An intimate interview with Lee Schrager

02/22/2013 12:00 AM

02/22/2013 12:51 PM

In South Florida’s serious food circles, there is no one who doesn’t know Lee Schrager. He’s the man—the force of nature, really—behind the world-famous South Beach Wine & Food Festival. He’s the head of communications for the country’s largest wine and spirits distributor, Southern Wine & Spirits, headquartered in Miami. He’s the owner of what is surely the world’s most powerful culinary Blackberry, a man on a first-name basis with—and a mere cell phone call away from—every important chef around the globe.

And yet, there are a few things people don’t know about him. For one, that Schrager’s been seducing audiences with the glories of good food since he was all of eight years old in his native Long Island, NY, where “I had a Suzy Homemaker oven in the basement and used to make pies. I’d go door to door in the neighborhood selling them. So when other kids were playing baseball or football, I had a pie business going.” Another little-known fact: the middle of three sons born to a father who worked in the garment industry and a mother who worked for a real estate developer, Schrager left New York with his parents at age 14, when the family moved to Fort Lauderdale. He attended public high school (one year at Piper High School in Lauderhill, the next at Nova High School in Davie) before graduating a year early at 16. “I wasn’t a good student, so I doubled up on credits so I could finish early,” he said. But most surprising of all? Schrager—Mr. Miami Food himself—doesn’t eat seafood. In fact, when he goes to Joe’s Stone Crab, one of his all-time favorite restaurants in South Florida, he ordersfried chicken? “I’m just not a big stone crab eater,” Schrager said, sitting back in his living room on a plush couch tucked into a cozy nook overlooking his garden. “Still, there’s nothing like going to Joe’s on a Friday afternoon—especially on the Friday afternoon of Art Basel—ordering the fried chicken, the chopped salad and a slice of key lime pie and sitting back to watch the entire world walk by.”

This month, as the South Beach Wine & Food Festival celebrates its 12th anniversary, the man at the center of it all will have yet another chance to watch as the world walks by. Or rather, comes to him. From Food Network stars like Rachel Ray, Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay to world-class chefs like José Andrés, Daniel Boulud and Norman Van Aken, everybody who’s anybody in the culinary field will attend the event Schrager masterminded upon his arrival at Southern in 2000. At that time, he had no job description (“They didn’t really know what to do with me and I didn’t know either!") but he did have one seriously great idea: that Miami Beach’s beautiful shores could provide a spectacular backdrop for a weekend of deliciousness. Schrager invited INDULGE into the two-story, waterfront Bay Point home he bought 19 years ago to talk about a few more things people may not know about him.

You recently Tweeted that you stayed home, cooked and had people over. How often do you do that?

Five times a year. Maybe. So getting an invite to that dinner party is pretty special?

Well, I don’t have a lot of friends left because I don’t entertain that much anymore. We used to have parties here with hundreds of people. When Steven Raichlen wrote his first Barbecue! Bible we did the book party here and filled the house with 20 grills. When Shareef Malnik from The Forge got engaged, I did the engagement party here. And I used to do a Thanksgiving dinner every year for 80 to 100 people, where all my food friends would come and we’d cook for four days. Everybody would bring something different and it was the world’s greatest holiday buffet. Four years ago I stopped doing it; it was just a lot of work.

If you could invite five people, dead or alive, to your dream dinner party, who would they be?

I was a great friend of Edie Beale of Grey Gardens. I would definitely invite her. I collect photography, so I would love for Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf to be there. I’d have to invite Auguste Escoffier, the legendary French chef. I also love finance and numbers and the stock market, so I’d include Ben Bernanke to make things really interesting. And I’m a huge fan of Alice Waters and love what she’s done with the Edible School Yard. I wouldn’t ask her to cook, but I think she would be fun to have there.

At what point did cooking enter your life?

When I was about eight, my parents used to go away during the summer for two or three weeks and we had a lady who came to watch my brothers and me while they were gone. She was my aunt’s mother and we called her Mrs. C. She was an amazing Italian cook, and she taught me how to bake. So the smell of yeast, making dough and breads, pasta and pizzas—I was around that at a very early age. I’d look forward all year to my parents going away because it meant Mrs. C would be coming.

