Miami Beach

South Beach Wine & Food Festival changes Miami's culinary scene, impacts economy

For Miami restaurateurs, this is Showtime.

With dozens of top chefs — Bobby Flay, Todd English, Daniel Boloud and Masaharu Morimoto among the list — in town for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, the pressure is on everywhere, from Michy’s to the new Catch Miami. The goal: Show everyone from around the country that Miami’s food scene has arrived on the national stage.

Chef Michelle Bernstein’s staff whipped up dishes designed to impress guests at Michy’s — like foie gras, oxtail and apple tarte tatin — while she juggled menus for multiple events. Bernstein kept her cellphone handy to make sure any chef friends could get a table, even though her namesake restaurant was sold out.

As always, Joe’s Stone Crab was a must-do stop for many, including Paula Deen and New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. Aussie Chef Curtis Stone attracted a string of admirers as he ate his way around town, with stops at Prime 112, Pubbelly Sushi and Puerto Sagua. Khong River House and Yardbird Southern Table & Bar hosted Meyer, The Food Network’s Anne Burrell and Chef Anita Lo.

Michael’s Genuine was another hot spot.

“This is kind of our coming out party for Khong and it’s our chance to knock it out of the park and wow people,” said John Kunkel, owner of Khong and Yardbird.

Prime 112 owner Myles Chefetz admits he’s a fanatic about checking plates when they come back from a chef’s table. And he’s always on the lookout for the table ordering 20 different items, because that’s usually a restaurateur doing research.

“If you have Jean-Gorges or Bobby Flay eating at your restaurant, you want to make sure he has a great experience,” Chefetz said. “You want to put your best foot forward because you know you’re going to get scrutinized.”

The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival is not just a forum for impressing the culinary elite. It’s among the top three tourist draws for Miami restaurants and hotels. In its 12th year, the festival draws more than 60,000 people to Miami Beach for a weekend of decadence, featuring more than 50 events spread over four days.

It is neck and neck with two of the area’s other most prominent weekends: Art Basel and Presidents’ Day (which coincides with the Miami International Boat Show).

There’s the immediate economic impact, of course, but the festival has made its mark in other ways: helping transform Miami’s food scene from a cultural wasteland to one of the country’s hot spots, one where top chefs all want to set up shop.

“Twelve years ago I don’t know if you could even name five really good restaurants. Now, you can’t think of where you want to eat because there are so many good restaurants,” said Lee Brian Schrager, festival founder and vice president of communications for Southern Wine & Spirits, its host. “What the festival can take credit for is introducing the culinary world to the great talent down here, and really highlighting South Florida as a great dining destination.”

There has been plenty of indulgence to go around. Flay finally broke his losing streak and took home top honors at the Burger Bash with his award-winning crunchified green chili burger. At the Q, barbecue lovers had their choice of Al Roker’s lamb ribs with baked beans or Geoffrey Zakarian’s smoked tagarashi crusted tuna, among other offerings.

Foodies’ taste buds went into overdrive at Friday’s Best of the Best event, with gourmet offerings like chili lobster, seared tuna tacos and a crawfish boil gnocchi with brandy and black truffles.

“We just love it all,” said Monica Mayotte, as she took a break amid the Best of the Best crowd at the Fontainebleau ballroom.

For Mayotte and her husband Terry, from Boca Raton, the festival is their annual mini-vacation. They book their hotel room in September and buy their tickets in October. Every year they hit the Best of the Best, then mix it up the rest of the time. This year the to-do list included several first-time events, including the Chicken Couple and the A-list Farm to Table brunch.

“It’s like our date week.,” said Monica Mayotte, who was staying for two nights at the Loews Miami Beach. “When you don’t do it very often, it’s fun to splurge. It’s like our Valentine’s getaway.”

Although more than 70 percent of the festival’s visitors are from Florida, more than half of those, like Mayotte, come from outside Miami-Dade. Many turn it into a long weekend.

The festival filled nearly 2,600 room nights in 2012, and that number was expected to be closer to 3,000 this year.

In just two years, the number of room nights the festival fills has more than doubled, said Carol Press of Protravel International.

At the James Royal Palm hotel, which opened at the end of last year, management took advantage of the festival to add its own line-up of spin-off programming, including a celebrity chef volleyball tournament, and the Big Gay ice cream social to promote gay marriage in Florida.

“These events help to create an energy and a buzz around the property during the festival,” said Sims Foster, vice president of restaurant and bars for Denihan Hospitality Group, owner of the James. “It cements us as a very food-driven company and destination.”

Miami’s progress as a culinary destination “has tracked the South Beach Wine & Food Festival,” said Rolando Aedo, senior vice president of marketing and tourist for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “By all accounts, we are a serious culinary destination, and that speaks to the evolution of this community. When you look at the top experiences our customers like — dining is at the top of the list. That’s how most people make their memories.”

Mindy Horowitz would agree. The Long Island resident has been coming to the festival for the past decade. She loves the chance to meet the top chefs and vineyard owners at her favorite event, the Best of the Best. She gets culinary tips for herself at smaller events, like seminars by Josh Wesson and Laura Werlin.

But the week is also a chance for Horowitz, who has a second home in Miami Beach, to sample her favorite restaurants in Miami — a list that keeps getting longer. Perennial favorites include Joe’s, Prime 112 and Il Gabbiano, but she’s also a big fan of the new restaurants by the Pubbelly group.

“Miami’s food scene is getting better and better. It’s very diverse,” Horowitz said. “We’re foodies so we love to explore. No matter where we go. Food is social.”

With all the chances to indulge at the festival, it’s hard to believe many foodies could still find time to check out some of Miami’s hottest restaurants.

But Schrager says he can’t count how many people call him at the last minute asking for help securing tables everywhere from Prime 112 to Joe’s Stone Crab.

Jeff Lehman, general manager of the Betsy Hotel on Miami Beach, where BLT Steak is helmed by Chef Laurent Tourondel, described business as “on fire.”

“It’s impossible to get a reservation when you want it,” Lehman said. “You’ll have to eat at 5 p.m. or 11 p.m.”

While the festival used to have to import the vast majority of the chefs for the weekend, this year marked a turning point where at least half the chefs at signature events like the Best of the Best and the Burger Bash are local — or at least national chefs with a local presence. The Best of the Best included local chefs from Zuma, Makota, Haven South Beach, TIKL Raw Bar, Jean Paul’s House and more.

Star chefs Daniel Boloud, Scott Conant, Jean-George Vongerichten and Michael Mina are just some of the many who have opened restaurants in recent years in Miami-Dade County. Vongerichten even took advantage of the festival to announce plans for another restaurant at hotelier Ian Schrager’s Edition Hotel opening in 2014 on Miami Beach.

“It’s become one of the best gastronomic scenes in the country,” Conant said. “Why wouldn’t you want to spend time here?”

Zakarian says that while he closed his restaurant the Tudor House on Miami Beach, he has something bigger and better in the works. But he wasn’t ready to spill the beans on the new concept. He says restaurateurs and chefs across the country are looking closely at South Florida, trying to come up with different concepts that speak to the market.

“Back in 1984 when I opened the Delano, Miami was barren,” Zakarian said. “The change is remarkable. Now, Miami is a very healthy market for restaurateurs. People in Miami love the gestalt of going out and entertaining.”