Lee Brian Schrager reveals the secret to how he grew a food and wine event from 6K to 65K attendees and how it benefits the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs.

Lee Brian Schrager didn’t have any long-term plans when he moved a one-day event off the campus of Florida International University (FIU) onto Miami’s South Beach. “It thought it would add a lot of sex appeal, moving it from the campus to the grounds of the most beautiful beach in the world. And that’s really the history of how it started,” recalls Schrager, founder and director of the iconic South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and its sister event in New York. “We didn’t have a team. It just kind of happened; it was very organic.”

Schrager knew he was onto something special after the first year in 2002 when 6,000 people showed up, but it wasn’t until year three that he truly understood “the power and success of what we had,” he explains. “By year three, we took it a lot more seriously and continued to build the team and work with great partners, connect, collaborate, and bring on the Food Network as our title partner, and that really took us to the next level.”

The level of success kept rising as the event attracted celebrity chefs, restaurateurs, and foodies from around the world. Nearly 65,000 attended last year’s star-studded festival—over 10 times more than the first year.

The four-day festival is taking place February 22-25 this year with more than 105 events featuring Food Network’s biggest stars, Grammy-winning musicians, today’s biggest lifestyle personalities, and more than 500 chefs and wine and spirit producers.

Although a party on the beach with food, wine, and ample networking opportunities is a key draw, Schrager wants people to know the event is first and foremost a fundraiser with all proceeds benefiting the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at FIU. To date, the festival has raised over $40 million. Plus, more than 1,500 FIU students volunteer at the festival. 

“Equally as important, it’s a hands-on learning experience for the students of the hospitality school,” Schrager notes. “So I would say the funds are great, but it’s that experience for the students that really is the most exciting part to me, to give the next future generation of leaders in our community and the industry the opportunity to work hand in hand alongside the greatest winemakers and some of the greatest chefs internationally and locally.”

At this year’s festival, the Tribute Dinner on February 24 will honor Massimo Bottura—an Italian restaurateur and the chef patron of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in Modena, Italy, that’s been ranked No.1 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list twice. The dinner will also honor Italian billionaire businessman Luca Garavolgia, chairman of Campari Group—one of the world’s largest spirits producers that’s been active since 1860. 

“We’re probably one of the few festivals that has been able to bring to the table all [that talent] at one event, where you can honor Massimo Botturi on the same night that you’re doing a big 3,000-person taco and tequila event on the beach. We have something for everyone, as we’ve always said,” Schrager touts. 

Notable honorees from past years read like a who’s who of the culinary world, including the likes of Alain Ducasse, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Eric Ripert, Maguy Le Coze, Ferran Adrià, Jose Andres, Francis Ford Coppola, Baron Eric de Rothschild, Christophe Navarre, Jim Clerkin, and a myriad of other legendary figures who have left a mark in the hospitality world.

A picture of burgers.
Heinz Burger Bash, presented by Schweid & Sons will be hosted by Rachael Ray on Thursday, February 22 from 7:30-10:30 p.m.

Another case in point: famous cook and TV personality Rachael Ray helped create the Burger Bash event 18 years ago, which has become one of the festival’s most popular event. This year, Ray is returning as host of the Heinz Burger Bash on February 22, which will showcase an “epic burger showdown” where a panel of judges (including Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Enrique Santos, Rev Run, and more) will crown one chef with The Very Best Burger Award, while the audience gets to vote for who wins People’s Choice Award out of 30 options. 

Meanwhile, Guy Fieri will host Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives LIVE featuring more than 25 eateries from the hit show. Aarón Sánchez will host Tacos & Tequila, featuring more than 25 chefs serving up various iterations of Mexico’s most iconic dish. And Andrew Zimmern and Melba Wilson will close out the Festival with BACARDĺ presents The Block Party with a special performance by Rev Run. 

New additions to this year’s lineup include FoodieCon Kickoff Happy Hour hosted by Neil Patrick Harris; FoodieCon Dinner hosted by Robert Irvine, Jake Cohen, Olivia Tiedemann, and Jon Miller; a celebrity chef pickleball tournament; and The Cookout hosted by James Beard Award-winning chef JJ Johnson and Angela Yee, which is designed to celebrate and amplify Black culture through cuisine.

“How do full-service restaurants see the value in a festival like ours? It’s not cheap to participate, in the fact that no one pays to participate, but a restaurant has to bring staff to participate in the event; they have to provide food for samplings at an event. So we don’t take that for granted,” Schrager says.

