The South Beach Wine & Food Festival turns 13 in 2014, and Lee Brian Schrager, creator of the festival and vice president of corporate communications and national events at Southern Wine & Spirits of America Inc., knew exactly how he wanted to celebrate: a good old-fashioned bar mitzvah.
"I wanted to line up all these great Jewish chefs and have a klezmer band," he says. "But it was so expensive to do the event. I'm responsible for the bottom line, and if it doesn't make money, I can't do it."
If Schrager sounds mercenary by pulling the plug on his own baby's coming-of-age party, it's because the festival also benefits Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management and the Southern Wine & Spirits Beverage Management Center. To date, the festival, which attracts tens of thousands of people to eat, drink, and rub elbows with their favorite celebrity chefs, has raised more than $18 million for the school.
Even with the bar mitzvah cancellation, the festival, which runs from February 20 to 23, has grown, with more than 70 seminars, parties, and dinners scheduled, up from about 50 events offered last year. And it's Schrager who plans each and every event. "I do every bit of programming, meaning I line up the schedule. I'm not a whiz at spreadsheets, so everything is done on little yellow sticky notes," he explains. "By the time I'm finished, there are 80 Post-it notes on a board, and that's the mockup of the festival."
Schrager, on a constant quest to keep things fresh, blends a mixture of tried-and-true events such as Burger Bash and barbecue-centric The Q with new parties each year. This time, he's hoping to attract a new demographic by inviting the most beautiful women in the world -- the 2014 Sports Illustrated swimsuit models -- to co-host The Q with celebrity chef Michael Symon.
If the thought of gorgeous women eating barbecue isn't serious enough for you, Schrager, in partnership with the Miami International Film Festival, is catering to hard-core foodies with the East Coast premiere of the film Soul of a Banquet. The movie tells the story of chef Cecilia Chiang, who is known for introducing America to authentic Chinese food with the opening of her internationally renowned restaurant, the Mandarin, in 1961. The movie will be screened on the wall of the New World Center free to the public, with a limited number of reserved seats sold that include a bento box and reception hosted by former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl and San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer.
Other new events include a late-night ice-cream social, hosted by Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, where guests can make their own sundaes (paired with wine and cocktails, of course), and a dinner based on the HBO series Treme hosted by Anthony Bourdain, Susan Spicer, Wylie Dufresne, and Emeril Lagasse. Schrager says the impetus for the New Orleans-inspired evening didn't come from the television show. "I'm not up on my TV, but I saw the book based on the show and I said, 'Why are we not doing anything with this?' I did some research, got in touch with the publisher, and made it happen."
Schrager isn't afraid to try new things, whether it's a Sammy Hagar concert, an intimate dinner on Little Palm Island in the Keys, or a cocktail party at Wynwood Walls. "People want new and exciting, and the last thing I want to hear is that we've already done that. There's not a lot of new talent out there. We haven't had that next big pop-culture superstar come out in quite some time. That means I have to create new events."
Even as tickets go on sale for 2014, Schrager is prepping for 2015 and beyond. "I'm dying to do a pizza event, like we do with Burger Bash and The Q. The only problem: I couldn't find enough pizza ovens. But we're finally doing an event at the New York City Wine & Food Festival called Sunday Slices, featuring 25 great chefs, because I found someone to do ovens for us. My goal is to have a pizza party on the beach.
"I'd also like to do the world's largest dinner party, with one long, fabulous white table stretching from the Delano to the Ritz-Carlton. We'd have 20 chefs all serving family-style. I picture Thomas Keller and José Andrés working one side and April Bloomfield and Todd English working the other end."
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Although people have asked, the founder of two of the largest food festivals in the United States says he's not planning to expand. "I wish there were two of me, but I worry that if I do put my energy into another city, I'll lose my base here. And Miami is incredibly important to Southern Wine & Spirits -- and to me."