By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
It took the end of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and the arrival of the invitation for the upcoming Aspen Food & Wine Magazine Classic to come to a realization: I am tired of plastic-forking a tiny piece of something atop a minuscule dollop of something else, all while standing up. I am weary of nosing a mere sip of wine in a clunky, all-purpose festival glass while walking around. And I am just plain sick of the heat that seems to collect under non-air conditioned tents that don't even have the dubious benefits of ceiling fans to blow away the subtle stench of 5000 partygoers.
But then again, that's not why I attend such events. If I want a three-course meal served with wine in the proper Reidel stemware while jet streams of chilled air counter the humidity leaking out from the kitchen into the dining room, I can take myself out to, well, New York. If I want to encounter, over a container of heirloom tomatoes at the booth of an organic vegetable grower, such notable culinary celebrities as Alice Waters, then to the festivals I must go.
That's exactly how I met Alice Waters, chef-owner of Chez Panisse and doyenne of the promotion of small, artisanal products and local farm vegetables for use in fine restaurants -- over a bucket of sunflowers that I was delivering to the Redland Organics Booth at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival farmers' market. She wanted to buy a bunch; not recognizing her, I told her they weren't for sale. Then we were introduced by one of the festival organizers, who was highly amused by my gaffe. Needless to say, after dropping off the bucket of flowers, and then smacking myself in the head with the heel of my pollen-stained hand, I promptly appropriated a bunch to present to her at the Tribute Brunch that was being held in her honor.
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What a weird, wonderful, and yes -- organic -- way to meet such a long-admired gastronomic legend. But that's what I enjoy most about these types of events. Not what or how much I can eat and drink -- and that would be plenty, my friends -- but who you can run into. The chefs and restaurateurs who attend use it as a forum for networking, a way of reconnecting or forging new bonds, perhaps with a friendly winemaker whose product they'd like to put on a wine list, maybe with former colleagues who now work in other cities. These random meetings make the best stories, and often turn out to be more educational or profitable than yet another sautéed scrap napped with a nage of this and garnished with a pan-fried wisp of that.
If the mark of a successful festival is how the chefs themselves react to it, then this year's second annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival was an undeniable triumph. Sure, it had a glitch here and there -- for some reason, Union Pacific chef Rocco DiSpirito's list of needed foodstuffs never made it to the Casa Tua kitchen where he was hosting his Saturday-evening dinner, so he was missing some important stuff. Namely, raw ingredients. But hey, that's what sous-chefs are for. DiSpirito sent them to Epicure and the dinner, according to both festival organizers and attendees, went off without so much as a delay.
The bigwig chefs who had been lured by festival founder Lee Schrager's promises of an unparalleled event were evidently glad they took him at his word. Many of the topnotch toques have already signed up for 2004. For instance Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert was "extremely happy with the organization of the event," so much so that his assistant Andrea Gluck has "already added [next year's] dates to his calendar." Likewise Dean Fearing, executive chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, told Schrager in an e-mail, "Put me down for the Bubble-Q event and the Sunday 2:45 Demo. The same as it was for this year! I just wish it was going to be sooner!" And "Pencil me in for next year," no-need-to-be-identified Bobby Flay wrote to Schrager. "It was incredibly impressive for a two-year-old food festival. They must be very anxious in Aspen!" Flay, who contributes to CBS's Early Show as well as his staple Food TV Network, is apparently already in talks with both outlets about specials concerning the third annual event.
Even more intriguing than the industry-professional appearances and their kind opinions, however, are their disappearances and unkind opinions. What, after all, is a festival without a little tittle-tattle along with the tidbits? Merely a good time had by all. For saving us from such a prosaic fate, fortunately, we have eponymous restaurateur Gordon Ramsay to thank.
The only three-star Michelin chef left in London, the notoriously scandalous Ramsay flew in for the festival, during which he was scheduled to give two seminars, cook a multiple-course meal at Smith & Wollensky -- for $300 per person, no less -- and interview with various journalists, yours truly included. I'd intended to ask him one question only. What do you think of the dining scene in Miami?