Lee Brian Schrager was cycling through Coral Gables when the South Beach Wine & Food Festival founder saw a perfect replica of a French country home and fell in love. So after a nearby dinner party, he slid a note under the front door, offering to buy the place. Months later, it was his.
Schrager has a knack for making the unobtainable a reality, like turning a fundraising dinner into one of the world's largest food festivals. Now in its 17th year, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival attracts thousands of people to the sands of Miami Beach for nearly a week's worth of wining, dining, and celebrity spotting.
The Long Island native says he owes his career to a teacher with the foresight to see his talents. "I was a very bad student. I hated wood shop, and I went into home ec," Schrager says. "I had this teacher... who told my parents that I was really good in the kitchen and suggested I check out the Culinary Institute of America. That was 40 years ago, and kids didn't go there. But that was the beginning."
Schrager didn't see himself behind the burner, but he knew he loved the hospitality industry. At the onset of South Beach's resurgence, he began opening restaurants — including one with Mickey Rourke — and one of the first gay bars in the area. "Versace and Gaultier would come to my bar after photo shoots," he says.
Lightning struck when he joined Southern Wine & Spirits, the nation's largest distributor, and put on a fundraiser for Florida International University's hospitality program. The dinner was a hit, but Schrager quickly realized it could lead to more.
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"I was invited to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, and on the way home, I said, 'We really need to do something like this in South Beach.'"
He says it's no coincidence Miami's food scene has grown exponentially since his festival has blown up. "The festival brought down the Dana Cowins and Ruth Reichls of the world, and I felt like I was a champion of the food scene here," he says.
Schrager still finds time to write. He's released several books, including cookbooks focused on fried chicken and breakfast. Now he's working on a dog-friendly cookbook.
"I've paid my dues and I've earned the right to enjoy what I do," he says. "There's never a day when I don't love going into the office. When you're happy, it reflects on everything. I'm fortunate to work for people who give me the opportunity to fly."