The word interactive could mean a lot of things. When describing an event at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, it could indicate dialogue -- a conversation on the subject of food and drink. It could signify a gathering, the kind where attendants hobnob with glamorous, celebrity chefs.
At the Barilla Interactive Lunch at the Biltmore Hotel, the word interactive meant all of these things. But it also meant attendants paid $150 to cook their own meal.
On the SoBe Fest website, the event is described as a lunch where Debi Mazar and Gabriele Corcos, hosts of Cooking Channel's Extra Virgin, invite attendants to "experience what it would be like to join them in the kitchen." It states lunch would involve them "[teaching] you to cook your own Italian meal that any mama would be proud of." Then, after the lesson, the website says, "You also get to sit down and enjoy the meal paired with a lovely Italian Wine as the afternoon goes on!"
This is misleading. At Barilla Interactive Lunch, tables of eight were arranged across a ballroom. Each table had a burner, mixing bowls, and a carefully arranged mise en place. There was a stage where hosting chefs, Mazar and Corcos, as well as Barilla executive chef Lorenzo Boni, demonstrated how to prepare two recipes: veggie farfalle with artichokes, buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, morels and black truffle oil, and saltimbocca alla romana, with sautéed baby kale and mashed potatoes. Attendants had paper pamphlets printed with the recipes. Wine was paired with each course.
As the hosting chefs cooked on stage, attendants were expected to follow along and cook for themselves. But there was only one burner per table. One lucky individual had to volunteer to cook for the entire crew.
This meant that a complete stranger (of questionable culinary ability) was completely responsible for the lunch portion of the $150 event.
Still, there were other issues. While Mazar and Corcos or Boni cooked on stage, it was difficult to follow instructions. Screens were set up projecting the stage, but it was challenging to listen and cook at the same time.
Boni paused several times during his instruction. "Are you following me? Yes or no?" he asked. At one point, he switched entirely to Italian. "To make sure you are paying attention," he joked.
Each table was intended to have a supervising chef, a student from the Coral Gables Culinary Arts Academy. These chefs were supposed to guide attendants through the recipe. If the person cooking the meal had no idea what he or she was doing, these chefs were there to help.
But my table had no chef, and neither did at least two other tables in the ballroom. When I asked one of the organizers whether each table should have a chef, the organizer responded: "Yes there should be a chef! Thank you for letting me know."
A chef never came to our table.
"It's crazy that you pay to get a chef here and you don't get a chef," said Jennifer Gaviria, a law student from Weston who attended the event alongside her father. "When you buy the ticket, it says interactive lunch. But it's not clear. And, by the looks of everyone else, we should have a chef and we don't."
Others voiced similar frustrations. A neighbor at my table expressed her concern: "I knew there would be an interactive component. I just never imagined it would be like this."
We were in luck. Anthony Priore -- chief financial officer for the Humane Society in Broward by day, America's Test Kitchen fanatic by night -- volunteered to cook for our table. On a Saturday afternoon, after having paid $150, he prepared two courses for a table of eight.
After many, many glasses of wine, our complaints about lacking a chef instructor evolved from annoyances to jokes. When a chef finally stopped by for a few seconds, one person quipped: "Too late. We already have a chef!" referring to Priore.
At the moment, it was funny. And, despite the few setbacks, everyone at our table had a good time. But they all paid $150 dollars to drink wine and cook their own meal -- some even without direct guidance. This would have been more acceptable if it was explicit on the SoBe Fest website.
Sure, a few attendants scored photos with Mazar or Corcos. Others even chatted in length with the hosts. To them, maybe it was all worth it.
To me, it was an event laden with misleading marketing and mediocre organization. And I didn't even get my photo taken with a celebrity chef.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.
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