What was your first job in the culinary field?

I worked at a Chinese restaurant when I was 12. I’d leave school and go there at night, from 5 to 9. I made $12 a night, packing the to-go orders. But then they let me into the kitchen and I learned how to cook Chinese food. First moo goo gai pan and then roast pork egg foo young. Then, I left there and worked at a Swanson’s Ice Cream Parlor scooping ice cream and making sundaes.

You moved to South Florida with your family when you were 14. What do you remember about that South Florida?

As soon as I graduated from high school I left. I hated Florida and swore I’d never come back. But I was a teenager then and all my friends were still up north, so I wanted to go back up. I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and started there when I was 17. I graduated just before my 19th birthday, and then moved to New York City for a year or two. I ultimately returned to Miami because I realized I didn’t want to be a chef, but that I still wanted to be in the field. So I needed a management background. That’s when I enrolled at FIU, though I didn’t graduate from there. While I was there, I worked as a room service waiter on the midnight shift at a hotel that belonged to the InterContinental group; it was the beginning of my 20-year career with that company.

There was a very important letter you wrote when you turned 40

Yes, I wrote to Wayne Chaplin, one of the owners of Southern Wine & Spirits. That may have been the last handwritten letter I ever wrote. I told him, I’ve been with my company for 20 years and I could probably stay with them the rest of my life, but I think there’s more for me. And I just have a feeling Southern Wine & Spirits would offer me something more and something different. I didn’t hear from Wayne for weeks, and just forgot about it. Then one day he called and said let’s have breakfast. We did, he said ‘I’ll be in touch,’ and, again, I didn’t hear from him for two months. Then I got a call from somebody else at Southern saying Wayne suggested we have lunch and at the end of that lunch the person said, when are you starting? I said, what are you talking about?’ He said Wayne said you’re starting. I had the job and didn’t even know it.

What did that teach you?

It taught me what I’ve always known: If you don’t ask you don’t get. And that’s the philosophy I’ve lived by. The greatest answer you can get is a no because it’s a starting place. I always say that to students I speak with. No is a beginning. Even today when I’m pitching new business, if I get a no, I say that’s fine. What about this instead? And I’ll keep coming back until they’ve had enough of me.

Today, what’s it like to be Lee Schrager walking into a restaurant?

It certainly doesn’t hurt to be me if you’re trying to get a table somewhere. Although, I just went to Thailand for New Year’s Eve and there was one great restaurant I had trouble getting into. When I called on my own for a reservationnothing. Then I wrote to the manager of the hotel where the restaurant is located, and he couldn’t help me either. I wrote to the restaurant’s public relations person, who answered saying he was sorry but there was nothing he could do. I finally wrote him back a funny email saying normally people anywhere in the world want me to come in and visit and talk with them about what I do. He wrote me the next day and confirmed the reservation.

You once said: “When I started, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I’m never insulted by feedback. A lot of times it’s BS, but 50 percent of the time you get something out of it.” What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you always got. It’s something I think about everyday. I never want to do the same thing. I always want to keep doing different things. There are a lot of great food and wine and hospitality events around the country, but what’s different about what I do is the ability to bring together the greatest names in the food and wine world—and change it up every single year.

Why do food and drink speak to you so deeply?

Because they bring people to the table. When you think of happy occasions in your life, or even sad ones, just about everything happens over a meal. Whether it’s a special anniversary, a daughter’s sweet 16, a bar mitzvah, a funeral or a Shiva call, food is the common denominator that brings us all to the table. We all can’t wear high fashion, and not everybody cares about going to a golf tournament or playing tennis. But we all care about eating and enjoying a drink.

What’s your favorite new thing at this year’s festival? I love that Ziggy Marley is coming! And Trisha Yearwood! And that we’re honoring the great Nobu, who’s been part of the festival since year one. But I especially love all the new talent. People sometimes say to me, we don’t know anyone cooking at this festival. And my answer is: Well, guess what? Remember them because in two years they’re going to be at the helm of one of the great restaurants or on the Food Network. Mark my word.

A final question, in the spirit of the Pivot questionnaire: If heaven exists, what would you like God to say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

We have your table waiting

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