Selling Miami Spice

Reasons why Miami should be the food and wine fest capital

Amazing what you can learn about your own town just by leaving it.

For instance I doubt I would have known that the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau has both a marketing partnership with American Express and a serious promo in the works: Miami Spice Restaurant Month. During August, participating restaurants, ranging from Pacific Time to Botín to Monty's Stone Crab Seafood Restaurant, will offer diners lunch for a prix-fixe of $19.99 and dinner for a set fee of $29.99. I found out when I stopped by the bureau's booth at the 20th Anniversary Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen, where they were serving peppercorn-seared tuna over a black bean salsa designed by Azul chef Michelle Bernstein, along with flyers claiming that "more than 75 of Miami's best restaurants are celebrating the city's passion for food and life by enticing visitors with incredible savings on signature dishes throughout the month of August."

Good thing I spent a thousand bucks or so for a flight and a hotel and traveled a jet-lagging time zone or two. Reading a press release might have been a little cheaper, but invisible missives are hardly succulent. Then again maybe the bureau isn't ready to reveal the plan to hometowners. The "more than 75" claim is so far being disputed by the www.Miami-Spice.com Website, which at press time is listing only a meager 16 participating restaurants. In its defense, however, the site does exhort browsers to check back, as the list will undoubtedly grow during July -- which may make the promotion more enticing for locals, but will doubtless not do much for targeted budget-conscious tourists who plan airline tickets a good deal more than 30 days in advance.

Nor is the pitch quite on the mark. While "Miami Spice Restaurant Month" is purportedly to promote "our city's distinctive cuisine, whether it's called Floribbean, New World, Tropical Fusion or Nuevo Latino," all-American chain eateries like the Capital Grille and the Chart House, who are already signed up, are hardly representative. More interesting is who is currently missing from the list -- namely the creators and perpetrators of said distinctive cuisine like Norman Van Aken, Allen Susser, Mark Militello, and Robbin Haas.

Still the bureau had something of the right idea in heading to Aspen: When 5000 consumers, exhibitors, volunteers, and media professionals are gathered under one roof -- okay, under a multitude of canvas tents -- to scarf down culinary foodstuffs and nose samples of wine, exposure is quite literally a gift horse in the mouth. The folks who do travel to Aspen for several days of wining, dining, and gasping for oxygen-short air tend to be wealthy enough to own homes in several locales, like the couple I met who split their time among Chicago, Aspen, and Boca Raton. Which means that the Boca Raton Resort & Country Club -- which had two booths, one manned by the private resort's executive chef James Reaux; the other by Kevin Garcia, top toque for Tuscan-style Lucca, the club's restaurant that is open to the public -- was in a good place. (The enthusiastic Garcia in particular, whose table was next to the Sassicaia booth and who needless to say was having "a great time" at his first Aspen event.)

Not that I would expect anything less than all-out effort from the Lucca people, which is under the auspices of uberateur Drew Nieporent (Tribeca Grill, Montrachet, Layla, Nobu, ad nauseam). International marketing, whether you're proactive purveyor or passive recipient, is not the only reason to hike up to an altitude that could fell Paul Bunyan. The Classic is such a wonder of networking that ant colonies and beehives are jealous. Industry professionals go not just to market or test products but to greet old friends, meet new rivals and, like some poetry conferences I've been to in the not-so-recent past, entice the highest-ranking culinary celebrities into, er, private tastings.

Such proactive schmoozing, I was delighted to see, had appeal for a few Miami personalities, including Jennifer Rubell, proprietor of Atlantic at Beach House Bal Harbour, and Shareef Malnick, owner of the Forge. I was also cheered that Lee Brian Schrager and Terry Zarikian, organizers of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, attended. Though the record isn't official yet, Food & Wine magazine will likely be sponsoring our event next year, and a veteran festival such as Aspen clearly affords all who examine it the opportunity to make our newbie into a Classic.

Geographically and climatically, yes, South Beach and Aspen are quite different places, and not just because when it comes to cleaning up afterward, we've got beach rats on hand to help and Aspen's got coyotes (a pack of whom raided the garbage bin in the parking lot of my condo). No question that we will always have a problem with parking -- in Aspen, a small, inclusive town ringed by mountains rather than suburbs, everyone pretty much lives within walking distance. No doubt we will always have a few sweaty moments, especially if we have heat waves instead of cold fronts during February and March next year. True, we will have to expand the basis for the Grand Tasting Tent from local restaurants and chefs to national ones -- or even just those from Broward County.

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