Lee Schrager: South Beach food genius speaks

Although Lee Brian Schrager has spent 11 years working for Southern Wine & Spirits, most folks associate his name with the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. It makes sense. After all, the 2011 edition (which begins February 24) marks his tenth year supervising America's largest and most illustrious gathering of chefs and food personalities. This Saturday at 4:30 p.m., Schrager will be at the center of a different festival: Miami Book Fair International. He'll be a guest, not host, and will talk up his new cookbook (coauthored with Julie Mautner), Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook: Recipes and Behind-the-Scenes Stories From America's Hottest Chefs. The book was officially released this past Tuesday at Barney's in New York — the first time the iconic department store has hosted such an event. New Times recently sat down with Schrager over lunch and asked him about the book, new events at this year's SBWFF, and his professional culinary background — which a lot of people might be surprised to learn is rather extensive.

New Times: Tell us about the new cookbook.

Lee Schrager: We wanted to come out with something special to commemorate the ten years and all those who've been involved with the festival from the get-go. I wanted it to be a great keepsake for people who've been to the festival, but even more so for those who've never had the opportunity to come to the festival. Someone at the publishing house said to me: "You know, Lee, if People magazine did a cookbook, this is what it would look like. The photos are great, the stories are great, the recipes are great. Everything pops." That's kind of what I was going for — some behind-the-scenes stories, edgy stories, Q&As. We had to keep it to 100 recipes, so it doesn't have everyone I wanted to include.

Lee Schrager: A decade with SBWFF.
Lee Schrager: A decade with SBWFF.

That's 100 recipes from 100 chefs?

Yes, from 100 chefs and food personalities. We went through 54,000 photos — nine years' worth. The book was originally supposed to be about 220 pages; it ended up being 256 — about 28,000 words and about 70 photographs over what the initial contract called for.

What are some of your favorite recipes in the book?

I love the Nigella Lawson caramel croissant pudding. I love Mario Batali's orecchiette with sausage and broccoli. Bobby Flay's crunchified burger is my favorite burger at the festival. Hedy Goldsmith's milk chocolate cremoso is one of my favorites. I mean, these are just things that I like, which is clearly why they ended up in the book. There is something that resonated with me with every recipe in the book.

What will make this cookbook stand out from the glut of others on the market?

For ten years, people have asked, "What's different about your festival?" It's the same thing that's different about the cookbook: We have the pop culture, and we have the great chefs. Where do you find a cookbook that has Ferran Adrià and Paula Deen? Where do you see a recipe book with Alain Ducasse and Rachael Ray?

How difficult is it to make the recipes at home?

Some recipes are a little more sophisticated, but I've tested every one in the book at least three times — the initial tasting in which we narrowed the recipes down, then with the publishers, and then with the photography team. If I can do it, anyone can do it.

Well, maybe, but not everyone graduated from the Culinary Institute of America as you did in 1979. When did you get involved with cooking?

I grew up around food. My mom was a great cook, so my earliest memories are of being in the kitchen. I talk about this in the book. When my parents used to travel, when I was younger, we would have this little old lady come and take care of us. Her name was Mrs. Catanzaro — "Mrs. C," we used to call her. She was like Lidia Bastianich. She used to make pizzas, pastas, calzones... I remember standing up on a milk crate and helping her make gnocchi. I remember learning how to bake bread. Every time I go into a bakery and smell yeast in something, it brings me back to her. So my first memory of cooking was with Italian food with Mrs. C.

How old were you then?

Around 9 or 10.

Were you living in Florida?

No. I'm originally from Massapequa, Long Island. But my family moved to Fort Lauderdale when I was 15, so I'm here 35 years. When people ask me where I'm from, I say Miami.

Your first job was at Glorious Foods, a prestigious New York catering company. Where else did you work during those early years?

I went to work for Eli Zabar, at Madison Avenue's E.A.T. My first job was making Easter chocolates in the window. Then I worked for Peter DeLuca at Dean & Deluca when they opened up the shop at 121 Prince St. It had been open only for a few months and they hired me to be their window display guy. Then I became the cheese manager and helped them open the store in the Hamptons.

What new events will there be at this year's South Beach Wine & Food Festival?

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