. You could consume a lot of your allotted calories right there, with the KitchenAid and Barilla pasta booths, right next to the cooking demo stages, wine tasting areas and makeshift bars from places like the Cosmopolitan in Vegas or Carnival Cruise Lines. You’ll need to walk a few blocks north, however, to reach the party central tent, (roughly 16th and Collins, behind the Delano) which is home to “The Q” on Thursday night and the “Burger Bash” on Friday.
The sheer number of chefs they get to attend these events is astonishing, since they come from all over the country. At Moët Hennessey’s The Q, which changed its name from last year’s “BubbleQ,” more than two dozen of the nation’s top names in BBQ, beef and pork spent the night dishing out samples of their signature dishes. The admission price of $300 ($400 for an earlier peek) also allows you to taste a little something from Fieri and Lagasse, who had adjacent booths. But don’t linger too long; just one picture, please; a handful of bodyguard types are standing close by, just in case someone gets a little too friendly. Over the course of three hours, guests roam around the event space, much like you’ve seen at every other charity/food tasting event. The bubbly – courtesy of Moët – flowed from several bars. Chicagoans such as The Purple Pig’s Jimmy Bannos Sr. (and Jr.), as well as Girl & the Goat’s Stephanie Izard and Yoshi Katsumura (who told me he has a house in Miami, and loves any excuse to come down) were among the chefs serving up samples.
The next night, during Rachel Ray’s “Burger Bash,” a similar number of chefs descended on the beach, this time, offering up slider-sized portions of their signature burgers. For $225, ($325 for a 45-min. preview) you could eat and drink as much as you cared to, but I wondered how many mini-burgers you could possibly eat, as there were too many to possibly try in one night; I counted 34 booths. Chicagoan Mindy Segal (HotChocolate), was there with her beef suppliers from Heartland Meats – who had made the drive down themselves, bringing with them about 250 pounds of all-natural beef. Segal insisted on making her hamburger buns herself in Miami. Amanda Puck was helping out client Rick Gresh, from David Burke’s Primehouse, who was previewing a burger on Hawaiian buns that he’s going to start serving at his restaurant. Ryan LaRoche, meanwhile, explained that he figured out how to combine bacon into his ground beef at NoMI Kitchen at Chicago’s Park Hyatt, layering it with comté cheese on olive oil ciabatta. This year’s winner was Michael Symon’s BSpot from Cleveland.
During the day, they also held a few seminars, like Laura Werlin’s always studious and comprehensive courses on cheese paired with Anthony Giglio’s lighthearted yet knowledgeable take on wine ($85) or illycafe’s insight on coffee ($45); they even held a mini-restaurant trade program, led by New York City publicist Bullfrog & Baum, including three different panels on subjects ranging from what does it mean to win a cooking competition, to the changing face of today’s diner (free!).
But it’s the nighttime that shines at SoBe, perhaps because it’s just too hard to pull people away from the pool/beach during the day, and if you plan on heading to the event next year, be prepared to stay up late. A lot of the action happens after 10 p.m.
On a side note, I had a chance to check out the legendary Fontainbleu Hotel, which starred in the opening scene of “Goldfinger” and played host to the Rat Pack more than a few times. It recently underwent a multi-million dollar facelift. It reminds me a lot of a new casino in Vegas, all glittery and dim lighting. Several restaurants are on-site, including New York’s Scarpetta, where we had a fantastic (albeit with a Spiaggia-esque price point) meal.