Julie Frans is seated beneath the covered porch of Essensia Restaurant at The Palms Hotel & Spa, looking out on its lush green lawn punctuated by fuchsia bougainvillea and tall palm trees. On Feb. 22, this tropical Old Florida setting will be the backdrop for a Farm-to-Table brunch co-hosted by Frans and celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian during the 14th annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
The sold-out brunch is one of more than 75 events unfolding over the course of the Feb. 19-22 culinary bacchanal. An increasing number of Wine & Food Festival activities follow a similar format, pairing South Florida chefs with nationally known talent.
“It’s an exciting thing for the hotel, in general, to attract the attention and the people,” said Frans, executive chef of The Palms Hotel. “We have a lot of loyal fans who come back every year now.”
About 150 of the 350 chefs participating in this year’s festival are from Florida, mostly Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Cooking in festival events provides local chefs not only the stage to put their food in front of well-to-do travelers from across the country, but also the opportunity to form relationships with their as-seen-on-TV peers.
“I’m still friends with Amanda [Freitag] and have gotten my cooks jobs in her restaurants and text with her,” said Frans, who previously hosted an all-female brunch with Freitag and fellow New York chefs Alex Guarnaschelli and Anita Lo.
“All of them have said, ‘Come to our restaurants. Spend a day with us,’” Frans continued. “It’s nice to make those connections.”
Todd Erickson, executive chef of HaVen and Huahua’s Taqueria in South Beach, said the camaraderie is a big factor in his participation in the festival, now four years running.
“It’s kind of cool. The celebrity chefs know my name now,” he said. “That’s a great thing, to know that I’m being considered a peer and not just a fan.”
Behind the scenes, the festival can take on the feel of “a chef convention,” Erickson said.
“There are chefs’ parties, a launch party, a finale party…”
That doesn’t mean it’s a cakewalk.
For her brunch next Sunday, Frans not only has to conceptualize, prepare and execute a dish for 300 people, she also has to manage ingredient orders and facilitate timing and other logistics for the eight visiting chefs who are participating in the event. All while running a restaurant that remains open to the public before, during and after the festival.
Erickson will be representing his restaurants at an exhausting number of events, including a late-night tacos-and-tequila party on Thursday, a tacos-and-beer seminar on Saturday and at the main-attraction Grand Tasting Village Saturday and Sunday. He also got a call from celebrity chef Art Smith, a friend from the festival, to help bring on local chefs to be part of Smith’s 101 Gay Weddings ceremony and party Saturday at The James Royal Palm Hotel.
“Every year I get through it and think, ‘I’ll never do that much again.’ And every year that it comes up, I end up doing more,” Erickson laughed. “It’s definitely a lot of work, but it’s such a fun time interacting with other chefs, seeing what other people are doing around the country.”
The Grand Tasting Village features the most local talent in one place, with more than 50 South Florida chefs cooking food on-site each day, up from about 35 last year. The beachside tents are organized by neighborhood “districts,” with a local culinary captain overseeing each ’hood.
“The idea came about very naturally,” said Lee Brian Schrager, the festival’s founder and director, who also works as a vice president for Southern Wine & Spirits.
“We were reaching out to chefs in the community to help us engage people,” he said. “Chefs like to do things where their friends are participating, so we came up with the idea of getting different ambassadors from different areas.”
Chefs also like to do things that are good for business, and they say that participating in the festival works to their advantage.
“Aside from the incredible time that you have, there’s also a lot of networking, and you get a lot of exposure to people who may not know your restaurant,” said Michael Pirolo, chef-owner of Macchialina in South Beach, which is opening a sister restaurant this spring in Asheville, North Carolina.
Pirolo will lead an interactive cooking demonstration for 180 people at the Biltmore, and he’s one of the featured chefs in the festival’s kickoff event, the Italian Al Fresco Feast on the Beach.
When the South Beach Wine & Food Festival calls?
Pirolo: “I always say yes.”
Shayne Benowitz is the Hotels editor for Miami.com. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @ShayneBenowitz.
If you go
What: 14th annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
When: Feb. 19-22.
Where: Various locations.
How much: $20-$500.
More info: sobefest.com.
The Miami Herald and Miami.com are giving away tickets to three premier South Beach Wine & Food Festival events: Italian Al Fresco Feast, Meatopia: The Q Revolution, and Sunday’s Grand Tasting Village. Go to Miami.com/restaurants to find out how to win.