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While The James Beard Awards have been compared to the Oscars of the culinary world, it could be said the Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival is the Grammys of eating and drinking. Much like music’s biggest night, SOBEWFF — which ran from Feb. 24 to 27 — features cross-collaboration between creatives among various genres, celebrity red carpet moments, a philanthropy and education angle, speeches and tributes and many after parties. The vibe is fun, it’s best moments are unscripted and it’s where big food-show personalities come to frolic on the sands of South Beach with their peers and fans.
In the festival’s 21 years, what started as a wine-tasting fundraiser created by Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits has grown to 90-plus events over four nights. And some of the participating chefs are among the highest paid stars of Food Network (which came onboard the fest in 2007) — Guy Fieri, who inked an $80 million deal last year, and Bobby Flay, at a reported $100 million.
Now it’s not just the celebrity chefs who show up, but actors (Eva Longoria, Kate Hudson, Neil Patrick Harris), musicians (Adam Levine), athletes (Dwyane Wade), rappers (French Montana) and news personalities (Al Roker), with some celebs hawking their own spirits, wine, yoga and cigar brands.
“It feels like the old days,” says Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits executive Lee Brian Schrager, who is also the festival’s founder and executive director. “People are ready to go out and party. We have tremendous talent, sold-out events and there’s a new slew of people who have never been to the festival.”
These were the highlights and trends of the four-day event.
2022’s Rising Stars Are Already Stars
Celebrities endorsing wine, pots, pans, cookbooks and even restaurants is nothing new. But since George Clooney, Rande Gerber and Mike Meldman sold their tequila brand Casamigos to Diageo for a reported $1 billion in 2017, the star-backed product of choice is now tequila. “People sat at home during the pandemic, bored and looking for other things. The Casamigos deal was fresh in everyone’s minds … that big payout,” Schrager says. “Had George Clooney’s brand not done so well, maybe you wouldn’t see so many celebrities [jumping into liquor], but they saw the potential, and they jumped on the bandwagon.”
SOBEWFF backer Southern Glazer’s is the largest distributor of alcoholic beverages in the United States, and that has made the festival an essential flyby event for those proffering spirits brands. However, Schrager says it takes more than just a big name to make a booze brand a success — it takes a major investment of time and energy from all involved.
“Clooney was behind that brand. He lived it and breathed it,” Schrager says. “It’s more than just saying, ‘I want a brand.’ It’s believing in it, being knowledgeable about it, being involved from A to Z — developing everything from the bottle to the marketing plan. And you must have the right distribution partner. But it still doesn’t guarantee success.”
This year, Longoria showed up with her Casa Del Sol sipping tequila, which is aged in cognac barrels. Levine and wife Behati Prinsloo are the backers of Calirosa pink tequila, while Fieri poured his Santo brand.
“Everything to date [in the tequila space] has been masculine — men riding motorcycles in the agave fields, chasing dawn. No one was speaking to women,” says Colbi Corbett, president of Casa Del Sol, the brand that counts Longoria as co-founder. The former director of strategic partnerships for Casamigos, Corbett spent one year there prior to the Diageo sale; she was hesitant to return to the industry until she met her current partners.
Casa Del Sol was created by the uncle of advertising guru Steph Sebbag five years ago with the help of Laurent Martell and Paco Padilla, the cultural ambassador of Jalisco, Mexico. Sebbag, Corbett, Longoria, Padilla’s daughter Mariana and Alejandra Pelayo, the goddaughter of master tequila distiller Francisco Alcaraz, launched Casa Del Sol a year ago.
“I always thought I worked hard,” Corbett says of Longoria, who sits in on calls, goes on appointments, opens accounts and navigates the Casa Del Sol business plan. “It’s not the Eva Longoria tequila — she’s very much the brains and mind that is helping us move the business across day to day. That’s not the case with a lot of celebrities, who want you to pay them if they name drop you or pay them to show up and make an appearance. If you’re going to have a celebrity partner, they need to be a real partner. They need to be invested in the business.”
Corbett says people get excited about owning a liquor company but don’t realize the hustle that goes into it. In the highly competitive spirits industry, many fail while only a few succeed. “Eva is genuinely invested in the authenticity, the story and how Casa Del Sol elevates the voices of women in Mexico,” Corbett explains.
“I’ve been approached by tequila companies before, but when Casa Del Sol reached out, it was really the first time that a tequila came to me with an authentic connection,” Longoria tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I loved the idea that you could bring casual drinkers and enthusiasts together to enjoy a product that was founded with authentic Mexican roots with strong female influence.”
At Casa Del Sol, women oversee production and manufacturing. The distillery is 100 percent, Mexican-owned and third-generation run. The vegan leather necks on the bottles are produced by women, and brand-sustainability practices include water conservation, soil regeneration and the forecasting of agave shortages.
