Restaurant Reviews

Lee Schrager: South Beach Food Genius Speaks

Although Lee Brian Schrager has spent 11 years working for Southern Wine & Spirits, most folks associate his name with the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. It makes sense. After all, the 2011 edition (which begins February 24) marks his tenth year supervising America's largest and most illustrious gathering of chefs and food personalities. This Saturday at 4:30 p.m., Schrager will be at the center of a different festival: Miami Book Fair International. He'll be a guest, not the host, and will talk up his new cookbook (coauthored with Julie Mautner), Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook: Recipes and Behind-the-Scenes Stories From America's Hottest Chefs. The book was officially released this past Tuesday at Barney's in New York — the first time the iconic department store has hosted such an event. New Times recently sat down with Schrager over lunch and asked him about the book, new events at this year's SBWFF, and his professional culinary background — which a lot of people might be surprised to learn is rather extensive.

New Times: Tell us about the new cookbook.

Lee Schrager: We wanted to come out with something special to commemorate the ten years and all those who've been involved with the festival from the get-go. I wanted it to be a great keepsake for people who've been to the festival but even more so for those who've never had the opportunity to come to the festival. Someone at the publishing house said to me: "You know, Lee, if People magazine did a cookbook, this is what it would look like. The photos are great, the stories are great, the recipes are great. Everything pops." That's kind of what I was going for — some behind-the-scenes stories, edgy stories, Q&As. We had to keep it to 100 recipes, so it doesn't have everyone I wanted to include.

That's 100 recipes from 100 chefs?

Yes, from 100 chefs and food personalities. We went through 54,000 photos — nine years' worth. The book was originally supposed to be about 220 pages; it ended up being 256 — about 28,000 words and about 70 photographs over what the initial contract called for.

What are some of your favorite recipes in the book?

I love the Nigella Lawson caramel croissant pudding. I love Mario Batali's orecchiette with sausage and broccoli. Bobby Flay's crunchified burger is my favorite burger at the festival. Hedy Goldsmith's milk chocolate cremoso is one of my favorites. I mean, these are just things that I like, which is clearly why they ended up in the book. There is something that resonated with me with every recipe in the book.

What will make this cookbook stand out from the glut of others on the market?

For ten years, people have asked me: "What's different about your festival?" and it's the same thing that's different about the cookbook: We have the pop culture, and we have the great chefs. Where do you find a cookbook that has Ferran Adrià and Paula Deen? Where do you see a recipe book with Alain Ducasse and Rachael Ray?

How difficult is it to make the recipes at home?

Some recipes are a little more sophisticated, but I've tested every one in the book at least three times — the initial tasting in which we narrowed the recipes down, then with the publishers, and then with the photography team. If I can do it, anyone can do it.

Well, maybe, but not everyone graduated from the Culinary Institute of America as you did in 1979. When did you get involved with cooking?

I grew up around food. My mom was a great cook, so my earliest memories are of being in the kitchen. I talk about this in the book. When my parents used to travel, when I was younger, we would have this little old lady come and take care of us. Her name was Mrs. Catanzaro — "Mrs. C.," we used to call her. She was like Lidia Bastianich. She used to make pizzas, pastas, calzones... I remember standing up on a milk crate and helping her make gnocchi. I remember learning how to bake bread. Every time I go into a bakery and smell yeast in something, it brings me back to her. So my first memory of cooking was with Italian food with Mrs. C.

How old were you then?

Around 9 or 10.

Were you living in Florida?

No. I'm originally from Massapequa, Long Island. But my family moved to Fort Lauderdale when I was 15, so I'm here 35 years. When people ask me where I'm from, I say Miami.

What new events will there be at this year's South Beach Wine & Food Festival?

We're having a one-time-only, ten-year-anniversary "Let Them Eat Cake" party on the top floor of the 1111 parking garage at Lincoln Road. Martha Stewart and Emeril will be hosting, and we're featuring 15 of the great pastry chefs in the country. Each will be preparing his or her own ten-year-anniversary cake. At midnight, Shake Shack will be serving burgers and fries and cake.

We're doing an event, "Best Thing I Ever Ate at the Beach," in which ten Food Network personalities will select their favorites. So if Rachael [Ray] were to pick tacos from her favorite taco truck in L.A., we'd fly her and the tacos in from Venice. Then we pick ten local personalities — like Gloria [Estefan], Romero Britto, Dwyane Wade — and ask them the best thing they ever ate on Miami Beach, whether it's a burger or stone crabs from Joe's, and we bring that in. Ten from local restaurants and ten from around the country. We'll also be doing Michael Schwartz's "Cruise at Sea." It's for 400 people and already sold out. And the "Wine + Dine + Design" event, which we did last year. This year, at each stop, the chef will have a guest chef cooking as well. Michael [Schwartz] will be with Michael Symon; Michelle [Bernstein] has John Besh (Restaurant August, New York); Fratelli has Andrew Carmellini (Locanda Verde). We're going to move from restaurant to restaurant every hour. A group of 100 will start at Michael's, then move to Fratelli Lyon, then Sra. Martinez, and so forth.

And you're working on a third Food Network wine and food festival in L.A.?

It's close. We'll probably have something finalized by the beginning of the year.

You've orchestrated the South Beach Wine & Food Festival for a decade, and now you're doing the one in New York (along with your day job at Southern). Plus you sit on two boards and do charity stuff. Are you thinking of grooming a successor to take over the festival?

South Beach will always be my baby. I can't wait to find a successor who can take over one of the festivals I'm doing so I can focus on other things, but I would never want to be removed totally. I can certainly see another ten years, but at 60, I think I'll be ready to certainly not retire but maybe enjoy life a little more. The food festival will probably go on longer than I will.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lee Klein