I start my phone conversation with Lee Schrager by telling him about a recently unearthed 1991 issue of Food Arts magazine that featured the Miami dining scene of the time. "Did you say 1991?" he asks as though he's heard wrong. I add that he merited mention and quotes about South Beach and his then-new restaurant venture Chow.
Of course the real reason I'm calling is to have Schrager talk a bit about the upcoming South Beach Wine & Food Festival (specifically the new events). But 1991 seemed like an apt starting point for the conversation. South Beach has come a long way since then, as has Schrager -- especially true for both over the past decade, which coincides with the first South Beach Wine & Food Festival (this year's shindig, the 11th, will take place February 23 through 26).
New Times: The Miami dining scene has really soared in recent years, but some might say it started taking off about the time you started the SBWFF. How much influence do you think the festival has had on our rise as a restaurant city?
Lee Schrager: I certainly don't take credit for the popularity of South Florida chefs; we have some great talent. But I think we've brought a lot of attention to South Florida by bringing the media down here for the festival. A lot of the recognition that these great restaurants have gotten has taken place because they (the national media) were here and they all went to visit the restaurants they had heard about, whether it be Versailles or Michael's Genuine. So I think we can be proud of that association.
Any exciting chef who has never been to the festival coming this year?
Roy Choi will be here. The guy who kind of started the food-cart craze in L.A. (Koji BBQ). There will also be new chefs at Best of the Best. We keep the names at that fresh each year.
Can we run down some new events? Starting with the sea cruise dinner.
We did a Michael's Genuine boat cruise last year, and we've always wanted to do something with salsa, so we're doing a Salsa at Sea cruise with Doug Rodriguez and Aarón Sanchez. And I'm looking forward to Conscious Bite Out in the Sacred Space in Wynwood.
That's with Geoffrey Zakarian, but what's the food going to be like?
I don't want to use the word vegetarian or vegan. It's going to be a lot more. It's geared towards a new demographic... This is probably not for the Burger Bash clientele.
We also have the Farm to Table Brunch at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. Michael Schwartz, Andrea Reusing (Lantern), and a few really great farm-to-table chefs (like Tim Cushman of O Ya and Tony Maws of Craigie on Main). We are growing everything that's going to be eaten at that brunch at the botanical gardens. Gabriele [Marewski] from Paradise Farms is planting everything and will be harvesting it just for the participating chefs.
And we're doing Dining in the Dark with David Burke at the Gansevoort, which I think will be great.
Guests will be blindfolded?
Not blindfolded, but it will be a pitch-black room and you'll have no idea what you're eating. A lot of times we enjoy our food because it's so pretty or we don't like something because it's ugly. So I think that's going to be interesting -- not only the food, but the wine will be all blind tasting.
If it's pitch black, how will we know that David Burke is really there?
Because at the end he will come out and ask what you thought it was. David Burke will definitely be there, and he's big enough in stature to recognize.
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Who gets the Tribute Dinner this year?
Charlie Trotter and Piero Antinori. Tony Bourdain will be MC of that.
Tomorrow: More new events. Plus what Antonio Banderas is bringing with him, what Lee Schrager really thought of Madonna's wine, what bizarre host is chosen for the Closing Party, and whatta meatball!