“I think what we’ve learned over the years is that restaurants, whether it’s full service or fast food or bodegas, see the value. If they didn’t see the value, they wouldn’t keep coming back,” he adds. “I would say that our turnover in chefs participating that we invite is very small. They see the value of driving attention to their restaurants by participating at a not-for-profit for the next generation of industry leaders.”

Catch FSR stars at the festival: 

Jeremy Ford
“Top Chef” winner Jeremy Ford partnered with Miami-based Grove Bay Hospitality Group to open his first restaurant, Stubborn Seed, in Miami Beach in 2017.

“Top Chef” winner Jeremy Ford—who fronted the cover of FSR’s July 2023 issue—is hosting an exclusive dinner with Michelin-starred chef John Fraser on Friday, February 23. Ford’s South Beach restaurant, Stubborn Seed, earned its first Michelin star in 2022. 

Read: Jeremy Ford’s Journey to Winning “Top Chef” and Becoming an Independent Restaurateur 

Chef CJ Jacobson

In November’s issue of FSR, chef CJ Jacobson recounted his hilarious and somewhat naive journey of becoming a chef, winning “Top Chef Duels,” and opening up his own restaurants under Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. 

Read: Lessons on Arrogance from a ‘Top Chef’ Star

Jacobson is taking part in a festival mainstay, Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best, presented by Fontainebleau Miami Beach & Fontainebleau Las Vegas. More than 60 of the nation’s most acclaimed chefs are paired with 65 first-rate wineries from around the globe for a walkaround tasting event. 

“I think that’s an event that is for a really serious consumer where they can sample some of the greatest chefs’ foods and some of the greatest winemakers throughout the world,” Schrager says.

More noteworthy events at this year’s festival:

February 22

Signora Makes Debut at A Taste of Italy Presented by Campari

Get an exclusive tease of Miami’s most anticipated new Italian restaurant, Signora, with Chef Jake Eaton at A Taste of Italy Presented by Campari on Thursday, February 22, from 8-11 p.m. Eaton is locally revered for his prior presence at the acclaimed Nobu Miami, where he rose through the ranks from mastering tempura to becoming Chef de Cuisine. Before Nobu, Chef Eaton spent eight years in Los Angeles spread across a variety of concepts, executing large-scale catering events and representing his work at the LA Food and Wine Festival. His festival streak is returning at SOBEWFF 2024, now as the corporate chef of Plus Plus Group, a hospitality group known for its exclusive hot spots in Miami and Aspen, including the up-and-coming Signora, a coastal Italian restaurant in the heart of Miami Beach set to offer fresh seafood, locally sourced ingredients and time-honored cooking techniques inspired by the beauty of the feminine spirit. Taking place at Jungle Plaza in the Design District, Miami’s premier neighborhood and shopping destination, “A Taste of Italy” will be an unforgettable alfresco walk-around tasting featuring a dozen all-star chefs, including Chef Eaton. Tickets are $195 per person.

Decadent French Dinner Hosted by Brad Kilgore and Markus Glocker at MaryGold’s by Brad Kilgore

Chef Brad Kilgore, Miami New Times’ “Best Chef 2023” and a James Beard-nominated mogul of Miami’s culinary community, is joining forces with Austrian-born Markus Glocker, known for his elegance and attention to detail with contemporary French cuisine at his New York City restaurant Glocker. The duo will present a luxurious menu at MaryGold’s by Brad Kilgore that will be melded with the artistry found just outside the doors and from the host restaurant’s very own kitchen. Start with a reception of jerk oxtail Beignets and black truffle Langoustine Carpaccio from Chef Kilgore, while Chef Glocker presents Celery Root Tartare and Koloman Gougères with mushroom jam. For the mains, Chef Kilgore is serving Smoked Striploin with potato gastronomy and Honeynut Tortellini with caramelized pineapple and gourmet Marcona almond. Chef Glocker is offering Kampachi Crudo with spicy citrus vinaigrette and Black Bass flavored with vanilla sabayon and mussels. To finish, delight in Dark Chocolate Curd with Sicilian hazelnut, passion fruit and French sel gris from Chef Kilgore.

