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Lee Brian Schrager’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival Diary
SOBEWFF’s founder and director shares what it’s like to run one of the world’s largest food and drink festivals.
With more than 90 events, 400 chefs and 65,000 attendees, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival is arguably the world’s largest dinner party. It’s a colossal feat of planning and the logistics of feeding some many people gourmet food is truly mind boggling. The man behind SOBEWFF is Lee Brian Schrager who started the event 16 years ago. Not only is it a fun time, but the South Beach and New York editions of the festival have raised a collective $32 million for partner charities, including the the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University. To get an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the recent SOBEWFF, check out Schrager’s daily diary below.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 23
8:30 a.m.: Our Festival team files in, coffee and cell phones in hand like a well-equipped army and ready for our daily morning Festival meeting. We debrief last night’s kick-off for our Taste Fort Lauderdale Series—incredibly happy the rain stopped about 45 minutes before doors opened and it was a successful event. Nearly every local news station covered it and Anne Burrell took pictures with guests the entire time. We go over where everyone is scattering to and continue handling the remnants of a chef accommodation issue from the night before.
11:30 a.m.: Stay pretty close to our headquarters in the Loews Miami Beach. Lots of chef arrivals today and the hospitality suite is buzzing. Miami New Times dropped their TASTE Guide, featuring a slew of Fest coverage and a photo of Snoop Dogg on the cover.
3:00 p.m.: We’re ready to get this party started and I quickly change and head over to The Betsy for our welcome happy hour. It’s an important time to thank all of our partners and media before the weekend gets fully underway, and I value the opportunity to personally thank everyone in one spot before we spread out across the city.
5:00 p.m.: A quick pit stop at The Daily Beast lounge back at the Loews Miami Beach before my event tour schedule commences. First, I head to db Bistro downtown to see Daniel Boulud, Dominique Crenn and Michael White. Traffic is absolutely horrendous and making me cringe. Next stop: Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, which I cannot believe is celebrating its 10-year- anniversary already. Michael Schwartz has done so much for Miami’s dining scene and the Design District neighborhood, and tonight we celebrate him with a Festival dinner with co-hosts Jonathan Waxman and Marc Vetri. I wish I was staying to eat, but have to head back to the beach or I’ll never make it there in time for the next event.
8:30 p.m.: Arrive at Barilla’s Italian Bites on the Beach and instantly remember how great this event is: 30 chefs dishing up Italian food under our signature white tents on the beach. That’s not to mention Barilla has a gigantic pan it’s serving pasta out of and I instantly know what’s going to be all over Instagram that night—everyone is taking pictures of it. Stop to chat with hosts Alex Guarnaschelli and Valerie Bertinelli, who are serving up their own food and taking photos with everyone. I also check in with the team and hear that everything at our kosher BBQ event hosted by Alon Shaya is going great, and momentarily contemplate if I can get downtown to see it and back to the beach in under an hour. Begrudgingly realize I can’t teleport myself places and decide to stay put.
10:00 p.m.: Our Tacos After Dark party kicks off and everyone is raving about Stephanie Izard’s tacos (no surprise). Host Aarón Sánchez is full of energy and gets the crowd amped up. Stop for a minute to admire how great the newly renovated pool at Loews Miami Beach looks at night, and worry for a second about the noise. The party is literally hopping.
11:15 p.m.: Swing through the WME after party at 1 Hotel and end up staying out way past my Festival bedtime. It was a beautiful party.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 24
8:00 a.m.: Head back down to the pool at Loews for the TODAY Show broadcast and breakfast. Al Roker has been such a huge supporter of the Festival and our beneficiary FIU since the beginning, and I love nothing more than seeing him work the grill at Burger Bash each year. Spend a minute with Marcus Samuelsson mutually admiring each other’s shoes. The show executes several incredible segments: Martha Stewart, Chloe Coscarelli, Seamus Mullen, Scott Conant, and more, all giving America their best breakfast tips. I get hungry and head back up to the hospitality suite for our morning meeting and some granola. The Miami Herald weekend section is out, highlighting a slew of events and featuring our new collaboration with David Grutman and I’m thankful once again for the continued ticket sales push for the weekend.
10:00 a.m.: I walk the few short blocks to Wolfsonian-FIU to check in on our trade panels. First one is talking about how politics (and policies) are affecting the hospitality industry. Next, I head on over to Wine Spectator’s Trade Day under the tents. It’s hot out and my phone is chiming with reminders from the team about water and the importance of encouraging the guests to stay hydrated. Nearly the entire Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits team is out, since this serves as the industry day to thank our customers, and I spend a while checking in with several suppliers.
12:30 p.m.: Head over to the Faena to check on things before tonight’s big dinner. Stop by Joe’s Stone Crab for Bobby Flay’s annual lunch to see several chefs, chat with the New York Time’s Sam Sifton for a few minutes at the bar, and make a fun Instagram video with Katie Lee, who is still wearing this adorable bright pink sweater she had on at the TODAY Show earlier that morning.
3:30 p.m.: Head over to The Edition for Geoffrey Zakarian’s Sirius XM radio show Food Talk and we chat about South Beach in the 1980s. I spill a few stories about the good old days and when Gianni Versace first came to town. Then it’s back to change for the evening.
