SOBEWFF 2018: Festival Founder Lee Schrager Celebrates Woman Power
Courtesy of Brustman Carrino PR

SOBEWFF 2018: Festival Founder Lee Schrager Celebrates Woman Power

The South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBEWFF) returns February 21 through 25 with more events than ever before. When all is said and done, more than 70,000 attendees will have enjoyed nearly 100 parties, dinners, seminars, and tastings.

The annual fete, which has raised more than $26 million to date for Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, focuses the world's culinary eyes on the sands of Miami Beach as hundreds of the planet's most talented chefs converge on the city to cook, mingle, and celebrate food.

With 2018 becoming the year of the woman, it's fitting to note that the festival's origins can be traced back 18 years ago to a Women in Industry dinner featuring Miami's top female culinary leaders, including Cindy Hutson, Michelle Bernstein, and Hedy Goldsmith. SOBEWFF founder and organizer Lee Brian Schrager says the evening came about organically. "I have a lot of women chefs who are great friends, and it just made sense to showcase their abilities. Nearly two decades later, there are a lot more restaurants, but women still rule."

Schrager says his invitations for chefs to participate in the festival have always been gender-neutral. "We're looking to celebrate people and their talent." This year, however, the rising women's movement has made him more introspective. "When this movement started a few months ago, I counted how many women were participating in the festival."

Schrager says about 75 women are confirmed to take part in the various events throughout the week — a formidable number but still a small percentage of the total number of toques who will present dishes during the festival. Schrager says he asked as many talented chefs as he could to appear. "I invited all the top-rated female chefs I knew." The festival maven says in a perfect world, the number of women participating would be greater, but notables such as Rachael Ray, Susan Spicer, and April Bloomfield had prior commitments. Still, he's pleased with extraordinary chefs such as Katie Button (Curate and Nightbell in Asheville) and Nina Compton (Compère Lapin in New Orleans), who will join him on the sands of South Beach.

Schrager is also listening to the pulse of the nation as the culinary world's "boys' club" culture is challenged. This past fall, New Orleans-based celebrity chef John Besh canceled his appearance at a SOBEWFF dinner at Scarpetta after allegations of sexual harassment forced him to resign from the company he founded. The chef was replaced by Amanda Freitag, who will cohost the dinner alongside Scott Conant. Chefs Paul Qui and Michael Chiarello were also removed from the festival's roster for similar reasons. Schrager says decisions like those aren't easy. "I understood that if even one person would be uncomfortable, that couldn't happen." Schrager says that, in the past, he looked at only the talent of a chef. "In the future, we'll have to look further."

There's much at the festival that celebrates women. Schrager points out the Women of Syria Dinner, hosted by Ingrid Hoffmann and Alon Shaya, which invites guests to share the food, traditions, and stories of women from the Denver-based Comal Heritage Food Incubator and Miami-based Zaytouna and Syrian Supper Club. "This dinner is a celebration of the spirit."

Making her SOBEWFF debut is Sophie Flay, who will cohost Sweet-Moves: Late-Night Desserts & Dancing with her famous father, Bobby Flay. The event, which will take place directly after a tribute dinner in the chef's honor, will allow guests to eat unlimited sweets and then work off the calories to beats by DJ Hannah Bronfman. "Bobby is the greatest dad, and Sophie is a smart, bright young woman," Schrager says. "We wanted to do something to let them unwind after a long dinner."

Another fantastic female-powered event not to miss is the Rooftop Rosé Happy Hour, hosted by TV star, jewelry and shoe designer, True Roots cookbook author, and lifestyle guru Kristin Cavallari. Says Schrager of this new soiree: "We wanted to do a happy hour, and it just made sense with Kristin. It's going to be rosé all day."

Women of Syria Dinner, hosted by Alon Shaya and Ingrid Hoffmann, part of the Crave Greater Fort Lauderdale Series. 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, February 23, at Broward Center for Performing Arts — Porter Ballroom, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $200 via sobewff.org/hoffmann.

Sweet-Moves: Late-Night Desserts & Dancing, hosted by Bobby & Sophie Flay. 10:30 p.m. to midnight Saturday, February 24, at Loews Miami Beach Hotel, 1601 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets are sold out.

Rooftop Rosé Happy Hour, hosted by Kristin Cavallari, part of the Crave Greater Fort Lauderdale Series. 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 24, at W Fort Lauderdale, 401 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $75 via sobewff.org/rose.

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