Lee Brian Schrager on the Joys of the South Beach Food & Wine Festival

Monica Uszerowicz

Lee Brian Shrager by Melanie Dunea.

The South Beach Food & Wine Festival has become such an integral part of Miami’s food community, it needs, as they say, no introduction. But each year gets a little more special: this time around, there are new events to check out, including a drag brunch and a revived night market.

The festival was once a wine-tasting fundraiser for Florida International University (FIU)’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management; now, it’s a celebratory extravaganza four days long, stretching across three counties and playing host to celebrity chefs, musicians, Food Network stars, and creatives across the food community. We caught up with festival founder Lee Brian Schrager, a polymath in his own right, to discuss what’s new, why Miami is the best place for this, and his first Easy-Bake Oven.

There are a few “firsts” at this year’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Can you tell me about the drag brunch? Drag brunches are such an integral part of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale! They certainly are! We are very excited to partner with the team at PRIDE Fort Lauderdale to collaborate on producing this event as part of the Festival on Saturday, February 23, and help kick-off their own PRIDE weekend festivities. Elvis Duran and his fiancé Alex Carr will serve as the hosts of the brunch, and my longtime friend Kitty Meow has curated an all-star line-up of performers to take the brunch to the next level.

Another first (of sorts) is Rock ‘n Roll: An Asian Night Market, hosted by Adam Richman. Tell me more about this experience. This is a longtime, fan-favorite party that we brought back to the program as a featured part of the CRAVE Greater Fort Lauderdale Series presented by Capital One. It’s reminiscent of the allure of the late-night street markets you’d find in parts of Asia—a lively mix of great food, music and specially-paired libations from Gekkeikan Sake and House of Suntory. Plus, Travel Channel’s Adam Richman will serve as the perfect host of this late-night soirée.

The South Beach Food & Wine Festival. Courtesy of the Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival.

Has the festival’s attendance accelerated in tandem with other cultural mega-events that happen in South Florida—say, Art Basel? South Florida has become such an incredible destination, and a mega cultural epicenter of activity. We are always honored to be referenced on the same wavelength as other major events like Art Basel—the support of so many members of the South Florida community contribute to help make this happen year-round. Like Art Basel and Design Miami, we are fortunate to have a long-term commitment with the City of Miami Beach as our home base for the Festival and—via research done in partnership with our friends at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau—we have an estimated economic impact of more than $34 million on Miami-Dade County.

 You’ve discussed before how food is cultural, spiritual—it’s for everybody. Do you remember when food started to “speak” to you, emotionally/deeply? Food has been a part of my life since I got my first Easy-Bake Oven as a kid, but it really started connecting for me in high school during Home Ec. class—which my mom had to convince the school to let me take, because it was back during a time when boys didn’t take Home Ec. My teacher at the time is also the one who encouraged me to continue on to culinary school, leading to my education at the Culinary Institute of America.

Part of the festival’s tagline includes the word “educate.” How does the education component factor in this year? The EDUCATE part of our tagline and philosophy is the very essence on which the Festival was created—it started as a one-day wine tasting fundraiser event for FIU in its beginning stages. To date, we’ve raised more than $28 million for the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at FIU. Each year, more than 1,200 students get real-world, hands-on educational opportunities to work alongside the world’s greatest chefs, winemakers and spirits producers at the Festival. It’s not just about raising funds for the School—it’s more than that.  The Festival provides interactive experience to help train the future leaders of the hospitality industry.