“Casa Del Sol is a brand with a mission that aligns perfectly with my own values,” Longoria says. “We are employing local women throughout Mexico and making waves in the liquor industry with [key executive roles occupied by women].”
Casa Del Sol launched in California and Colorado in October, soft launched in Florida in December and is expanding nationwide.
Longoria popped up at multiple places during SOBEWFF, including at an al fresco dinner at Verde inside the Pérez Art Museum with photographer Brian Bowen Smith and chef Lorena Garcia. Elsewhere around the fest were Levine and Prinsloo, who were seen frolicking with their pink Calirosa tequila at both a cocktail party at 1 Hotel’s Beach Club and at a dinner at Scott Linquist’s Como Como marisquería. On the non-tequila front, Kate Hudson showed up at Nikki Beach, drinking cocktails made of her King St. Vodka after a yoga session, while Dwyane Wade was in town promoting his Wade Cellars winery.
Fieri mixed Santo cocktails — his tequila label with Sammy Hagar — at the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives LIVE event, which brought favorite mom-and-pop restaurants from the show to Miami. He also previewed his newest, Santo Blanco 110l and debuted Knuckle Sandwich Cigars, a partnership with Erik Espinosa. Fieri also announced that his son Hunter recently signed a deal with WME.
With Food Network so heavily involved, SOBEWFF has become a place for chefs to both announce and promote their new projects.
Debuting March 14, L.A. chef Antonia Lofaso (Dama, Scopa Italian Roots and Black Market Liquor Bar) will host The Julia Child Challenge on Food Network and Discovery+, engaging eight home cooks in high-stakes Child-inspired culinary challenges. The grand prize is a three-month cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu.
“To date, the most satisfying show that I’ve done,” Lofaso says. “I was working with another producer who was pitching Food Network on a travel show of a pilgrimage of Julia Child’s life.” Todd Weiser, Food Network head of programming and development, told Lofaso they already had another Julia Child-inspired show in the works.
“She doesn’t even have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame … she has been the most influential person, woman, in our time, in our industry, who took on this role to really nurture and educate people in the United States, mostly housewives at that time, and change the way that we looked at food as a country,” Lofaso says.
“Weiser saw my enthusiasm, wanting to talk about this incredible woman,” she continues. “And then I got a call, you know, like three weeks later, ‘Do you want to be the head judge on the show?’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Among Lofaso’s hosting responsibilities was to get her fellow judges, including Michael Voltaggio, to talk about what Child meant to them. “This woman meant something different to every single person. We all have this common ground, and it has transcended cultures, ages, genders,” she says.
This is a “pinch-me” moment for Lofaso, who has dabbled in food television for more than a decade and was a contestant on Top Chef in 2008.
“I don’t shoot in my restaurants,” she adds. “With businesses that are now 10 years, nine years and four years old, I have built them, and I stepped back a little. I won’t try to do things simultaneously. I’m not going to shoot for shows and open a restaurant at the same time, because the restaurant suffers. I am the chef who trained all the sous chefs with my chef de cuisine. I was the chef who expedited the line at Black Market for two years, Scopa for four years and Dama for eight months. These places, though, are running well with the team that I put in place because I started the culture there.”
Lofaso says that television drives only a small percentage of business to the restaurants, and she does feel as if she has been slightly snubbed by the L.A. food press for being a “TV chef.”
“I’m getting a little heated about it. If you go into all three of my restaurants, the only one I put my name on the menu is Black Market. I grew up in L.A., I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. I’m local, and people trust our restaurants,” Lofaso says. “We are packed every night of the week. Scopa has been open for nine years — we do $10 million a year. I didn’t get into this thinking I was going to be on television, or that I was going to have three restaurants. I just wanted to cook food. I didn’t have a plan in mind when I went to culinary school.”
Another L.A. darling, Ludo Lefebvre of Petit Trois and the now shuttered Michelin-starred Trois Mec, a pandemic casualty, will debut a new cooking competition show in March on TBS, the curiously titled Rat in the Kitchen with comedian Natasha Leggero. Among the show contestants is one person who is trying to sabotage the other chefs.
Lefebvre also recently opened a bistro inside Denver’s Thompson Hotel called Chez Maggy. Lefebvre, whose wife is from Denver, describes the food as classic French. While he calls L.A. home, Lefebvre says the industry is still greatly suffering.
“We’re very understaffed,” he says. “It’s very difficult to operate a restaurant. It is challenging, so I don’t do exactly what I want now.”
At SOBEWFF, Lefebvre teamed up with Daniel Boulud, who will open his first West Coast restaurant inside the Mandarin Oriental Beverly Hills at the end of 2022; and chef Mourad Lahlou of San Francisco’s Mourad and Aziza, who will soon debut a Moroccan concept at Napa’s Oxbow Public Market. The trio hosted a dinner at Boulud Sud in Downtown Miami’s JW Marriott Marquis.
