Sebastian Fernandez had to sit down and read the email twice.
When the message from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival popped up on his phone, telling him he had been invited to show off his cooking skills for the first time at this year’s Best of the Best event, Fernandez’s eyes welled up. His Coconut Grove restaurant, 33 Kitchen, just got called up to the big leagues.
“I was like, ‘I’ve got to sit down. Read it twice. Digest the whole idea,’ ” he said. “Very emotional.”
For a local restaurant chef, being invited to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival to cook alongside world-renowned and celebrity chefs can be a sword tap on the shoulder. His restaurant is knighted. It instantly goes from having a local following to an international one.
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(The festival opens Wednesday with a pair of events in Fort Lauderdale and continues through Sunday. Look for live coverage from events daily on Miami.com.)
The festival tries to pair local restaurants and chefs with national names in a way that benefits both. This year, several events will highlight dozens of Miami-area restaurants and chefs for whom the opportunity can take their business to another level.
Imagine being Fernandez, who will cook alongside 59 other chefs at the Best of the Best, which, as the name implies, highlights some of the top restaurants at the festival, the nation’s largest food and drink event.
“To be known in the culinary world, it means a lot. It’s everybody’s dream,” said Fernandez, whose 33 Kitchen earned a three-and-a-half star (excellent) Miami Herald review last year.
Nedal Ahmad has felt those hot tears of pride.
His burger restaurant, Pincho Factory, became a niche locals favorite when he founded a pair of locations in 2011. He saw “a huge spike” when Pincho Factory was invited to cook burgers at the festival’s insanely popular Burger Bash in 2014.
But that didn’t prepare him for 2015, when the judges, instead of calling out the name of celebrity chefs Bobby Flay or Michael Symon as they had in nine years past, announced Pincho Factory as the people’s choice. Ahmad remembers only the white noise of hearing his cooks cheer as he yelled out for his wife.
“That was absolutely insane,” Ahmad said. “I did cry after I won, I’ll man up to that.”
Since then, Pincho Factory has grown into a bigger success story, with nine locations, including one in Orlando and two at the AmericanAirlines Arena. This year, they will be at three South Beach Wine & Food events, including one with big burger boss Guy Fieri.
“It has meant so much for us,” Ahmad said.
Nowhere does the playing field level as it does at the Croquetas & Champagne event. The participants are chosen by self-made Miami blogger Sef Gonzalez (a k a Burger Beast, who founded the country’s first Burger Museum), and the event is hosted by super chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. At the center, several Miami restaurants will try their hand at making the humble croqueta.
“I wanted it to be people who would never have been showcased at the Sobe fest,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a special moment to see them shine.”
Even Vongerichten participates, though last year he brought in a ringer: He shaved black truffles over his creamy French-style croquettes.
No, El Mago de Las Fritas couldn’t compete with that when they participated last year. But the exposure of being at the festival means their walk-in customers at their Southwest Eighth Street store are 80 percent tourists these days.
“[The festival] is the doorway that allows you to have that recognition,” said Barry Hennessey, who runs El Mago’s marketing. He regularly fields visitors from Europe and Asia, as well as from all over the United States. “It brings in a whole new group of people.”
Restaurants have to be ready to capitalize, said Andrew Gonzalez, whose Westchester-based Night Owl Cookies were a boxed giveaway to celebrities at the festival last year. But when Neil Patrick Harris and his husband David Burtka tweeted how much they loved his cookies, Gonzalez’s late-night cookie delivery service became an overnight sensation.
“These are the country’s premier foodies,” Gonzalez said. “If you do it correctly, it could blow you up.”
Who among the vast number of first-timers will be discovered this year? Will it be Jr.’s Burgers, who won May’s Burger Beast Hamburger House Party to earn a spot at this year’s Burger Bash? Or Croquetas and Champagne participant Dos Croquetas, who copied the Night Owl Cookies format to deliver fresh-made croquetas late at night in western Miami-Dade County? Or perhaps it’ll be the Cuban-American chef behind Coconut Grove’s Ariete, Michael Beltran, who will also participate in Best of the Best.
Maybe it will be Fernandez’s 33 Kitchen.
“Little do they know,” Gonzalez said, “this is going to take them to the next level.”
If You Go
What: The five-day South Beach Wine and Food Festival festival opens Wednesday with a pair of events in Fort Lauderdale and continues through Sunday with locations throughout Miami and Miami Beach. Look for live coverage from events daily on Miami.com and on Miami.com’s Instagram page, @Miamigrams.
Tickets: Passes for available events can be purchased online at SobeFest.com, or by calling 877-762-3933.
More information: For live coverage, visit Miami.com.