MaryGold’s is Chef Kilgore’s latest culinary endeavor after successful runs at Miami restaurants Alter, Brava, Ember and Kaido. The standout Wynwood restaurant is located on the ground floor of the boutique Arlo Wynwood hotel and presents a decadent ingenuity when it comes to its French- and Miami-inspired dishes. The special dinner will feature selections from the Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits portfolio and takes place on Thursday, February 22, from 7-10 p.m. Tickets are $300 per person.

February 23

Authentic Argentine Cuisine by Chris Valdes and Georgina Sulle at First-Time Participant KAO Bar & Grill

KAO Bar & Grill’s Executive Chef Georgina Sulle, known for showcasing her authentic Argentine dishes at the repurposed shipping container restaurant, is teaming up with Food Network star Chef Chris Valdes for a one-of-a-kind chef collaboration in Hallandale Beach on Friday, February 23, from 7-10 p.m. as part of SOBEWFF’s Hallandale Beach Event Series. The exciting dinner marks the debut of KAO’s participation in the acclaimed food festival after its opening this past spring as the area’s very first container restaurant. Chef Valdes boasts a gifted palate and the relentless ability to create sumptuous dishes by fusing Caribbean flavors with modern influences; his KAO counterpart, Chef Sulle, offers a skillful perspective on the rich flavors of Argentine dishes. The partnership is the perfect pairing for KAO, a two-story joint crafted from colorful shipping containers to create a visually stunning atmosphere that offers plates like shareable tablitas (grilled platters), Argentine-style pizzas and sandwiches. Tickets are $225 per person.

February 24

Two-in-One Chef Lunch Hosted by Tyson Cole and Tim Cushman at Uchi Miami

For SOBEWFF 2024, Uchi Miami is bringing together two culinary maestros to craft a chic lunch of elevated, nontraditional dishes that push the boundaries of Japanese cuisine. On Saturday, February 24, from noon to 2 p.m., prepare to be wowed by the culinary artistry of award-winning chefs Tyson Cole and Tim Cushman. Those who can’t snag a reservation at either of the chefs’ popular restaurants get the chance for a two-in-one experience.

Chef Cole is the founder and executive chef of multiple highly acclaimed Uchi restaurants, including in Miami, where this lunch will take place. Chef Cole began his culinary career dishwashing at Kyoto, a Texas-based Japanese restaurant, where he became hooked on Japanese cuisine, culture and language. After an intensive apprenticeship from the owner of Musashino, Austin’s top sushi restaurant at the time, Chef Cole experimented with ideas, grew his skills and eventually opened the very first Uchi in Austin in 2003. Twenty years later, Chef Cole has racked up coveted accolades from the James Beard Foundation, Food & Wine and more, cementing him as one of the most distinguished chefs on the scene.

Chef Cushman helms the kitchen of Boston’s rock-and-roll Japanese tavern Hojoko. He is also the creative mind behind Cushman Concepts, a hospitality group known for Boston’s innovative Japanese restaurant O Ya.

Tradition meets innovation at this reception and lunch combination, starting with a piece of 72-Hour Gyutoro Gunkan with caper relish, Fresno and micro-cilantro from Chef Cole and Kumamoto Oyster with ponzu-marinated watermelon pearls and Shiitake Mushroom Tempura Roll with black truffle relish and miso caramel from Chef Cushman. Lunch also explores a trio of sashimi from Chef Cushman: Suzuki with spicy cucumber vinaigrette, Bluefin Toro with “lots of green onion,” and binchotan-seared Sawara with grapefruit ponzu and Black River Osetra caviar. From Chef Cole, indulge in Keru Wagyu, an Australian wagyu strip flavored with kale chimichurri and miso garlic, and the decadent Pineapple Okashi for a sweet conclusion. Wine pairings will be available. Tickets are $175 per person.

February 25

Jazz Brunch at Delilah Miami Hosted by Daniel Roy and Pablo Zitzmann

Step into the enchanting world of Delilah Miami, the new alluring modern-day supper club that will channel the glamour of the Roaring ’20s with a contemporary twist during this year’s SOBEWFF with a Sunday jazz brunch like no other. Typically not open for brunch, this exclusive event brings together the culinary duo of renowned chef Daniel Roy and guest chef Pablo Zitzmann, promising a delectable journey through a curated menu that seamlessly blends traditional flavors with innovative techniques. From soulful jazz tunes to mouthwatering bites, this brunch is a celebration of culinary finesse and musical brilliance, offering a unique and unforgettable experience for brunch enthusiasts and music aficionados alike. On Sunday, February 25, from noon to 2 p.m.

Events, Feature