Lee Brian Schrager is the undisputed king of Miami cuisine. This Thursday, 50,000 people will flock to the tenth anniversary of his South Beach Wine & Food Festival, hosted by Food Network. Everyone from Emeril to Anthony Bourdain will be in town to eat, drink, and toast the tubby 51-year-old.
Just how, exactly, Schrager ascended his culinary throne is in dispute, however. In a new cookbook for the festival, Schrager says he took a one-day event called Florida Extravaganza and — inspired by a visit to Aspen Food & Wine Classic — decided to create something similar in South Beach.
But some veterans of the South Beach hospitality industry think Schrager's "recipe for success" is more full of shit than a deep-fried Twinkie. "The story about this being the tenth anniversary of the festival is laughable," says Christopher Perks. "He changed one word in the title, and that was only because I already owned the rights to it."
South Beach Wine and Food Festival
According to Perks, South Beach Wine & Food Festival really began as South Florida International Wine & Food Festival back in 1990. That was when Perks, as managing director of the swanky Doral Beach Ocean Resort, decided Miami Beach needed a signature event to boost tourism.
"Chris said he had an idea for a wine and food festival," recalls Eric Jacobs, former chairman of the Miami Beach Visitor Convention Authority, whom Perks approached for funding. "Chris was definitely the originator of it — no question about it."
The three-day event — replete with wine tastings, world-class chefs, and a champagne-drenched brunch — drew several hundred people its first year and continued to grow for six more. When Perks left Miami in 1996, however, he says the event moved to Florida International University and took the title Florida Extravaganza.
"All the elements were already there: the same sponsors, the same players, everything," he says looking at an ad for this year's Food Network festival. "If that's not the South Florida Wine & Food Festival, it sure as hell looks like its twin sister to me."
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Like Perks, Jacobs is less interested in taking credit than setting the record straight. "It's disconcerting that Lee would have such an inflated ego to go around telling people that he invented something when it isn't true," he says. "It's a damnable lie."
Schrager, who was once hired by Perks as a catering director, claims to have never even heard of the South Florida International Wine & Food Festival. "I don't know what he's talking about," Schrager says. "My festival didn't start until 2002, so where the fuck was this festival those six years? Tell Chris that I think he's getting old and losing his mind."
Perks, who has never been invited to the event since Schrager took over, counters: "If I'm upset, it's because Lee hasn't been honest about where the festival came from... I was quite happy to let sleeping dogs lie until I read Lee's book.
"Lee is an extraordinarily talented person," Perks adds. "But he got stuck telling a lie."