The annual Deering Seafood Festival has grown steadily over its 13 years, each iteration outdoing the previous in scope and attendance.
But this year’s event on Sunday marked a first for the festival, as tickets sold out a day early and Deering Estate Foundation membership sales were temporarily halted to prevent overcrowding.
“We do great every year, but this was the first time we’ve ever sold out prior to the day of the event,” said Dave McDonald, president of Deering Estate Foundation. “That’s a tremendous accomplishment for the whole event organization team, including almost 300 volunteers, who do it out of love for this property and this event.”
An overcast morning sky turned sunny and clear Sunday as steel drum band Pan Paradise (later relieved by rockers Mr. Nice Guy) played to an audience strewn across the large field on the estate’s eastern end. Every hour, Virgin Islands stilt walkers and Bahamian junkanoo musicians paraded through the crowd, engaging attendees in song and dance.
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Local restaurant tents populated Seafood Alley along a walkway bordering the field. A northward path led to a variety of vendors, Artists Lane (hosting works by local artisans) and the Li’l Shrimp Kids Zone play area featuring a carnival ride, rock climbing wall and nautically themed bounce houses. A pontoon boat, the Pelican Skipper, took casual seafarers to and from Chicken Key across Biscayne Bay.
“This event is the Deering Estate’s annual ‘friend-raiser,’ and we use the allure of Caribbean music, entertainment and seafood to bring people through the gates of this historic park,” said Mary Pettit, Deering Estate Foundation executive director. “Once they come, they realize, ‘Wow, what an amazing place.’ They learn a lot and we make friends that are not only seafood festival goers, but they become members and supporters.”
A jellyfish water bottle sculpture along the bridleway leading to the main fields marked entry to Deering Discovery Cove, an environmental education area where roughly a dozen booths were set up by groups including Florida International University’s Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research program. In the back, two open cabins housed Hands-on-Scales, a reptile and invasive species exhibit; and Squid-a-la-Cart, a guided squid dissection.
“We take great pride in helping to educate the future stewards of our planet,” Pettit said. “Our K-12 programs serve over 17,000 kids a year and we have the largest homeschool program in Miami-Dade County that works out of the park, from science and art to humanities and history.”
For foodies, the foremost allure was the chef demonstrations under the big-top tent in the estate’s courtyard. Between 11:45 a.m. and 5:15 p.m., Ocean Reef Club Executive Chef Damian Gilchrist, Biltmore Hotel Executive Chef David Hackett, BRAVA by Brad Kilgore Executive Chef Jeff Maxfield, Captain Jim’s Seafood Head Chef Wilfred Charles and owner Jeffrey Ross, Pubbelly Sushi Executive Chef Jorge Mijangos and Johnson & Wales University culinary competition winner Nicole McDonald took turns presenting in front of exclusive audiences of 100 ticketholders.
“We love this festival,” said Gilchrist, who arrived early with his crew to install an ice sculpture embedded with sea creatures that dispensed rum punch samples. “We actually jockey to be the first ones [to present] and put on the best show so we can then go enjoy the festival. It’s a great networking event, a lot of fun meeting the other chefs, and the food, of course, is fantastic.”
More than 8,500 people attended the family-friendly celebration between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. at the 444-acre Deering Estate, which for 31 years has been on the National Register of Historic Places. All money raised benefits the Deering Estate Foundation, the community-based philanthropic arm of the estate that supports education, research, cultural arts, environmental conservation and historic preservation.
“Everywhere you look, we have something great going on for everyone,” said Dan Yglesias, Deering Seafood Festival chairman. “As a foundation, part of our mission is to protect, preserve and promote public awareness of the estate here. This is one of the biggest events we have that can do that, and our goal every year is to improve and make it a better experience for our guests.”