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By the conclusion of the 22nd Food Network South Beach Food & Wine Festival (SOBEWFF), 450 chefs had participated in 110-plus events attended by more than 60,000 food and beverage industry professionals, foodie fans, fine-dining fanatics, lovers of burgers, tacos and fried chicken, and the culinary-curious masses on the hunt for tasty bites and sips and a Guy Fieri selfie.
The wizard behind this culinary oz in the sand is Lee Brian Schrager, arguably one of the most influential people in Miami’s food scene as the founder of SOBEWFF and chief communications officer and senior vice president of social responsibility for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the largest liquor distributor in the United States.
Every winter, he makes magic happen in the Magic City as the event has transformed into being as much about culinary television, book and endorsement deals and celebrity chef sightings as it is about wine and food. It often feels like Schrager defies the odds of time and geography during SOBEWFF — he is everywhere.
“I do my own social media during the event — but I don’t do my own driving,” he says with a laugh about how he manages to traverse the city at lightning speed. “I always wake up at 3 a.m. in a panic that I’m never going to get to all these events I have on my calendar. It really bothers me to work all year round to invite talent from all over the world in and you don’t get to see them. I really try to go out of my way for people who come in.”
Schrager’s secret? “That’s why we do the chef parties, so I can see 75 percent of the people I need to see.”
While the public events attract thousands, it’s the behind-the-scenes chatter, the camaraderie and collisions at VIP events like the annual chef’s party that make SOBEWFF a don’t-miss event for the culinary television industry.
Chefs Everywhere You Look
To say there are Food Network celebrities everywhere during SOBEWFF is an understatement. Within the first 10 minutes of arrival at host hotel Loews Miami Beach one could easily trip over Emeril Lagasse, Guy Fieri, Marc Vetri, Stephanie Izard, Jet Tila and Graham Elliot casually commiserating about the challenges of the food world, taking selfies, signing autographs and checking in. Every elevator ride throughout the weekend is like a game of celebrity chef bingo.
The Very Best Burger
The four-day event kicked off Thursday night with the Burger Bash, hosted by Lagasse, on the beach in several massive tents erected for the occasion, giving a real sense of scale to the event. Thirty burgers competed while Barstool’s Dave Portnoy and other notables judged the Very Best Burger Award. Portnoy’s presence signaled just one of the subtle nods to social media’s growing influence over SOBEWFF and the Food Network talent pool. The winner was not a trendy smashburger, which seems to be all the rage this year, but BurgerFi’s BBQ Rodeo Burger with charred jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, crispy onions and Memphis BBQ sauce.
More Than Ketchup
Events not directly affiliated with the festival capitalized on the food-insider crowd that converges each year. Heinz 57 and hotelier Ennismore gathered Dos Hombres Mezcal frontmen Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul to SLS South Beach’s Lenny Kravitz-designed penthouse for a cocktail party and dinner with legendary butcher and Chef’s Table subject Dario Cecchini. It’s no surprise the trio posed with a Cecchini-engraved bottle of ketchup.
The new global collaboration between Ennismore and Heinz launches on-property experiences and activations at the Mondrian, SLS and House of Originals hotels, plus digital content highlighting the latest innovations from Heinz 57 (such as infused honey and crunch sauces).
WME Chef’s Kick Off
Later that evening at the WME/Food Network Chefs Party at the 1 Hotel, Fieri held court at a corner table with Andrew Zimmern. Playa Provisions chef and former Top Chef contestant Brooke Williamson and chef Michael Symon pretended to meet for the first time. The duo would host a dinner together days later at Ritz Carlton South Beach Fuego y Mar during the Saturday programming.
Bravo reality stars Tom Sandoval and Tom Schwartz guzzled down espresso martinis as they hosted a Friday Happy Hour at Bayshore Club promoting their West Hollywood bar Tom Tom. JJ Johnson of Cleo TV’s Just Eats with Chef JJ Johnson and Harlem’s FIELDTRIP jumped in a photo with network godfather Bobby Flay. Michael Mina cohort Adam Sobel popped in — a newcomer to the competition food-show scene, he appeared on Fieri’s Tournament of Champions show last week and won his battle. The party carried on until the wee hours of the morning.
Grutman Goes Galactic
Friday morning really took SOBEWFF into the stratosphere. Groot Hospitality’s David Grutman, who owns more than a dozen of Miami’s headline-making bars, restaurants, nightclubs and even a hotel, revealed The David Grutman Spaceflight Experience at the Wine Spectator Trade Day hosted by Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. Last year, Grutman announced he would be partnering with carbon-neutral space travel company Space Perspective.