Lahlou echoes Lefebvre’s sentiments about the state of the industry. “We are definitely not back to where we used to be,” Lahlou says. “In San Francisco, it has been challenging for certain neighborhoods. The city has not come back at the same rate. Residential areas have come back quicker than South of Market, and the Financial District is a little bit slower because the offices and the buildings are empty. My two restaurants in San Francisco — one that is extremely busy, because it’s in a neighborhood, and the other has taken a little bit more time.”
Moreover, he says that the pandemic has catalyzed a much-needed change in the industry. “I think the system has broken down to shreds,” Lahlou says. “I don’t necessarily believe what we had before the pandemic was working. I think the system was flawed. The cooks were underpaid. They were not making enough money, especially in San Francisco, to be able to live. The pandemic accelerated the breakdown. It became obvious that a lot of people have left the industry.”
Boulud asserts now is a good time for those in culinary school because they will have more direct access to chefs at the top of their game. “We go to the cooking school and find the gems in the rough and hope they become a great cook one day. They’re not easy to find, but we build them,” he says of mentorship. “During COVID, we gave promotions and opportunities to move into the kitchen much faster than we ever did before. By necessity, we needed to use them in other duties than what they were hired for.”
The TV mentality, Lahlou says, has both hindered and helped the process. “A lot of cooks have the perception of what it’s like to be a chef from when they see somebody like Daniel,” he says. “They think it just happened overnight — television, magazines. It doesn’t happen overnight. But now, especially post pandemic, we have to be a mentor, give back and show the technique and the ingredient, the philosophy of food.”
Reopenings, Closings and Migrations
Chef and Food Network star Michael Symon reveals he will soon reopen his restaurant Mabel’s BBQ at Palms in Las Vegas. The casino-resort, closed since March 2020, was purchased last year by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and plans to reboot this spring. Symon debuted Mabel’s in 2018 as part of the $690 million renovation of Palms by Station Casinos. His buddy Bobby Flay also had Shark within Palms; no word on its future.
Having lost several restaurants to the pandemic, Symon is ecstatic to see this project resurrected. “I lived there for four months. We put in a ton of work,” he says.
Also on his plate, the Food Network personality recently completed four episodes of Throwdown in December, taking over the popular show from Flay. Having won his first Iron Chef battle 15 years ago, Symon says he never could have anticipated how far television would take his career — and Flay’s. “We’ve worked the line, 120 hours a week for more than half our lives. We’ve been really lucky. The restaurant business, there’s still nothing like it. I love it. The TV stuff has been like, ‘Holy shit.’ I just never thought it would be humanly possible,” he says of the deals recently struck by Flay and Fieri. “Now, there is an endless supply of content.”
But does success on television translate into restaurant covers? Symon says it depends on the show: “Iron Chef … you can’t taste the food. So people wanted to go to the restaurants.”
Other shows, like Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, have changed the lives of small business owners, according to Symon. “[Guy] has introduced restaurants that people would have never seen across America,” he says.
Outside of Mabel’s comeback, Symon has no plans to open any new restaurants outside of helping his son Kyle with his gourmet doughnut shop.
Flay’s New York City restaurant Gato, located on Lafayette Street in NoHo, also a pandemic casualty, will serve as the location for the Northern migration of Miami’s Kyu. The popular Asian barbecue concept makes its way to New York City in March under the leadership of chef Christopher Arellanes. Kyu opened in Wynwood in 2016 and was acquired by billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben with a plan for global expansion. “We are heading to New York City and then Las Vegas, L.A. and then into Europe,” Arellanes says.
Arellanes made his debut at this year’s SOBEWFF alongside breakout New York City culinary stars Ed Szymanski and Patricia Howard of Dame, who represented the event’s faction not hooked into a television deal. In fact, Szymanski says he has “no desire to be on television.” Instead, the couple is laser focused on raising the quality-of-life bar for restaurant workers in New York City. Szymanski spent time in the kitchen of April Bloomfield at the Spotted Pig and also did turns at Beatrice Inn (where he met Howard) and Cherry Point. Dame started as a pop-up in March 2020 and weathered a lot of storms to its brick-and-mortar opening in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in June 2021. The concept: a British fish and chips restaurant. Szymanski also gained notoriety by hosting pop ups for other up-and-comers through Dame. As a restaurateur, Szymanski says he takes a smaller cut of the profits so the staff of Dame can be paid an equitable wage. He also closes down so they can all take time off.
As Szymanski and Howard open new concepts, they plan to invest in the futures of their colleagues, using Dame to serve as an incubator for the staff to test out their ideas.
SOBEWFF is a 100-percent not-for-profit event that over the years has raised more than $33 million for Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management.
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