I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Mr. Lee Brian Schrager recently in anticipation of the upcoming South Beach Wine & Food Festival® (SOBEWFF), taking place for its eleventh consecutive year on February 23 to 26, 2012. The Festival is held at some of the most exciting venues in Miami Beach, and over forty unique events will take place during the four-day Festival. Each event has a theme, a particular food or wine concept, and collectively they offer a global perspective on the amazing palates of food and wine.
Mr. Schrager, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is Vice President of Corporate Communications and National Events at Southern Wine & Spirits of America, and Founder and Director of the Festival. He is delightful, passionate and a true visionary. The festival began as a one-day event and garnered a respectable 7,000 guests. In ten years, the prestigious festival has grown in scope, size and sophistication. The event has become “de rigueur” for food and wine aficionados worldwide, last year attracting over 57,000 guests, top chefs, and nearly everyone from the “who’s who” of the culinary and wine world. The events range from large tasting formats to intimate, themed affairs to targeted seminars. Each event represents the best of its respective category – from gourmet foods to grilled cheese.
This Festival is extremely important for the economy of Miami Beach – vastly benefitting the revenues and brand awareness of its many participating restaurants, hotels, markets, food and beverage companies and the many ancillary companies connected to the event.
It is also extremely successful and impressive in fundraising. At the close of last year’s Festival, approximately $14 million has been raised for Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management (SHTM). The Festival is produced by Southern Wine & Spirits in conjunction with SHTM, and this partnership is a great example of “win-win.”
To execute this scale of event, it requires precise preparation and exacting logistics. Schrager and his team are assisted by over 1,000 students from SHTM, and, according to Lee, over two-thirds of his staff are recruited from this school.
The students have the opportunity to experience one of the premier Festivals in the country, and apply this invaluable experience to their education. All the while, the level of excellence of the SHTM students’ performance is honed by working side by side with the Schrager team, whose requisite level of expertise is exceptional to produce such a prestigious and successful affair.
In addition to the event planning aspects of the Festival, the SHTM culinary students receive the rare opportunity to work alongside and learn from some of the most celebrated chefs in the world. As Schrager noted, one of the keys to the growing success of the Festival is the heightened consumer appreciation of food and wine, and popularity of chefs – with the explosion of cooking shows and visibility of chefs and restaurateurs. These days, the “celebrity chefs” are truly rock stars- including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Eric Ripert, Ferran Adria, Emeril Lagasse, Thomas Keller and Nobu Matsuhisa- all who are involved with the SOBEWFF, amongst many other great chefs..
Students and Festival guests are also fortunate enough to meet and work with some of the world’s most respected wine personalities and taste wines from some of the world’s most renowned wineries.
The charitable aspects of the Festival extend beyond the direct contributions of the Festival proceeds. Two other exciting extensions of the Fair produce important funds for the school- an online auction and a book!
The Online Auction is an exciting vehicle that not only raises money for the charity, but sustains the buzz about the Festival after the event is over. This year the auction runs from January 23 until March 5. When I asked Schrager about the auction, he confirmed its financial significance – last year the proceeds from the auction contributed about $400,000 to the charity.
Schrager commemorated the special tenth anniversary last year with the release of his first book, Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $35/hardcover). Like the overall Festival, all proceeds from the cookbook benefit the Florida International University SHTM.
LEE’S FAVORITES, HIGHLIGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
FAVORITE LOCAL RESTAURANT: Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink
FAVORITE SPECIAL OCCASION RESTAURANT: Azul
FAVORITE WINE: Rose Champagne (he politely declined to designate a favorite brand)
FAVORITE US FESTIVAL (other than SOBEWFF): Aspen, the “Classic”
BEST EXPERIENCES FROM PAST FESTIVALS: The commemoration of Peter and (the late) Robert Mondavi. The brothers had become estranged, and bringing them together was a memorable experience. Also, last year the Festival celebrated Alain Ducasse, one of the world’s greatest chefs.
BEST RECOMMENDATIONS FOR NEW EVENTS THIS YEAR: “Trucks on the Beach”, hosted by Andrew Zimmern; “Salsa at Sea” brunch hosted by Douglas Rodriguez and Aaron Sanchez; (reintroduction of) of Moet Hennessy’s “The Q” hosted by Emeril Lagasse and Guy Fieri
BEST EVENT FOR GUESTS WITH LIMITED TIME OR BUDGET: Grand Tasting Village- guests may experience and sample literally hundreds of wines and foods