Much like the culinary pulse of Miami itself, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival has experienced impressive growth over the years. Originating as the one-day Florida Extravaganza at Florida International’s Biscayne Bay Campus from 1997-2001, the event was shifted to South Beach in 2002 and close to 7,000 patrons came out in response. “The location and setting coupled with the time of year—who wouldn’t want to be on a beach in the middle of February?” notes founder and director Lee Brian Schrager, who also serves as vice president of corporate communications and national events for Southern Wine & Spirits of America, Inc.

Along with the scenery, Miami is a juggernaut host in today’s chef-driven landscape. In 2015, The Magic City averaged 1.7 new restaurant openings per day, or 627 overall, easily the most the state had to offer. Tourist center Orange County, of Disney World and Universal Studios fame, followed with 424.

With those numbers in mind, it would be wise to keep the cap off expectations for the festival’s 2016 edition—also its 15th anniversary—taking place from February 24-28.

“It’s been really exciting to grow alongside the culinary scene in Miami,” Schrager says. “The festival and the dining scene here in South Florida have evolved so much since we started back in 2002.”

Of course there will be changes to this year’s schedule, which regularly attracts more than 60,000 guests. The Taste Fort Lauderdale Series might just be the biggest.

The event begins on the opening day with Seaside Eats hosted by Robert Irvine at the historic Bonnet House Museum & Garden, with pours from Chȃteau D’Esclans. There will be a series of intimate dining experience across various Fort Lauderdale restaurants showcasing chefs such as Todd English, Debi Mazar and Gabriele Corcos, Marc Vetri, and Auberge Resorts’ Robert Curry and Paul Lemieux. A Bloody Mary Brunch hosted by the cast of Food Network’s Chopped at The Ritz-Carlton will close out the inaugural event.

“We’re excited to introduce the new Taste Fort Lauderdale Series this year, marking a significant expansion of the festival’s physical footprint into Broward County, with one of our signature walk-around tastings, several intimate dinner experiences, a late-night party, and a great brunch hosted by the cast of Chopped,” Schrager says. “We spend a lot of time reading and listening to the feedback of our guests, chefs, partners, etc.; offering more smaller-scale events like our seminars, new Grilled Cheese Happy Hour, and Nutrish’s Yappie House hosted by Rachael Ray.”

Another highlight of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which is sponsored by Food Network and the Cooking Channel and presented by Food & Wine, will be the evolution of the Meatopia event—now in its second year. The event was created and envisioned by the late food writer Josh Ozersky, and will feature meat-centric dishes from more than 25 chefs.

“My role in Meatopia is to keep Josh Ozersky's dream alive by cooking cuts of meat that many other chefs wouldn't dare to cook,” says JJ Johnson, the executive chef of renowned New York City restaurants Minton’s in Harlem and The Cecil. “Last year I made oxtail, and this year, I'm making Grilled Pork Shank with Coconut Yassa. I'm looking forward to bringing Afro-Asian-American cooking down to South Beach and to be surrounded by such great chefs.”

Regardless of which event guests decide to attend, the star-studded reality of the festival is impossible to ignore. Johnson says it’s a unique opportunity to interact with some the industry’s best. “It's amazing to be surrounded by friends in the industry who I wouldn't normally get to hang out with, and even better that I also get to taste their food,” he says. “I learn so much when I'm down at SOBEWFF, from getting to witness different cooking styles and tasting different flavor profiles, to learning about new technologies or fresh approaches to managing staff.”

“There’s also a unique mix of talent,” Schrager adds. “You can find your celebrated ‘white-tablecloth’ chefs known for their sophisticated cuisine next to your favorite pop-culture culinary personalities. … It’s challenging [to have so many culinary talents in one festival]. We work with a lot of creative minds to make it all happen, and everyone is a VIP and important to us.”

Schrager admits he can’t single out one event to key on as the festival approaches. “We’ve come to never expect anything—each year has its own style,” he says. “Like this year’s Tribute Dinner, our iconic evening at our host Loews Miami Beach hotel that’s been held since our inception in 2002, is getting a tweak to its traditional format of a formal dinner with the addition of live music.”

“The Festival has raised more than $22 million to date for the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University,” he continues, highlighting the philanthropic mission of the event. “We’ve provided funds for students scholarships, faculty advancement, continuing education in the Southern Wine & Spirits Beverage Management Center, and the construction of the state-of-the-art Wine Spectator Restaurant Management Laboratory that was unveiled in 2014.”

