The most motherfucking stars of any Spanish restaurant in the U.S.," Mario Batali bellowed from the stage in what he thought to be an overly generous rating. The moment was noteworthy only because it occurred at last year's South Beach Wine & Food Festival dinner honoring attendees King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain. The royal couple was taken aback, the episode made its way across the nation's news wires, and the festival had found more fodder for its folklore. A bonus footnote was added with a New Times video report (find it at CleanPlateCharlie.com) of Paula Deen's pants falling down to midthigh.
Tighten your belt, hold on to your hat, and grab a fork: Coming Thursday through Sunday is the 2010 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, presented by Food & Wine (FNSBWFFFAW, or abbreviated SBWFF), self-described as a "star-studded, four-day destination event showcasing the talents of the world's most renowned wine and spirits producers, chefs, and culinary personalities."
The festival began in 1997, when it was a one-day Florida International University School of Hospitality fundraiser called the Florida Extravaganza. Back then, the shindig took place at the Kovens Conference Center on FIU's North Miami Campus, and, as is still the case, was cosponsored by Southern Wine & Spirits. It drew about 450 people. The extravaganza would eventually widen to three days and attract a few thousand guests, but 2002 ushered in a watershed switch: Lee Brian Schrager, director of special events and media relations at Southern, relocated the fest to SoBe, renamed it the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and rebranded it to tie in with that sizzling neighborhood's increasingly trendy cachet.
About 7,000 folks attended the first official SBWFF, which featured seminars, dinners, and a Dom Perignon-sponsored Grand Tasting Tent. Participating chefs included local stars Michelle Bernstein, Hedy Goldsmith, Robin Haas, Cindy Hutson, Mark Militello, Allen Susser, and Norman Van Aken as well as national headliners like Gary Danko, Alain Ducasse, Todd English, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, and François Payard.
One of the inaugural guests, New York Magazine food writer Hal Rubenstein, came to town to take part in a panel discussion on restaurant reviewing and ended up being tossed over an all-terrain vehicle by police and led away in handcuffs. Reports at the time had it that the New Yorker was being a bit too New Yorkish while attempting to push his way into the Grand Tasting Tent. After a two-hour holding session, he was released with a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. The ordeal no doubt cost the scribe more than the entrance fee would have — back then, it was $50 at the door, $40 in advance. (Now it's $212.50).
The following year, as close to 10,000 people reveled in the effervescent festivities, another unforeseen incident unfolded. This one involved chef Gordon Ramsay, who apparently didn't fancy letting some punk journalist take top billing in the SBWFF historical highlight reel. The brash Brit was to give two seminars and prepare a lavish $300-per-plate dinner at Smith & Wollensky. After allegedly stopping in for a few drinks at Ted's Hideaway on his way from hotel to steak house, the irascible Ramsay walked into the Smith & Wollensky kitchen, and, according to Brian Malloy (then executive chef at Nikki Beach Club), "he took a look around and said something like, 'Fuck this South Beach shit.' '' Then Gordo left the restaurant and boarded a plane back home without bothering to inform festival organizers or even his own publicists. The dinner went on without him.
Such flamboyancies only fueled the marketing machine, and attendance at the following fest doubled to 20,000. The breadth of the gathering would continue to expand along with national attention and money raised. Then, during the planning of the 2007 festival — get your umbrellas out — watershed moment number two: The ever-shrewd Schrager enticed the Food Network to enter into a partnership with the SBWFF and become its title sponsor.
Whether bigger has meant better may be a matter for debate, but the Food Network's salubrious effect on fundraising is not. Last year's four-day affair drew 53,000 participants, created 1.7 billion media impressions, and brought in $4 million. Beneficiaries are industry-related projects of the original and still cosponsors, such as the Southern Wine & Spirits Beverage Management Center and FIU's School of Hospitality and Tourism Management Teaching Restaurant. About $400,000 of this is specifically earmarked for student scholarships. To date, more than $8 million has been forked over to Florida International University, which refers to the SBWFF as "FIU School of Hospitality's annual fundraiser, which also happens to be the nation's largest wine & food festival."
It isn't as though FIU doesn't work hard for the money. More than a thousand of its students are involved in every aspect of the event, from managing the massive logistics to doing whatever physical labor is required to make the festival run — which includes soliciting restaurants for the Grand Tastings; receiving, directing, and storing the tons of food that gets shipped in; and prepping it all for a hungry 50,000 customers.
Still, even with all the honest toil and good intentions, there are inevitably going to be criticisms — valid and not. One is that the Food Network tilted the festival too far toward the crass, more commercial aspects of the industry — that personalities such as a Sandra Lee or Guy Fieri were pushing more "serious" local and national culinarians from the spotlight. When we asked Schrager about this, he mentioned many of the obvious advantages that the partnership brings to the table and recited some of the renowned non-Food Network chefs who participate each year; there have been, and continue to be, many.
But more pertinently, he recalled the time when a reputable French chef gave a demo followed by the obligatory cookbook signing, which attracted a dozen or so folks. Rachael Ray followed, and bedlam ensued as hundreds clamored for her autograph. Ticket sales for dinners and other such events have followed the same trajectory: Most of the public is simply more fascinated by Food Network personalities than it is by professional and perhaps taciturn practitioners of the craft.
There have been other gripes concerning the festival, the majority aimed at sky-high ticket prices, occasional overcrowding, and the questionable bang-for-buck value of the Grand Tasting Village — which those in the know have learned to avoid. The most common complaint regards lack of an exit/entry point midway through the village so those requiring use of a Portosan needn't walk a mile to do so.
That said, the Best of the Best at The Fontainebleau and the various dinners and brunches are met with almost universal praise, as is the sheer let-your-hair-down fun found at the BubbleQ and Burger Bash. Nobody, in fact, can credibly dispute that the SBWFF pumps an unfathomable amount of great food, drink, cheer, excitement, and cash into Miami for four splendid days. Plus, it always manages to bring something else along: the unexpected.