7:00 p.m.: I’ve been eagerly anticipating our Festival dinner hosted by Massimo Bottura since it was confirmed last October, and I head over to Faena to see it all come together. Giada looks stunning as usual, and we spend a couple of minutes “ooing” and “ahhing” over Massimo’s menu. Swing by the Fontainebleau to say hello to several chefs and winemakers at Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best. Then its off to SoHo Beach House to do the welcome remarks for our dinner hosted by Bobby Flay, Alex Guarnaschelli and Katie Lee—who are taking over the kitchen with the comfort and humor of the Three Musketeers. I badly want to get to Michael Solomonov’s Taste of Israel party at 87 Park and get frustrated by the traffic once again. Hear from the team that it’s a great event.
9:30 p.m.: One of my favorite moments of the Festival weekend is announcing the People’s Choice Award-winner on stage with Rachael Ray. This is our 11th Burger Bash (in South Beach) and we always spend a few minutes laughing over what our cardiologists would say if they knew the true number of burgers we’ve consumed at this event alone over the years. I notice new title sponsor Heineken Light has done a great job in its first year putting its mark on the event. And a local restaurant wins top honors! I make a mental note to get to Jr.’s Gourmet Burgers as quickly as possible post-Festival.
11:00 p.m.: I swing through our Art of Tiki event to say hi to Robert Irvine, who is charming the crowd, taking photos, and looks to be coordinating some type of live interactive game on the fly. My sweet tooth takes over and I end the night at Shelborne, where our Salty, Sweet & Savory Treats party is happening and I snag a donut (maybe two) from Max Santiago of The Salty Donut to end the night. There’s no official after party tonight and I get a few minutes to scan social media around midnight while in an Uber on my way to Michael Schwartz’s house. I snag a big helping of Florentine steak that he’s serving up at his party, and sit down for a few minutes to eat and chat. He also has The Salty Donut there, and I indulge for the second time that night before heading home.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 25
7:00 a.m.: Meet with my dear friend (and co-author) Adeena Sussman poolside at Loews for a catch-up session. She’s just back from Israel and I was eager to hear about her latest culinary discoveries.
8:30 a.m.: Team comes in for our meeting with slightly larger coffees than earlier in the week and looking a bit tired. But that doesn’t stop them from chattering all at once about how things went the day before and I wonder briefly if it’s at all possible to digest 20 conversations at once. The Miami Herald penned a cover story on the Festival’s relationship and support of the Miami Rescue Mission.
10:30 a.m.: Head to Faena for Massimo Bottura’s conversation moderated by Giada. The penthouse is absolutely stunning and a special pour of Dom Perignon’s new P2 for the 80 guests gets the morning off to a true SOBEWFF-style start. Bobby Flay is in the crowd, and I take a minute to announce him as our 2018 Tribute Dinner honoree—no rest for the weary, they say. On my way to the next stop, touch base with David Grutman about tomorrow to make sure everything is set for INGROSSO.
12:30 p.m.: I swing by the Eden Roc to check in and say hi to Nobu Matsuhisa, who is hosting an always popular lunch for the Festival. Then it’s off to the tents: the first consumer day of Goya Foods’ Grand Tasting Village and our KitchenAid Culinary Demos get rolling. Spend some time touching base with the one and only Emeril, Michael Symon and others for a couple hours before our highly anticipated demo with Guy Fieri and Snoop Dogg. Watch in awe as the crowd literally goes wild as Snoop Dogg whips up some Tanqueray cocktails, and then head to The Standard for a stop to see my kids Charlie Brown (an Old English Sheepdog) and Stanley (a French Briard) at Rachael Ray’s Yappie Hour. Then it’s back to change before Tribute Dinner.
6:45 p.m.: Never underestimate a fresh shower and a new suit. Arrive at Tribute Dinner before doors open to unveil beautiful custom Romero Britto paintings to our honorees. There’s a Cristal bottle for Jean-Claude Rouzaud and Frederic Rouzaud, and a self-portrait for José Andrés. Both seem very touched by the gesture and I’m pleased. Spend some time catching up with Anthony Bourdain. It’s always great to hear what he’s up to. The dinner begins and one great course after another parades out with military-like precision. Once again amazed by the back-of-house scene for 600 people. Everyone’s buzzing over Andrew Zimmern’s uni sandwiches.
10:00 p.m.: José accepts his honor, presented to him by Anthony Bourdain and Gloria Estefan, and starts his speech by taking off his chef coat to reveal his “I Am An Immigrant” t-shirt underneath. (You can see the whole speech HERE. I always say that chefs are some of the most generous and committed people in the world, and I’m reminded again what a powerful impact the hospitality industry can have on the future.
11:30 p.m. Head to SLS for the after party that José is hosting and EVERYONE is there. Spend a bit of time chatting with Gloria and Emilio Estefan, discussing their new restaurant in the Design District. The party has a great vibe and I’m once again up way past my Festival bedtime, yet feeling completely rejuvenated by the entire day. Feeling a touch sad that tomorrow is the last day of the Festival, and fall asleep wondering what six days of SOBEWFF would be like…