Here’s an overview of the some of the festival’s other highlights:

SOBEWFF’s signature white tent nestled on the sands of South Beach will house this year’s PMG North Venue events. Kicking-off on February 25 with Barilla’s Italian Bites on the Beach hosted by Emmy Award-winning Food Network personality, New York Times bestselling author and restaurateur Giada De Laurentiis, 30 of the nation’s best chefs will take attendees on a culinary tour of authentic Italian fare while they enjoy samplings from Folonari and Campari Italian spirits portfolio. The Festival’s fan-favorite Amstel Light Burger Bash presented by Schweid & Sons hosted by Rachael Ray will reach a decade of bringing the country’s leading burger maestros together to compete for top honors on February 26, where guests will also enjoy samplings from Meomi. 

SOBEWFF will closeout with LUCKY CHOPSTICKS: An Asian Night Market hosted by Andrew Zimmern on February 28.

New Festival events in 2016 also include: Grilled Cheese Happy Hour hosted by Laura Werlin & Ms. Cheezious; Midnight Breakfast hosted by Chrissy Teigen & Fireman Derek; Dessert Party hosted by Duff Goldman; Croquetamania hosted by Jean-Georges Vongerichten; Like Water for Chocolate Screening & Conversation with Screenwriter Laura Esquivel. 

The Festival’s iconic tents on the beach stretching between 10th and 13th Streets off Ocean Drive house Goya Foods Grand Tasting Village featuring MasterCard Grand Tasting Tents & KitchenAid Culinary Demonstrations, which continues to capitalize on the revamped setting and programming structure successfully introduced during last year’s Festival. This gourmet sampling features the finest pours from the Southern Wine & Spirits of Florida portfolio, and a tri-county array of restaurants, led by this year’s Culinary Captains representing neighborhoods across South Florida. 

Popular returning events for the 15th year include: Wine Spectator Wine Seminars, highlighting Heitz Wine Cellars, Joseph Phelps Winery, Opus One Winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and more;Bank of America Lifestyle Seminars; Paella & Tapas by the Pool hosted by José Andrés, featuring pours from Vibrant Rioja; Tacos After Dark hosted by Aarón Sánchez; Oyster Bash hosted by Josh Capon, paired with samplings from HENRIOT Inc.; The Art of Tiki hosted by Guy Fieri; YogArt presents Buddhas & Bellinis, accompanied by Cavicchioli Prosecco; Yappie Hour hosted by Rachael Ray, with sips from Chateau La Paws Wines; Chicken Coupe hosted by Andrew Carmellini, including bubbles from Champagne Bligny, Pol Roger and more; Goya Foods Swine & Wine hosted by Lorena Garcia, showcasing samplings from the Frederick Wildman and Sons, Ltd. 

The Festival is also paying tribute to chef, restaurateur, and author Jonathan Waxman and Constellation Brands’ chairman of the board Richard Sands and president and CEO Rob Sands. The 15th anniversary Tribute Dinner presented by Bank of America will take place at the Festival’s host hotel Loews Miami Beach, as it has since SOBEWFF’s inception in 2002. Master of Ceremonies Tom Colicchio will oversee the evening as guests honor the contributions of this extraordinary group of gentlemen. 

Additional intimate dinner experiences at the Festival in 2016 feature SOBEWFF’s first Glatt Kosher dinner, and world-renowned culinary talent; including Gastón Acurio, Dario Cecchini, Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook, Alain Ducasse, Stephanie Izard, Nigella Lawson, Francis Mallmann, Enrique Olvera, Paul Qui, Joël Robuchon, Marcus Samuelsson, Michael Solomonov, and many more.  The chefs featured at Fontainebleau Miami Beach presents Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best sponsored by Bank of America, Dolce Brunch hosted by Alex Guarnaschelli, Rosé Brunch hosted by Martha Stewart and Jean-Georges Vongerichten featuring Chȃteau D’Esclans, lunch hosted by Nobu Matsuhisa and Jose Garces paired with Pascal Jolivet, Southern Kitchen Brunch hosted by Trisha Yearwood, and more further round out the Festival’s events featuring world-class talent.  

Danny Klein

Chef Profiles, Industry News