Paula Deen
Paula Deen

Food for Thought

To most people, food sustains life.

But to the culinary celebrities converging on Miami February 24 through 26 for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, food is life.

And they're set to nourish the hungry crowds with shows of sustenance. "You can call me a lot of things," quips Daisy Martinez, festival guest and host of the public television show Daisy Cooks. "But shy is not one of them. And neither is my food."

On Saturday, Martinez will slice, simmer, and sauté for the gaggle gathered under the festival's Grand Tasting Village tents on Ocean Drive at Thirteenth Street.

"It's a big to-do and I'm really getting psyched about it," Martinez claims. "Wherever I go, it's like, öAre you going to Miami for Food & Wine?' That's the buzzword."

It's so big, in fact, the event that began in 1997 as a one-day bash held on Florida International University's Biscayne Bay campus is largely sold out. But those who snagged coveted $125 passes to Saturday or Sunday's day-long tasting soiree can expect to not only sample culinary creations — from more than 75 South Florida caterers and restaurateurs — washed down with free-flowing booze, but also enjoy a scintillating performance.

Joining Martinez are some of the planet's most famous foodies, such as Food Network stars Rachel Ray, Anthony Bourdain, Paula Deen, and Emeril Lagasse; Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Ted Allen; and the revered Nobu Matsuhisa — to name just a few. Despite their varied backgrounds, styles, and tastes, all of these epicures have made a name for themselves by mastering the art of blending food with fanfare. And during the fifth edition of this three-day festival, they will take turns demonstrating not only how to dish up delicacies, but also how to entertain while you're doing it.

They are the masters of the American pantheon that is culinary show biz.

So how exactly does one make onion-chopping look fun?

"You have to love it," laughs Martinez, a New York native born to Puerto Rican parents. "You have to love the process of preparing food. If the person preparing the food is passionate about what it is they're doing and cooking, that flows out and the audience gets it."

Martinez, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, attributes her passion and enthusiasm for food to her Hispanic heritage. She recalls how abuela Valentina and mother Conchita taught her the kitchen is the happiest room in a household. She tries to instill that joy and love for her profession into her Latino home-cooking TV show.

And she throws in just a bit of drama for good measure: "I can get excited about the fact that something is so perfectly green, or so perfectly crisp, or so perfectly golden, and I can portray that excitement. A piece of perfectly fried chicken takes on a whole life of its own. Let's break that chicken open: öOh my God, look at the juices, the crispiness of the outside.' That is theater. That is dramatic.

"If you're seeing that beautiful breast of chicken being broken open, steaming, the juices running out of it, the skin perfectly crisp and golden, and your mouth is watering from that, then I'm doing my job."

The notion of taking as much visual interest in the preparation of food as oral pleasure in devouring it is relatively new. Some credit Japan's Fuji TV's Iron Chef series — which began in 1993 and ran for almost six years — as the inspiration for many of today's television cooking shows. The 300-episode series pitted two chefs against one another in a flamboyantly eccentric culinary battle of skill.

However, when the host of Food Network's Paula's Home Cooking, Paula Deen, began her first foray into the business almost seventeen years ago, it was circumstance and not pomp that fueled the industry.

The not-so-glamorous-sounding Bag Lady was the name of her first culinary venture, and there was nothing show-biz about it.

"I started with $200, making sandwiches in my kitchen at home, and I would send my children out to sell them," Deen coos in a deep Southern drawl. "And it was not easy, because my sons didn't see the future in any of this stuff."

Within seven years, Deen was operating a successful restaurant, The Lady and Sons, in downtown Savannah's City Market. Her subsequent success has earned her the respect and adoration of fans worldwide, including many at last year's festival.

"They really wanted me back this year because last year's show was so much fun for everybody; we just blasted and had a real good time," Deen recalls.

The author of three cookbooks, Deen professes to be a down-to-earth woman; she'll be accompanied to the festival and on stage by her two sons, Jamie and Bobby. But she has taken the role of culinary superstar to a whole new level with not only a spot on The Oprah Winfrey Show but also an unexpected motion-picture debut with a role in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown.

Though she claims to be as comfortable alone in her own kitchen as mixing and marinating for the masses, this Southern belle secretly loves the limelight. "There's no better high than walking out onstage and getting that immediate gratification from people," Deen giggles. "The bottom line is I care about people, and I think that shows."


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