South Beach Wine & Food Festival

SOBEWFF 2022: Lee Schrager Looks Back on 21 Years of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival

SOBEWFF founder Lee Brian Shrager
SOBEWFF founder Lee Brian Shrager Photo courtesy of South Beach Wine & Food Festival
In just a few short weeks, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival  (SOBEWFF) will turn 21 — meaning that, if the festival were human, it would finally be able to partake in its own revelry.

The festival, which started in 2002 as a three-day fundraiser for Florida International University (FIU) has grown into a world-class festival that encompasses more than 90 dinners, parties, seminars, and classes. When SOBEWFF 2022 turns off the lights on the beach on Sunday evening, February 27, over 50,000 people will have been wined and dined by more than 400 chefs, winemakers, and distillers.

To date, the festival has raised more than $31 million for FIU's Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management — a huge source of satisfaction for founder Lee Brian Schrager and his team.

Schrager notes the upward trajectory of many chefs who started out as FIU student volunteers at SOBEWFF.

"It gives me great pride that there are a lot of chefs that started at the University who are now great chefs and restaurateurs," he says. As one example, Schrager mentions Alex Kuk, who was an FIU student back in the festival's early days. Since then, Tuk has opened Temple Street Eatery in Fort Lauderdale with fellow FIU alum Diego Ng. Together, they'll participate in the festival's Asian Night Market on Thursday, February 24, at the Loews Hotel.

Schrager has also watched Miami blossom into a world-class culinary scene. "It used to be that deciding where to eat was difficult because there were only three good restaurants," he tells New Times. "Now it's difficult because there are 50 great ones."

That translates into more local chefs highlighting festival dinners, Schrager adds. "It's great to have great chefs like Daniel Boulud and Fabio Trabocchi participate in the festival, but the quality of some Miami homegrown chefs is equally good."

The annual Best of the Best event, he says, will showcase mostly Miami chefs this year. "It used to be about 60 percent chefs from out of town, now it's about 60 percent local Miami chefs."

Looking back on the past 20 years, the father of the SOBEWFF says he's been through ups and downs — an instance of the former would be the freak rainstorm that caused a blackout at the festival's flagship BubbleQ event during year five. "It was a beautiful day, and I remember the weather report said there might be a light drizzle. Well, it turned into a monsoon." Those were the years before giant tents erected on the beach, so the crowd had to run for shelter. "Everyone was jammed under the chef tents, getting drunk on Champagne," Schrager recalls, adding that the weather disaster was a learning event for his team. "We turned to building the giant tents you see after that."

High notes include honoring Alain Ducasse on the festival's tenth anniversary and the time the king and queen of Spain were feted at an event hosted by Mario Batali. Schrager also mentions the times Anthony Bourdain brightened the festival with his wit and talent. "Bourdain's tragic death was a huge loss for all of us," he says.

Most recently, there was — and still is — a pandemic to navigate. 

Schrager says a lot of last year's COVID safety procedures are still in place to protect attendees and chefs.

"We are still operating at reduced capacity and we're not doing meet-and-greets," he notes. Additional security measures include having chefs serve behind plexiglass, installing hand-sanitizer stations, and providing directional signage to help maintain social distancing. The festival will also employ the use of the most adorable pandemic protection known to mankind: COVID-sniffing beagles.

And what does Schrager foresee for the next two decades of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival? 

"Well, I hope to be emeritus at that point. But I hope to still be walking the beaches in 21 years. Other than that? Who knows? We could be planning the first Mars Food & Wine Festival.

South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Thursday, February 24, through Sunday, February 27, at various locations; sobewff.org.
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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss