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Meet Lee Brian Schrager, the food-fest impresario with humble Broward roots

How did a guy go from delivering midnight room-service meals at the Bahia Mar Hotel in Fort Lauderdale to being one of the most powerful movers and shakers in the food and beverage industry? Ambition, perseverance, luck and chutzpah.

Lee Brian Schrager started as a kid from Sunrise who swept aisles and scraped sidewalk gum at a Winn-Dixie on Oakland Park Boulevard. Now, he’s the impresario who coordinates two of the largest and most influential foodie gatherings in the world: the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, which holds its 16th edition across South Florida Feb. 22-26, and its newer fall counterpart, the New York City Wine and Food Festival.

“I always knew he’d be something, because he’s always been a go-getter,” says his mother, Marlene Schrager, of Plantation. “But I had no idea how big he’d be.”

“He’s the hardest-working person I know,” says his older brother Richard, an attorney in Maryland. “And people just love him. … I’ve never gotten a bad meal when I’m with him.”

A featured slot at the festivals can make budding chefs’ careers. Schrager cajoles, hobnobs and cultivates relationships with rising and established stars, and politely rebuffs has-beens and never-weres. He counts celebrities such as Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray among his friends. At this year’s festival, rapper Snoop Dogg will spin tunes at the Grand Tasting village on the sands of South Beach, chef-turned-TV star Anthony Bourdain will emcee the tribute dinner honoring chef Jose Andres at the Loews in Miami Beach, and actor Neil Patrick Harris will co-host a Bloody Mary brunch at the Fort Lauderdale Ritz-Carlton.

“It used to be chefs wanted to become rock stars. Now, rock stars are becoming chefs,” says Schrager, who grew the festival as an executive with Southern Wine & Spirits, a job he still holds and one he got by writing a letter to the company’s CEO when he turned 40. “It’s crazy what has happened in the food world. People are fanatics. The Food Network changed everything.”

Food Network and Cooking Channel are the presenting sponsors of the SOBEWFF, which has raised more than $24 million for Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. The networks’ stars are among the top draws of a festival that has branched to Schrager’s roots, with seven events taking place in Broward County as part of the Taste Fort Lauderdale Series. Among them: the opening-night Seaside Eats dinner, on Feb. 22 at the Bonnet House, and a first-time cocktail event, DRINK Fort Lauderdale, on Feb. 24 at Fat Village.

“I’m always amazed by how enthusiastic the crowds are. It hasn’t gotten tired,” says Martha Stewart, a regular presence at the South Beach festival who will host a dinner at Le Zoo in Bal Harbour on Feb. 24. “And I’m constantly amazed how Lee covers his own operation. I mean physically. He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. He might have a little sweat on his brow, but he makes sure everyone is taken care of.”

“He knows food, and he knows events,” says Howie Schrager, Lee’s younger brother, a middle school teacher and high school coach from Weston. “Lee has had a big hand in making some of these celebrities. They appreciate what he’s done, and every year it just keeps getting bigger.”

The sprawling festival has become part Super Bowl and part Woodstock, a movable feast from Coral Gables to Fort Lauderdale, featuring everything from midnight Champagne with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten to an all-day family festival at Jungle Island with cake ace Duff Goldman. An expected 65,000 enthusiasts will descend upon 90 events featuring 350 chefs, winemakers and food professionals from around the world.

“He creates environments that we all want to be in,” says chef Bobby Flay, one of Food Network’s biggest stars, who has taken part in the South Beach festival since its second year. “It’s almost like I want to do whatever he asks, because I always feel appreciated.”

Schrager’s love of cooking began as a child on Long Island, where he got an Easy-Bake Oven as a holiday gift. When his family moved to South Florida in 1974, he realized he could turn his passion into a career after being encouraged by a home economics teacher at Nova High, Linda Darnell. He went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in the 1970s, long before kitchens were glamorous and chefs could become celebrities. One of his first jobs when he returned to Fort Lauderdale was on the overnight kitchen shift at Bahia Mar. “I’d take the order, cook the burger and deliver it to the room,” Schrager recalls.

Schrager, 57, now has a life he never imagined when he was young. He has a husband who is a physician, Colombian-born radiologist Ricardo Restrepo, and they live a dream life. They shuttle between a gorgeous $2.6 million George Merrick-built home in Coral Gables, an apartment in the famed Ansonia building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and a summer rental in the Hamptons, where Schrager cooks and parties with chefs and friends such as Billy Joel.

Howie Schrager says he enjoys going to Thanksgiving at his brother’s Coral Gables home, where Restrepo’s parents and four siblings, all doctors, and other friends gather. “You never know who’s going to show up,” Howie says. “Ana Navarro was there last November.”

“I adore Lee,” says Navarro, a Republican political strategist and CNN analyst who has known Schrager for 20 years.They text and talk frequently, teasing each other about their weight struggles, with Navarro nicknaming him “Chubby’ and Schrager calling her “Princess Chubs.”

“There are a few things that make Lee special. His love of people and the way he works at maintaining friends. His ability to multitask. And his ability to get things done,” Navarro says. “I don’t think it’s humanly possible to tell Lee Schrager, ‘No.’ ”

“When I was first with Lee, it took me six months to understand what he did,” says Restrepo, who met Schrager at a Coral Gables car wash 13 years ago. They married in New York three years ago. “He’s just so passionate, always working, always coming up with ideas. This all comes naturally. He loves people. He loves entertaining. He loves socializing.”

Surprisingly, Schrager doesn’t love all food. “He’s a pretty picky eater,” his mother says.

“I don’t like fish,” Schrager says.

His brothers say he’s scarred from frozen flounder fillets of his youth, although all say his mother cooked well.

“When we go out and a chef serves him fish, I have to eat for two,” Restrepo says.

On a recent morning, Schrager prepared visitors his mother’s German breakfast dish, an egg scramble with bacon, potatoes and peppers that was a dinner staple in their middle-class Jewish home. He included the recipe in his 2016 cookbook, “America’s Best Breakfasts.” His two dogs, Charlie Brown, an Old English sheepdog, and Stanley, a French briard, roamed the back pool deck. “They’re my children,” Schrager says.

“In my next life, I want to come back as one of Lee’s dogs,” Navarro says. “He pampers them, but then again he pampers everyone. When you leave a party, most people give you something like a bag of almonds or chocolates. Lee gives you a Illy coffeemaker.”

Schrager prides himself on landing an elusive, big-name chef for each festival. This year, it is Italian chef Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, is No. 1 on the current World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, voted upon annually by an international academy. Over breakfast last month, Schrager beamed as he recounted how he hooked the big one, by deploying a persuasive female friend who is an Italian lawyer. The $850 tickets for Bottura’s 110-seat dinner quickly sold out. “I could have charged $1,000 and made more money for the school,” Schrager lamented.

Miami chef and restaurateur Michael Schwartz says, “When Lee wants to accomplish something, nothing gets in his way.”

In a 2008 profile, the New York Times wrote, “No one else does or has ever done what Mr. Schrager does in the food world. As Bill Graham was to booking rock ’n’ roll acts from the 1960s through the 1980s and Swifty Lazar was to closing Hollywood deals during the studio era, Mr. Schrager is to wrangling celebrity chefs. They know him, they love him, they cross oceans for him.”

But beyond the bold-faced schmoozing, friends and family say there’s a devoted, generous soul.

“Do you know he donated a kidney to my mother?” asks Howie Schrager, who teaches at Tequesta Trace Middle School in Weston. Two years ago, with Marlene’s kidneys failing, Schrager and his two brothers were tested to see if they could be donors. All were suitable, but Lee was deemed the best match. His mother says he didn’t hesitate.

“He did a wonderful thing. He gave me a new life,” says Marlene, 80.

In March 2015, a few weeks after the South Beach festival, Lee and Marlene were side by side on operating tables in Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“A decision I never had to think twice about, and will never regret having done,” Lee says now.

“He had to lose weight. He had to get healthy. Some of us were like, ‘It’s crazy for you to do this at your age,’ ” Navarro recalls. “He said, ‘How could I not? She’s my mother.’ ”

Marlene and Ken Schrager, 87, have lived in the same house in Plantation for 35 years. They started their family in Massapequa, N.Y. While his two brothers gravitated to sports, Lee was different. He baked cookies in his oven and had a strong work ethic. He delivered newspapers before school (including to his neighbor Alec Baldwin’s family), and got a job at a Chinese restaurant.

His father quit the garment industry and moved to Sunrise when Lee was 15. Lee graduated Nova High a year early, then returned to New York to attend culinary school. He got his first taste of the glamorous life when he got an externship with Glorious Food, a New York catering firm that did charity events for Jacqueline Onassis, Halston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And he learned how hard the restaurant business could be, as his father and uncle struggled to run a restaurant they bought, Dante’s in Fort Lauderdale. It went out of business, and they later ran another one in Plantation.

“Basically, I saw every mistake, and learned what not to do,” Schrager says.

Lee eventually became catering director at the Bahia Mar, then took the same position at Miami’s Intercontinental Hotel in 1984, where he stayed for 16 years. He also had side ventures. He partnered with Mickey Rourke on a bar named the Spot in then burgeoning South Beach. And he opened a gay bar, the Torpedo.

“He’d throw birthday parties in South Beach with drag queens,” Howie Schrager says. “He was always unique.”

Just after he turned 40, a restless Schrager wrote a letter to Wayne Chaplin, who ran Southern Wine & Spirits, the privately held liquor distributorship that was the biggest in the country. He pitched a media and community-relations job that would include charitable events. Chaplin hired him.

“He basically created a job for himself,” Marlene says. “It amazed me, because I thought he had a wonderful job at the Intercontinental.”

Schrager’s title is now Senior Vice President of Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility with recently merged Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. He gets a salary and expense account from the company, and calls the food fests “his hobby,” with all proceeds going to FIU from the Florida event, and to the Food Bank of New York City from the New York festival. The SOBE festival raised more than $2 million last year.

Chef Michael Schwartz says, “He did create his own position, which raised some eyebrows at the time. But he fulfilled everything he said he’d do and more. He’s done a lot not only for Miami chefs and the Miami culinary scene, but also for Southern, FIU, and then Food Network when he partnered with them.”

A previous food festival in South Beach during the 1990s didn’t last. When Schrager went to work for Southern, the company held an annual food and wine fundraising event on the FIU campus. It drew less than 1,000 people and raised $30,000. “We’ve had fundraisers at my school that were bigger,” Howie Schrager says.

In 2002, helped by restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, Schrager moved the festival to a tent on South Beach. A winning concept was born. Chefs from around the country were eager to come to South Florida in February, and when the Food Network partnership began in 2007, it brought star power and a steady pipeline of ticket-selling celebrity chefs.

There was some grousing from local chefs who felt overlooked, but as time has gone on, the proverbial tent has gotten big enough to accommodate all.

“Lee has been persistent, and he’s done a better job of bridging the gap with the local chef community,” says Schwartz, who will stage a 10 Years of Michael’s Genuine Restaurant dinner as part of the festival, with visiting chef Jonathan Waxman. “Lee brings so much energy, and he clearly enjoys it. That’s how he’s able to keep it fresh and relevant. He’s probably already working on next year’s festival.”

“The festival has put Miami on the food and wine map, and so many chefs end up staying and opening restaurants here,” Navarro says.

Flay says, “Every year that I come, I have one eye on the festival and one eye on real estate.” 

“What he’s done is spectacular,” Schrager’s brother Richard says.

Howie Schrager says, “He still gets me tickets to the Burger Bash, but I can’t go to the oyster event. I was told they’re out of comps. It’s crazy how popular this has gotten.”

The South Beach Wine & Food Festival runs Feb. 22-26 at venues across South Florida, with the biggest events taking place in tents along the southern part of Miami Beach. Tickets still remain for some events. For tickets and information, go to SoBeFest.com.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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