Lee Schrager Lying About Origin of South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Claims Ex-Boss

​Starting this Thursday, 50,000 foodies will sniff, gargle, and chomp their way from one giant white tent to another for the 10th anniversary of the Food Network's South Beach Wine & Food Festival. The crowd will include celebrity chefs like Emeril, Giada De Laurentiis, and Anthony Bourdain, in town to toast festival founder Lee Brian Schrager.

But not everyone will be celebrating Schrager's milestone. In fact, some veterans of the South Beach hospitality industry think Schrager's "recipe for success" is more full of shit than a deep-fried Twinkie.

Schrager is the undisputed king of Miami cuisine. Every year his festival explodes all over South Beach like some gigantic fondue gone horribly deliciously awry.

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 other heavy-hitters in the hospitality industry say Schrager is taking credit for something that began more than a decade before his jaunt to Colorado.

"The story about this being the tenth anniversary of the festival is laughable," says Christopher Perks, president of Miami-based event planning organization The Opus Group. "He changed one word in the title, and that was only because I already owned the rights to it."

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."

In fact, many of this year's sponsors are listed on the old South Florida International programs that Perks still keeps inside a plastic binder: American-Airlines, Wine Spectator and Ocean Drive magazines, FIU's School of Hospitality Management, and even Schrager's current company, Southern Wine & Spirits.

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, meanwhile, who was once hired by Perks as a catering director in the '80s, 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 hasn't 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."

He believes Schrager decided to simplify the festival's history in order to sell it to investors in New York -- and to play-up his own importance -- several years ago.

"Lee is an extraordinarily talented person," Perks adds. "But he got stuck telling a lie."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.