Onboard Space Perspective’s Spaceship Neptune, set to blast off in 2024, space explorers will sample a food and beverage program by Groot’s restaurants Papi Steak and Gekkō. Space Perspective founder Jane Poynter says they have already sold 1,100 seats at its $125,000 price tag. Grutman says he’s “definitely going up” on one of the first flights.
Giada Becomes a Godmother
Friday afternoon at Miami’s Soho Beach House, guests spotted Neil Patrick Harris and husband David Burtka heading to the pool while the corporate suit-clad crowd gathered for Oceania cruises’ big reveal of their new 1,200-passenger ship Vista — its first in 10 years. During the ceremony, the Norwegian-backed luxury cruise line announced Giada De Laurentiis as the ship’s godmother.
Harry Connick Jr. will also join the christening event when the Vista sets out on its maiden voyage on May 8 from Rome to Valletta, Malta. As godmother, De Laurentiis will break the ceremonial champagne bottle on the ship’s bow. She will also create two signature dishes to be served on board. Oceania prides itself on being a chef-driven cruise line with Jacques Pépin as culinary director. In February, De Laurentiis announced that after 21 years, she is leaving Food Network for a new deal with Amazon Studios.
Miami’s Michelin-Star Influence
Miami’s new Michelin one-star darling Stubborn Seed, helmed by Top Chef winner and truTV’s Fast Foodies host Jeremy Ford, kicked off the festival’s all-new Michelin Guide dinner series with New York City’s Gabriel Kreuther. The event added this year showcased a few of the award’s Miami winners since they made their Florida debut this year.
Ford says that the star on the wall has changed everything for Stubborn Seed, located in Miami’s booming South of Fifth neighborhood, also home to Carbone and the soon-to-open Lucky Cat by Gordon Ramsay. “It makes you think twice about every decision, you need to always be pushing,” Ford says. “I never thought Michelin was coming to Miami. I’m still trying to find out what Miami cuisine is.”
During Miami Art week, Stubborn Seed received a visit from Rihanna and A$AP Rocky, who bought the place out for an intimate dinner. Now it’s one of the hottest reservations in Miami’s burgeoning culinary scene. Ford also has the recently opened The Butcher’s Club at PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens and Beauty and the Butcher in Coral Gables.
Ford told The Hollywood Reporter he was later heading to play in the annual Jean-Georges Vongerichten ping pong and pizza party at The Miami Beach Edition, where he was reunited with his old boss. In 2014, Ford got his Miami start at Vongerichten’s Matador Room in The Edition.
Later that night, an all-star culinary crowd gathered for the sixth-annual event at Market at Edition, which featured Vongerichten’s face on the paddles. His son Cedric and daughter-in-law Ochi Latjuba Vongerichten, of New York City’s Wayan, co-hosted the event.
Those not participating in the revelry of table tennis gathered for a late-night screening private screening hosted by Tyler Florence Norman Van Aken of the 2022 documentary Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter, chronicling the life of the late chef.
The New Event
For the first time, SOBEWFF acknowledged the force of social media influencers in the food world with their very own event, Saturday’s FoodieCon. UTA’s Digital Brand Architects served as one of the event’s organizers. In this offline experience, avid scrollers had the opportunity to see their favorite digital content creators in real life with meet and greets, book signings, demos and challenges. Among them were @thegoldenbalance, @blackforager, @the_pastaqueen and Jessica Woo (@sulheejessica), a Las Vegas-based viral sensation and mom of three daughters, known as the Bento Box queen, who hosted a live battle recreating her rose-tip dumplings.
Woo had considered creating a food-influencer festival, and this was the perfect test of such a concept. “Most of our audience hasn’t actually tried our food,” she says. Recently a judge on Top Chef Family, Woo confirms she has her sights set on more television projects. Other industry insiders also speculate that it’s only a matter of time until the Food Network starts casting high-profile influencers into celebrity chef shows.
Chef’s Play Pickleball, Too
Later that afternoon, Whispering Angel Rosé presented the Celebrity Chef Pickleball tournament where participants included Marcus Samuelsson. Bryan Voltaggio and Jet Tila competed against Hunter Fieri and Tara Bernstein in the semi-finals but were defeated. Fieri and Bernstein battled it out in the finals only to be defeated by influencer George Arango (@mr.eats305). DJ Khaled even stopped by.
