Music swirls around me, the faint scratch of the DJ’s needle making it official: I am clubbing it at the opening night of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. Softly lit cabanas offer seating for revelry or intimate conversations. As I walk closer to the ocean, savory food scents entice me – guests are scooping up tastes of chefs’ signature dishes as quickly as they’re dished out. This crowd has come for good times, good wines and good food.
At the center of the action at the Cruzan Rum After-Party is charming chef and host Tyler Florence, from “Tyler’s Ultimate” on the Food Network, dishing up paella (seafood bites nestled on saffron-scented rice) from an enormous paellera and smiling and chatting with every plate, stopping for a hug when Ingrid Hoffmann (host of “Simply Delicioso”) drops by.
The festival started at Florida International University as a modest fundraiser. After Lee Schrager, director of special events and media relations at Southern Wine & Spirits of America, took it over in 2002, the event moved to South Beach. In 2007, the Food Network became a partner, adding star power. Now the four-day event raises hundreds of thousands of dollars Florida International University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management Teach Restaurant and the Southern Wine & Spirits’ Beverage Management Center.
“If I have one word to say about the students, that word is stellar. Their performance, their perspective, their undying energy – when I wasn’t running on adrenaline, they were,” says Chef Michael Moran, FIU lead chef instructor and student volunteer coordinator. He oversaw 850 students serving up 22,500 portions of food.
What stands out? “Seeing the smiles on students’ faces … what a sense of pride,” says Moran. He knows the students who helped have been given a big jolt of confidence in their own careers, and that means a lot to him.
The remaining days are filled with more parties, wine seminars (including wine and food pairings and cocktail classes), brunches, lunches and the Whole Foods Grand Tasting Village, a party tent on the beach where vendors and chefs ply people with food, wine, more wine, cocktails and more food and where celebrity chefs host demonstrations throughout the day.
For me, Thursday was just a warm-up. I head to Friday’s Best of the Best at the newly restored Fontainebleau Miami Beach (“The essence of Miami fabulous,” says one guest). This event puts 42 chefs and 70 winemakers into a grand ballroom, where they present signature dishes and fine wines (scoring 90 and above on Wine Spectator’s scale).
Rick Tramonto of Tru in Chicago bends over his workstation shaving gelled vinaigrette into “noodles.” He pauses to look up with a smile. “This is an amazing event. I left a foot of snow in Chicago. Everyone here is so kind, everything is so colorful, so vibrant, so warm, and it’s for a great cause.”
I work hard at eating and drinking: gourmet pierogi, roasted pig, squid ink pasta with a heaping cap of salty caviar, then on to sweets including a hot and cold pina colada shot with fine chocolates to follow. “Eight different chocolates – just enough to give you an epiphany,” quips the chef.
Saturday 'Wine' Down
Saturday brings Wine Seminar B. Over the course of three and a half hours, I taste impressive wines, including a ’64 Rioja Reserva from Marques de Riscal in Spain, which, I’m told, went for $3,000 at a Sotheby’s auction. We finish with Dolce wines from California. Greg Allen, Dolce’s winemaker, leads the tasting with humor and passion, recalling the harvest saved by buying up all the plastic in the county and covering 17 acres of vines with said plastic before a rain storm. As I sip, the apricot flavors, the sweetness and the honey come alive in my mouth, and I feel honored to be enjoying the fruits of those labors.
Cooking for Kids, Too
On Sunday, I visit Jungle Island for “Fun and Fit as a Family,” with activities, tastings and demos by chefs at Kellogg’s Kidz Kitchen. This event promotes kids’ cooking and healthy lifestyles.
The crowd cheers wildly for Paula Deen when she appears. Equal shouts of glee come from moms, dads and kids. Some lucky youngsters sit in pint-sized chairs front and center. Deen holds a Q&A:
“How old are you?” one asks.
Deen asks her to guess.
“A little older,” she says.
“That’s it,” shouts Deen, who comes clean and admits to being 62. The kids are amazed.
The cooking demo seems secondary to the fun. She makes “Porcupine Balls” and a simple sundae with a fan, then has fun tossing the remaining sundae toppings into the crowd. We belong to Paula.
Know If You Go
- Book early. Some of the events sold out the day they went on sale in October 2008. Watch www.SobeFest.com for event information.
- Dress for most events is "South Beach casual." You’ll see everything from slinky cocktail dresses and spike heels to jeans and flats.
- All events are for age 21 and over. (The exception was “Fun and Fit as a Family,” held at Jungle Island.)
- Tickets span a wide price range. Prices range from $20 for “Fun and Fit as a Family” to $1,000 for the welcome dinner for the King and Queen of Spain at the Biltmore, who were honored guests this year.
- Check out the online auction. Wine, trips, art, dinners – so much to bid on. “Both this year and last year, we raised more than $350,000 through the auctions,” says Alex Durant, who oversees the auction.