At this year's South Beach Wine and Food Festival, a cast of local chefs and Food Network celebrities aim to take a big bite out of Fort Lauderdale.
Blame organizer Lee Brian Schrager for the extra traffic and black limousines. He has outgrown Miami, and after 14 years of nurturing his megapopular event on the sands of South Beach, the festival's trek north into Broward County felt "like a natural push."
"Why Fort Lauderdale? It's home," Schrager says of the South Beach Food and Wine Festival, whose 15th edition kicks off Wednesday, Feb. 24, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 28.
Schrager's Broward expansion is the newest dish at the Food Network- and Cooking Channel-sponsored shindig, which this year unfolds with 80 events and 400 chefs in Miami Beach, Wynwood and beyond. Also debuting is the Taste Fort Lauderdale series, seven chef-studded dinners and tastings highlighted by Feb. 24's sold-out dinner Seaside Eats, hosted by mercurial Food Network star Robert Irvine at the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens.
But the reason Schrager widened the festival's scope to Fort Lauderdale — instead of Hollywood, or, say, Tamarac — came down to practical geography, and a personal mission to goose the city's dining scene, one Schrager says did not exist 40 years ago, when the chef and author worked in a handful of local restaurants.
Schrager is hardly demure about crediting his festival for boosting Miami's prestige amid the "country's great culinary destinations." He wagers he can do the same for Fort Lauderdale.
For the festival's 2015 edition, Schrager programmed a "test-run" dinner, hosted by chef Amanda Freitag, at S3 Restaurant on Fort Lauderdale Beach. That sold-out 80-seat dinner triggered many enthusiastic phone calls demanding more events in the city, he recalls.
"We don't take credit for the Michelle Bernsteins and Michael Schwartzes of the food scene," Schrager says. "But we do take credit for introducing big-league chefs and people from out of town to these local restaurants. There's nothing better than Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis in your restaurant — that creates big hype. There are so many great restaurants now in Miami as anywhere else. I hope for Fort Lauderdale, we are half as successful in doing that."
Schrager has plenty of reasons to celebrate Fort Lauderdale. He rattles off the bygone restaurants in the city where he worked as a teenager like personal trophies: Ken Snyder's Stage Door Dinner Theater, near the 17th Street Causeway; Charcoal Charlie's Smokehouse, a barbecue chain purchased by his father; Eduardo's on Las Olas Boulevard, where he bussed tables.
The city is keen to back the festival's Broward presence. For Taste Fort Lauderdale, the Beach Business Improvement District and Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau kicked in $65,000. Other Broward dinners include a New Style Remix Dinner with beats by DJ Felix Da Housecat and Japanese cuisine by Justin Warner (Food Network's "Food Network Star") and chef Alex Becker, Feb. 27 at Kuro at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino; and a quartet of dinners at Casa D'Angelo Ristorante, S3, Valentino's and Auberge Beach Residences and Spa. The series finishes noon-2 p.m. Feb. 28 with a Bloody Mary Brunch at the Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale, hosted by Food Network's "Chopped" judges.
Robert Irvine (Food Network's "Restaurant: Impossible") is one of those blue-chip personalities Schrager is counting on to lift Fort Lauderdale's culinary profile. Irvine has already done plenty to spark the festival's reputation: In 2014, Irvine's visit drew national publicity after he allowed Paula Deen to climb on his back and mount him like a horse. The stunt wasn't planned.
Irvine, recalling the incident by phone between fits of laughter, says what Deen did next was just as spontaneous: She slathered his bare chest with sticks of butter, then licked his well-sculpted abs.
"It was funny at the time. If it happens in the moment for me, I don't think about things," says Irvine, the muscular British chef whose credits also include "Dinner: Impossible" and "Worst Cooks in America."
Irvine says he hasn't planned Wednesday's Seaside Eats menu at Bonnet House — he prefers the pressure of on-the-spot dinner prep — but is eager to work opposite chefs from Fort Lauderdale restaurants, which include Nicolay Adinaguev of Steak 954, Jeff Pfeiffer of Lobster Bar Sea Grille and Adrienne Grenier of 3030 Ocean.
"This is an exciting time for the festival to really branch out from Miami, and I'm kind of excited to be the inaugural guy to take it into Fort Lauderdale," Irvine said. "It's going to be a riot."
The 2016 festival will showcase more local chefs than ever, especially at Feb. 27's Grand Tasting Village at the foot of 13th Street in Miami Beach, a day of culinary demos and booths representing areas such as Wynwood, Brickell and Fort Lauderdale.
Closing out the Taste Fort Lauderdale series will be the Feb. 28 Bloody Mary Brunch, in which South Florida chefs will serve modern twists on the spicy cocktail, to be assayed by judges from Food Network's competition-reality show "Chopped."
One of those judges is chef Amanda Freitag, who last year hosted dinner at S3 for the festival's first foray into Fort Lauderdale. Sipping Bloody Marys in Fort Lauderdale, she says, is way more relaxing than taping episodes of "Chopped," which brings out her tough-as-nails persona and requires her to taste bizarre secret ingredients, including "eyeballs and duck testicles and 100-year-old eggs."
"We're always serious on the show, so it's great to let our hair down," said Freitag, also a guest at Grand Tasting Village and at Aarón Sánchez's pop-up taqueria Tacos After Dark. "Bloody Marys are always fun, and we get to taste some food and greet the crowds. How can you lose?"
Freitag's no stranger to South Florida. In January, her Food Network show, "America's Diner Revival," aired a segment on renovating popular Little Havana Cuban joint El Mago de las Fritas. Neither are her "Chopped" cohorts Alex Guarnaschelli (the Nautilus South Beach Hotel's Driftwood Room) and Scott Conant (of Aventura's Corsair and Miami Beach's Scarpetta).
"Chopped" host Ted Allen, also appearing at the Bloody Mary Brunch, says he relishes events where he can judge inventive dishes, especially cocktails, and is hoping for "really creative interpretations of the noble Bloody Mary."
"I love how we've expanded into Fort Lauderdale," Allen says. "It's so successful that Miami can't contain it. We're like a rock festival where you can meet all the people who drove the food revolution in mainstream culture, and everyone wants to be there."
The Food Network and Cooking Channel South Beach Wine and Food Festival 2016 will run Wednesday, Feb. 24 through Sunday, Feb. 28, in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and South Beach. The Taste Fort Lauderdale series kicks off with the sold-out Seaside Eats, 7-10 p.m. Feb. 24 at Bonnet House Museum and Gardens, 900 N. Birch Road, in Fort Lauderdale; and will conclude with the noon-2 p.m. Feb 28 Bloody Mary Brunch ($175) at the Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale, 1 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd. For the full SOBEWFF schedule, call 877-762-3933, or go to SoBeFest.com.