Bill Clinton joins the biggest names in the food business at this year’s New York Wine & Food Festival—the culinary world’s equivalent to Fashion Week. Katie Workman talks to the event’s organizer.
In the culinary world, event-organizer extraordinaire Lee Schrager has cemented his reputation as a force of nature. He knows everyone, he is everywhere, he makes things happen, and he probably doesn’t sleep a whole heck of a lot. Schrager’s next extravaganza is the New York Wine & Food Festival—this is his second year spearheading the New York version of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which has become the foodie mecca of springtime.
“There are very few events where there is a dinner happening for the King of Spain and Ferrán Adriá is there, and blocks away you have Paula Deen with her pants falling down.”
We hear you scored Bill Clinton for the New York Wine & Food Festival this year. How’d you do that?
It really started with Rachael Ray, who had suggested doing something at The Harlem Children’s Zone with Bill, and then Mehmet Oz also mentioned it and I thought, “Oh, of course!” We’re doing a program there about raising a healthy eater—it’s free, there’s a health fair beforehand. Bill’s going to do the welcome address and take questions because of his interest in preventing childhood obesity. Rachael put me in touch with his alliance—it was a very quick yes. We’re unveiling a good food garden we built with Share Our Strength. With the debacle of wine and food that will be taking place about five miles south, it’s kind of interesting.
There are 118 events at the festival. Which will you attend yourself?
All 118! No, it’s hard; you can’t get to more than 40. I’ll do as many as many as I can—the Chelsea opening-night party, the Burger Bash on Friday night in Dumbo, the closing Meatball Madness party with Giada. There are 180 chefs participating, and I won’t get to say hello to anywhere close to half of them.
I really like the panels in the Meatpacking District, like the wine seminars. But I don’t know that there’s one that I could ever sit down for, for the full hour and 20 minutes and see the whole thing; I just don’t have that kind of time during the festival. Josh Wesson is doing a great seminar on wine parings. Spike [Mendelsohn], the former Top Chef contestant who won Burger Bash in South Beach, is doing a hamburger tasting paired with different wines, which I am looking forward to. The smaller events hold the most interest to me; there’s more learning involved.
At the last South Beach Wine & Food Festival, the mini-drama was Mario Batali’s colorful language while speaking at the dinner in honor of the king and queen of Spain. Feathers were ruffled, and it made a headline or two. But we hear you and Mario are OK again, and that he’s coming to the festival. What’s he going to be doing?
For a while after South Beach, Mario and I didn’t speak or email. But then he emailed me about something having to do with the Food Bank, which we’re both involved with. I replied, we went back and forth, and he said that if he had embarrassed me, he was sorry. That was as good as anything I could have gotten out of Mario, so we moved on. It would be a mistake not to have Mario involved in a big food and wine event, both for me and for him. It was a little uncomfortable figuring out what he was going to do in New York, but he’s going to do a Times Talk on Saturday night. What bothered me most about the incident with Mario was that there was no closure for so long. He’s a grown man, he’s not my child; but it was embarrassing, and then, hey, shit happens. He apologized; we moved on, life is too short. I have a lot of respect for him; he’s one of the best chef/operators in the country. It didn’t behoove me not to deal with Mario, and he may feel the same way about me, and I’m happy we’ve moved forward.
Good news that it’s water under the bridge. Will there be any royalty at the festival this year?
Culinary royalty! No, no royalty. But I would not be surprised if we weren’t talking about royalty in South Beach this year. I mean, you should expect a very distinguished visit from Europe in South Beach this year.
So what’s the feud between you and Gordon Ramsay?
Gordon’s a great story. I had wanted Gordon to do South Beach in 2005, and I had flown to London specifically to meet with him and invite him. I had a meeting scheduled, flew in, went to the restaurant, and waited for two hours; he didn’t show up. So I went to the hotel, and got a call from him apologizing, asking me to come back the next morning. I did, he committed, and came to the festival. I welcomed him in the hospitality suite when he arrived Thursday night, and then on Saturday he was scheduled to do a demo at 3 and a dinner that night. At 1:30 in the afternoon I get an email asking if I’ve seen Gordon. I hadn’t. I guessed he was probably prepping for his dinner. But no, they hadn’t seen him over there. Then we checked the hotel and I started to think, “Maybe he’s dead, maybe he’s passed out on his bed.” Finally we called American Airlines, who said he had changed his ticket and had flown home at 5 that afternoon. I never spoke to him; he never returned any phone calls. We did end up having brief words with his PR firm, who claimed to know nothing except that something did not go right for him. Gordon did the Times Talk last year, but probably never connected it to South Beach. Honestly, I don’t know what happened. One day I’ll be in front of him and ask him.
Here’s another other funny story: Thirty years ago, I was the president of my graduating class at CIA and finishing my externship with Christopher Idone at Glorious Foods catering company. As president, I got to pick the keynote speaker for the graduation, so I invited Elaine Kaufman of Elaine’s. She didn’t want to travel that far, so I saved personal money to send a car service for her, and when it arrived to pick her up, she wasn’t there.
Do you think she forgot? What did you do?
No, I spoke to her the day before. I wanted to ask her, “Why would you do such a thing?” Luckily my friend Peter Bradford was in my class, and his father had come up to graduation with his girlfriend at the time, who happened to be Geraldine Stutz (of Bendel’s fame). She ended up giving the keynote.
Way to land on your feet! OK, back to the NYW&F Festival. What do you think is the most unusual offering on the roster?
A Locally Sourced Evening presented by the group A Razor, a Shiny Knife. A friend fell in love with them, told me to call them, and I remembered reading about them in the Times. They are doing this amazing dinner at Norwoods, a private club in New York. They start cooking at 1 and you are invited to participate in everything—setting the table, butchering the meat—and everything is sourced from 100 miles around New York City, except for the actual food. It’s a very hands-on experience, and the menu is extraordinary. Honestly, I still don’t quite get what they are doing, which is why I’m surely stopping by to see what the whole thing is all about.
Also, there’s a field trip to Stone Barns where you spend the day making butter and honey, and then have lunch with Dan Barber. Dan called me and said, “Lee, I might not be there for the whole time.” I said, “Oh, what’s your excuse?” He said, “I’m getting married that evening.” I said, “Good excuse.”
Anyone you want to have participating and haven’t been able to get?
I have to tell you there is not a name out there, all these years later, who I couldn’t get to do South Beach or New York. Guy Savoy, Pierre Hermé, Ferrán Adrià…Wait, Grant Achatz. I must tell you that up until this year I had not invited him, and then I did, but the food he wanted to do was too labor-intensive and expensive, so it didn’t work out. But he’ll do something. I’m a huge fan.
When we started South Beach we didn’t start out to be the biggest—it happened at a great speed. The thing that we do is so expensive that we have to have the mass to make the money, which goes to charity. So we have the pop-culture chefs, but also Alain Ducasse, Eric Ripert, Gabrielle Hamilton, April Bloomfield. There are very few events where there is a dinner happening for the king of Spain and Ferrán Adriá is there, and blocks away you have Paula Deen with her pants falling down.
Katie Workman is the editor in chief and chief marketing officer of Cookstr.com, a Web site devoted to great, tested recipes from chefs and cookbook authors. Katie is on the board of City Harvest, and actively involved in Share Our Strength. She lives in New York City with her husband her two boys, ages 6 and 9.