Food & Drink

Improved South Beach Wine and Food Festival draws crowd

Attendees at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival on Miami Beach on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015.
Attendees at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival on Miami Beach on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Although freeze warnings, wind-chill alerts and record-low temperatures threatened to ice out the Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival, an estimated 60,000 attendees plus participating chefs ate, drank and partied their way through the brrr.

“Thank you all for coming out and braving the — I guess — cold,” celebrity chef Anne Burrell said to an outdoor crowd at the Thrillist Barbecue & Blues event at the Shore Club in Miami Beach late Thursday. “I’m from New York, and this is like 1,000 degrees warmer.”

The festival, now in its 14th year and having raised more than $20 million for Florida International University, continues Sunday with tickets still available to a family-friendly morning event at Jungle Island, the signature Grand Tasting Village on the beach and a wrap-up party hosted by Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern outside the Ritz-Carlton South Beach.

Red wine disappeared faster than usual at some beachside, poolside and rooftop events Thursday and Friday as festival-goers turned to that and heating lamps to warm up. By Saturday, with temps back in subtropical range, the festival, too, seemed to return to normal.

Sunshine and a light breeze on Saturday greeted thousands who walked through the Grand Tasting Village, between 10th and 13th streets on Miami Beach.

The Grand Tasting is the one area of the festival that received the most attention in the offseason, with organizers bringing a number of improvements that they hoped would enhance the customer experience, one that starts with a $225 price tag.

“We realized it’s not about adding bells and whistles and having lions jumping through flames,” said Devin Padgett, the festival’s managing director. “We needed to find a way to make people comfortable and happy, and have them leaving with a sense that they want to come back.”

Tweaks included giving chefs more room to prepare their food, re-orienting the demonstration stages to face the ocean, more elbow (and dancing) room for revelers, and increasing participation from South Florida restaurants.

“Everything’s more open. There’s food as soon as you walk in. There are more places to hydrate, to sit and relax,” said festival founder and executive director Lee Brian Schrager, who also is a vice president at Southern Wine & Spirits, the host sponsor. “I think people will notice the difference.”

No tweaking necessary for the Burger Bash, a Friday-night festival tradition hosted by Rachael Ray that runs like a well-greased griddle. Al Roker donned a chef’s coat and served his lamb burgers. Lure Fishbar took home top honors for its perennially award-winning Bash Burger, while Pincho Factory won the People’s Choice category for its Croquetesa.

The Croquetesa didn’t really seem like a burger — a brioche bun topped with a brisket-shortrib-chuck croquette, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and mayo — but it worked, and Pincho Factory co-founder Nedal Ahmad looked equally happy picking up his giant $5,000 check as he did posing with supermodel presenter Chrissy Teigen.

Lure chef-partner Josh Capon also hammed it up with Teigen, swinging his arm around her as he howled, “South Beach! I wanted this so bad!”

Besides the tried-and-true Burger Bash, a number of new events made their festival debuts this weekend. The program of 80-plus tastings, demonstrations and more included a new craft-beer seminar, a vegan dinner, and meals that highlighted cuisines of Israel and the South.

When the festival closes Sunday night after Zimmern’s Best of the Munchies, Schrager and his team will begin to plan next year’s 15th anniversary South Beach Wine and Food Festival.

“Our goal is always to get better — not necessarily bigger, but better,” Schrager said. “We’ll take a look at our programming and work to bring in chefs and winemakers who people want to meet, and we’ll continue to expand the presence and promotion of our great chefs in South Florida.”

Miami Herald staff writer Marjie Lambert and writer Shayne Benowitz contributed to this report.

If you go

What: South Beach Wine and Food Festival

When: Events run from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Where: Miami Beach (sites vary).

Price: $20-$275


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