Chefs Clay Conley of Azul and Michael Bloise of Wish agree: Given the choice of being stuck on a desert island with either Martha Stewart or the Mondavi brothers, both would prefer Martha. Conley explains, "If anyone can make a deserted island feel like home, she could." The same question was put to Andrea and Frank Randazzo of Talula, but they couldn't come up with a definitive answer, citing uncertainty as to whether the Mondavis would be allowed to bring along any wine.
New Times posed this query because the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival will be honoring both Martha and the Mondavi winemakers at its annual tribute brunch this Sunday, and the aforementioned honorees are preparing the meal. Local philanthropist Donny Lefton (of The Continental Companies, formerly Carnival Resorts and Casinos) will likewise be feted, presumably for his philanthropy, rather than for the quality of cuisine served at Carnival Casinos.
There will be plenty of dry wines in the house, but few dry eyes when Peter and Robert Mondavi receive their lifetime achievement award. The brothers first gained recognition for creating highly regarded Napa Valley wines for their family label, Charles Krug, in the Sixties. Soon thereafter Robert bolted from the business and started rival Robert Mondavi Winery down the road, which precipitated a feud that lasted nearly half a century. The men, now in their nineties, reunited in 2004 to produce Ancora Una Volta ("together again," loosely, in Italian) Cabernet Sauvignon, which will be poured at the brunch along with other distinguished selections from the two Napa vineyards. Festival organizer Lee Brian Schrager notes that the Mondavis "have never before been honored together."
In 2002, Schrager, the director of special events and media relations at Southern Wine & Spirits, took what had been a tiny culinary fair and turned it into the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Produced by Southern Wine in conjunction with Florida International University, it attracted close to 7,000 guests that first year, and close to 10,000 the next. Attendance doubled to 20,000 for the three-day event in 2004, which qualified it as one of the largest of its kind in the country, but also led to grumblings about overcrowding, reassessments, and a subsequent cap on the number of tickets sold. The fair gets tweaked a bit each year, but its essence has remained the same: a gleeful gathering of nationally and locally recognized chefs, winemakers, spirits producers, and culinary personalities into one fairly sprawling "Grand Tasting Village" that encompasses (besides the grand tastings) cooking demos, wine seminars, cookbook signings, and a constantly simmering stockpot of special festivities.
One major new ingredient has been tossed into the stew this season: the Food Network. "It is a major coup," crows Schrager. "We looked at all sorts of potential title sponsors, but this one made the most sense." It inarguably offers the festival an infusion of cash, cachet, and the whole Food Network cult of culinary celebrities. On the other hand, it also means we have to endure Cat Cora and Rachael Ray. Seriously, though, Rachael has been an energetic presence at the fest in recent years, and this time around will be hosting Burger Bash, a new Thursday night shindig.
Friday night's Mot & Chandon BubbleQ, featuring the universally alluring combination of champagne, barbecue, and beach, has been the festival's perennial favorite. Wine Spectator's Best of the Best, held on the same evening, "was created to pull people away from BubbleQ," explains Schrager, "and now it's just as popular." Formerly held at the Fontainebleau Hotel, Best of the Best has moved to the American Airlines Arena, where the function will take place in a series of 30 to 40 suites on the Arena's club floor. Each room will pair a top toque or two with a couple of stellar wineries from around the world.
The tribute brunch shouldn't be too shabby, either. The Randazzos of Talula probably speak for a lot of folks when they proclaim, "A couple of mimosas or bloody marys make Sunday a wonderfully lazy day, a relaxing way of catching up with each other and our girls after racing around all week." There won't be much kicking back for Andrea and Frank this coming weekend, as they will be busy preparing their tribute treats for the feast: Yukon gold smashed potato cake with Nova Scotia smoked salmon, crme frache, and American caviar; and citrus-poached lobster salad on brioche toast with fresno chilis, basil aioli, and yuzu tobiko (flying fish roe).
Clay Conley, of Azul, will be manning the meat station at the brunch, which translates to braised American Wagyu short rib, seared Japanese beef, black truffle, celery root, and a sunny-side up quail egg. Conley learned to enjoy this most leisurely of meals when he lived in the Big Easy. "The jazz, the gluttonous amounts of food, the relaxed atmosphere, and of course the champagne make brunch one of my favorite ways to waste a Sunday," he says. Michael Bloise, of Wish, professes a more practical appreciation. "I am a late sleeper," he says, "and usually miss out on breakfast." When preparing brunch at home, Bloise uses his wood-burning grill "to achieve some rustic flavors even in egg dishes." Wish will be presenting two stations at the tribute. The first will serve Kumamoto oysters with "mimosa pearls," and the other will serve frittatas with toppings of duck confit, rabbit breakfast sausage, and a blend of five cheeses.
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It is no doubt a thrill for these chefs to be cooking brunch for the Mondavis and Martha. The latter is known for being a multimedia lifestyle entrepreneur. But back in the early Eighties, while working as a freelance chef for a number of elite New York caterers, I witnessed firsthand her substantial contribution to the catering industry, which has generally gone unnoted. This was well before the current glut of food magazines, Websites, and cookbooks were unleashed, so there was a relatively small pool of contemporary recipe and presentation ideas from which to borrow. Martha's landmark book, Entertaining, published in 1982, was one of the first of its kind, and so often utilized by caterers that when attending functions in future years I'd spot certain canapes and recall what page number they came from. Blue cheese mousse on Belgian endive points? That was Martha!
Which is why I, too, would select Ms. Stewart as my hypothetical island companion. Ideally, though, the Mondavis would drop by from time to time and restock the wine coolers.
February 22 through 25. For a complete schedule of events visit the festival Website at www.sobewineandfoodfest.com.