Saturday’s top daytime culinary event united Cédric Vongerichten with Uchi’s Tyson Cole. Cédric and wife Ochi opened Wayan on New York City’s Spring Street in 2019 and will soon debut Ma-Dé, a 25-seat restaurant focused on seafood and vegetables, which will be “very Indonesian with French technique.” These ventures are his first outside of his father’s empire.
Cédric first encountered Cole’s Miami outpost of Austin’s legendary Japanese restaurant Uchi last fall when he was scouting the Wynwood neighborhood for a potential location. When the festival approached the two chefs about doing an event, both thought their flavors would marry well. Watching them work in concert alludes to camaraderie well beyond their actual brief acquaintance and a style of precision so complementary one would think they’ve been collaborating for years.
To start, Cole served a Black Garlic Financier alongside Cédric’s Shrimp Toast. For the main course, Cole’s Hama Chili, hamachi with ponzu, Thai chilis and oranges paired with Vongerichten’s Lobster Thermidor with shiitake, gruyere cheese and shiso.
Cole told THR he was still giddy from an encounter with Cédric’s dad, Jean-Georges, the night before. “Yesterday we went to the Matador room and he brought out our food. Jean-Georges is my hero. Just being able to talk to him — he and José Andrés are my heroes,” Cole said.
He also shared that Uchi is coming to West Hollywood at 9001 Santa Monica Boulevard. “Right now we are in five cities with Austin, Houston, Dallas, Miami and Denver, and we’ve signed a lease in L.A, which is about a year away from opening. Twenty years ago when I started, I just wanted one restaurant,” he said. Cole now also has various locations of Uchiko and Uchibā, plus Loro, a collaboration with another Austinite, Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue.
Much like Miami, the food scene in Austin is exploding. “It is a vibrant place, the restaurants are just getting better,” he says.
Austin’s presence was heavily felt later that evening at an epic dinner at Bal Harbour’s new Mediterranean restaurant Aba. Lauded chefs Kevin Fink and Tavel Bristol-Joseph, the co-owners of several restaurants throughout Austin (Emmer & Rye, Hestia, Kalimotxo, Henbit, Canje, Ladino and TLV) teamed up with James Beard Award-winner Erick Williams of Chicago’s Virtue and Aba’s CJ Jacobson. The dinner celebrated their diverse backgrounds — and the impact that Africa and the diaspora have made on the U.S., with nuances from indigenous Caribbean and Middle Eastern flavors and food — as well as the foursome’s convergent paths. Aba’s first location was in Chicago before opening in Austin and then Miami. While Fink and Jacobson, who was a contestant on Top Chef, are veterans of SOBEWFF. Bristol-Joseph and Williams are newcomers.
“Culture is what people are craving. We’re starting to see a lot more people planting their roots and exploring cultural opportunities right now,” says Williams about Chicago, which like Miami and Austin also offers a booming food scene. “The American palate is expanding. For years, we’ve been taught that French was the only way, but that has changed. And now other cultures are stepping forward without fear.”
Bristol-Joseph says through the varied cultures that his restaurants with Fink touch, they hope to create a space “where anyone from anywhere can show up and feel welcome. But they don’t have to be taught, it’s not a classroom, it’s come, sit down and experience something different.” San Antonio’s Ladino is a Mediterranean grill; Kalimotxo is a Spanish bar and restaurant; and Canje, named for the national bird of Guyana, is a passion project of Bristol-Joseph, who is a Guyanese native.
“The reason why we got into the restaurant business is because we saw there were a lot of flaws. And we wanted to change the way people view the industry,” says Bristol-Joseph.
Diversity and versatility have been the keys to staying alive in an industry subject to skyrocketing costs from A to Z, Fink says it is increasingly difficult to find the right real estate for an independent restaurant. Restaurateurs must now partner with landlords who see the bigger picture. “There does have to be a landlord that’s motivated to continue to bring unique content—because if they’re just marketing a space to who’s going to be the highest bidder, a bank is going to take it or a chain restaurant or a doctors office,” he says.
This spring, Fink and Bristol-Joseph will open Ezov, drawing inspiration from the markets of Texas and Israel, alongside executive chef Berty Richter.
With Aba Miami, owned by hospitality powerhouse Lettuce Entertain You, Jacobson now navigates between three cities—a feat that involves a lot of travel, which is why he welcomed the brotherhood aspect of this event. “We spend a lot of time in our own kitchens, and we don’t get to branch out as much,” he says. “I knew this would be fun.”
Guarnaschelli and the Tuscan Terror
Across the beach on Saturday evening, the traffic thickened on Collins Avenue, and Flay, the tribute dinner host, headed out on foot rather than brave the traffic from the Ritz Carlton — just a few doors down from Loews Miami Beach — with his script in hand for the main event honoring Chopped’s Alex Guarnaschelli.
Earlier, she told THR that even if one isn’t a television personality, participating in SOBEWFF connects the culinary world. “You can get in front of thousands of people with your brand and with your food. And as people are chewing something, they’re like, ‘This is delicious,’ and they look up and it’s you. To me, it’s the same sensation as watching television,” she says.
When Guarnaschelli found out she was this year’s honoree, the chef of New York City’s Butter was speechless as there have only been a handful of women to receive the honor. It recalled her memories of graduating from Barnard College and wanting to be a culinary trailblazer for women. “Now the world is less divided by gender,” she says, noting that she sees that through the eyes of her 15-year-old child Ava. “At the end of the day, it’s about ‘What did you do?’ ‘When did you inspire others?’ ‘Are people chewing stuff?’ It’s anybody’s ballgame. I’ve been in a room with 26 dudes and me. If you go to the kitchen every day, you dice the cucumbers until you’re blue in the face, and your dice is perfect after a while, that’s a win.”
Aside from the tribute, she also hosted a Godfather-themed dinner at SOBEWFF. It was inspired by the way meatballs are cooked in the film versus the way they are prepared in Goodfellas.
“I watched the Godfather, and I watched Goodfellas. In my last cookbook, I put in a comparison of the two spaghetti with meatballs recipes because they’re distinctive moments in those movies. I thought even in a movie where food is not at all the topic, it really matters to everybody how you made that sauce,” she says.
“In The Godfather, they just pop the meatballs right in the sauce raw. Then in Goodfellas, they brown them, but they put in too many onions. So you have two schools of thought.”
Gaurneschelli’s new show Ciao House, with network up-and-comer Gabe Bertaccini debuts April 16, at 9 p.m. PT. “I call him the Tuscan terror. He’s an absolute expert on Italian food, but he doesn’t look it because he’s so handsome. No one’s going to believe Gabe knows anything about anything outside of a gym,” she says. “All of the competitors live together in this stunning Italian villa in the middle of Tuscany. They’re competing, and they’re cooking, and it gets to be a little Game of Thrones.”
She will also be participating in the Schrager-organized inaugural Nassau Paradise Island Wine & Food Festival from March 16 to 19 in the Bahamas, along with Andrew Zimmern.
Maluma’s New Mezcal
Sunday was not a day of rest for Schrager or his celebrity pals. The day started with a Jazz Brunch with Mashama Bailey from The Grey in Savannah, Georgia, and Austin, Texas. The James Beard Foundation Awards named her Outstanding Chef in 2022. Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka hosted the annual Drag Brunch with queens Bianca Del Rio, Ginger Minj and Athena Dion performing and emceeing for the crowd, along with Jane Krakowski and The View co-host Ana Navarro. Marcus Samuelsson and Amaris Jones hosted the Overtown EatUp. Those who needed a break from all the festival action headed over to Soho Beach House to enjoy the Sunday feast at Cecconi’s.
Later, Maluma hit the grand-tasting village to mix up cocktails with his new Contraluz Cristalino Mezcal. Then he headed over to the David Grutman experience, which turned SOBEWFF into a music festival as the sun began to set. He jumped onstage with DJ Khaled and Cedric Gervais.
Schrager also spoke with THR about advancing diversity and inclusion at SOBEWFF, which both the festival and the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University (FIU) have been focusing on over the last decade.
“I’m so proud of the diversity program that we launched at FIU. Many students get job offers from that weekend. It’s great that people want to become the next Food Network star graduating from school. They always ask, ‘How do you do that,’ and I’m like, ‘First learn to cook and see if you’re good on TV, and then you have a 2 percent chance of ever making it happen — but work hard and become a good cook.'”
To date, the festival has raised more than $34 million in support of Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management whose mission is to educate the future leaders of the hospitality industry. Between SOBEWFF and its sister NYCWFF, more than $48 million has been raised to benefit the respective charities.
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