South Beach Wine & Food Festival Returns With the Usual Madness

Too many ethereal, caramel-flavored sips of Ron Zacapa rum. Too many calorie-swollen cookie pops. Too much caviar and charcuterie and foofy French champagne and s’mores made with homemade blow-torched marshmallows. Too many short-skirted, wannabe basketball wives wearing platform heels in the sand. All. Too. Much. But then, that’s the legacy of the four-day Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Too much is never too much. Over-the-top is where the conversation starts.

Case in point? Last Friday night, Food Network’s Robert Irvine hosted his Party Impossible at 1111 Lincoln Road, the swanky parking garage that doubles as a Spartan party spot when customers of the Lincoln Road Mall aren’t clamoring to park their BMW Z4s for a day of shopping for wrap dresses. It’s a stunning space, with open-air views of Miami Beach’s skyline and concrete pillars illuminated pink for the evening like a taffeta prom dress.

Irvine appears in a three-sizes-too-small black body shirt and two-sizes-too-small head. Unable to get the attention of the hundreds in attendance, he is goaded by Napa Valley chef Michael Chiarello to dangle upside down while making a 6-foot-long hoagie. Why? Because Irvine hosted Dinner: Impossible, a series which, after it ran out of implausible challenges, begat the show Restaurant: Impossible. (The only thing left: Impossible: Impossible.) Clearly he can do a pointless sandwich assembly in 60 seconds inverted like a hypodermic needle.

Irvine is hoisted by the ankles and a table bearing meats and cheeses and is rolled beneath him. As Chiarello goads the crowd, Irvine slaps cold cuts on the giant loaf like a Subway sandwich artist who has given his two-weeks notice.

Cue the dirty jokes. Lots of references to meat and beef and thickness and length as Irvine piles gang bangs of deli staples in Plato’s Retreat-like clumps. Half-toasted peri-menopausal women in the crowd jump to rub Irvine’s rib roast abs, spilling their mojitos in the process. Sixty seconds later, a sub that only Jared could love is proclaimed “finished.” Sandwich: Inedible.

But the sandwich isn’t really the point. The spectacle is king at #sobewff. Food, which used to be the focus, now is more of a prop than a raison d’être for the festival’s being.

How else can you explain a quarter-mile length series of tents built directly on the beach sand only a Frisbee-throw from the Gulf Stream? Think of it: you’ve saved enough for a vacation during February from the icy climes of Finland. You’ve spent thousands to bring your pale Finn wife and your translucent offspring 3,500 miles for a holiday. And then you find your view to be blocked by a Pentagon-size pup tent. You’d probably be one angry Scandinavian (assuming such a thing actually exists).

But the thing is: the festival blends into its environment.

Miami Beach is the kind of place where breakbeat dance mixes are the backing soundtrack for the personal injury radio ads. As if you could go to court to sue for a slip-and-fall and be awarded punitive damages by Judge DJ Skrillex. If that’s too subtle a sign, then your first sighting of unwanted midlife halter-top side-boob should orient your compass.

Miami Beach is where actors audition for South Beach Tow by parking next to fire hydrants. It’s a sandy, salt-rimmed enclave where moneyed MILFs go almost topless on the beach but wear wide-brim hats for sun protection. The plain, white, v-neck t-shirt is the standard evening tuxedo. (You don’t want to know what the cummerbund is.)

A four-day bacchanal of this magnitude in this setting is nothing for the one percenters — or at least the fraction of that fraction that actually cares about the difference between a Montepulciano and a Montuni.

Festival organizers know expectations are high. That’s why they give each visitor who ponied up the $225 a pop to get into the Grand Tasting Village a swag bag filled with food magazines, tins of Illy espresso coffee, Keffir sunglasses, and lanyards that let your wine glass nestle between your cleavage. It’s also why sponsors clamor to attach their brands to the event. So plentiful were the American Express banners dangling from the ceiling of the tasting tents that it looked like a Great Hall of Credit Card Flags. Whole Foods built a nearly full-size open-air pop-up market. KitchenAid trotted out mixers, blenders, and other appliances positioned in perfect rows like goose-stepping soldiers.

As if the lure of unlimited booze and bicep-size shrimp wasn’t enough, Food Network, Travel Channel, and Cooking Channel stars spill into every corner of the four-day shindig. See Andrew Zimmern discuss the finer points of grilling octopus. See Nadia G rock a dress so short it shows the rest of her last name. Watch the princess of all media Rachael Ray declare herself the “Queen of the Burger” to absolutely no applause from the hundreds of fans in the audience.

In this proximity, SoBe is a lot like a NASCAR weekend. You get close enough to shake the hand or get the autograph of a real live food star. You get to see someone like Alex Guarnaschelli look way younger in person than her hyperscowly TV self. You see Emeril Lagasse, looking very much like a Jonas Brothers grandfather, hugging Latin heartthrob chef Aaron Sanchez out of network context.

But then you get some truly spectacular moments, such as Saturday night’s Diamond Dishes event. With chefs Michelle Bernstein, Laurent Tourondel, Scott Conant and Hedy Goldsmith turning out amazing food on each base at the pristine, new $515 million Marlins Park baseball stadium, diners ate their way around the horn on a field that has yet to be played upon. Such is the pull of SoBe: they get first glimpse. And they get to turn the dugouts into VIP party pits.

Or the tribute dinner for pioneering Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, who announced recently his intention to leave cooking to study philosophy. Trotter picked a Murderer’s Row of chefs – Lagasse, Frederic Delaire, Wylie Dufresne, Patrick O’Connell and Norman Van Aken – to cook for the 600 guests. For good measure, Anthony Bourdain was master of ceremonies. Not since the Dean Martin roasts has a banquet room been so star-studded.

Even at the Puerto Rico tourism table inside the grand tasting, the earnestness was palpable. Handing out sips of rum and forkfuls of mofongo, tourism execs pressed the flesh with hopes of luring visitors to the island nation with the promise of an April food fest that boosts the profile of its native Iron Chefs.

That’s the thing which rescues the South Beach festival from itself. Amid the bling-on-bling-on-bling glitz, there usually can be found a kernel of authenticity. At its bedrock, the event raised more than $15 million for the Florida International University hospitality school.

Certainly worth hanging upside down with cold cuts over.

What to Expect From the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival

The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival reloads this weekend for another year of tropical culinary excess. To understand the festival’s true spring break-like essence and what it has evolved into during the 11 years of its existence, consider this scene from last year’s event: Paula Deen, the living patron saint of butter and diabetes, is standing onstage underneath a giant white tent built on the sugar-sand of Miami Beach as hundreds of her Deeniacs scream and whistle. Wearing a flowing, Pepto Bismol-colored muumuu over black leggings, her eyes shielded by sunglasses so large that she resembles a tree frog, Deen then asks, in her thicker-than-grits Savannah drawl, how many in the audience are there “hoping to see my britches to fall down?” An unlikely roar erupts. Clearly they saw the viral clip of her South Beach appearance from 2010 when the doughy, silver-haired former agoraphobe lost the integrity of her pantaloons.

Prowling the stage in 2011, she promises no such “moon over Miami” would revisit, but then grabs her butterboobs and suggests that perhaps “my falsies might fall out.” Moments later, her Food Network compadre Robert Irvine, walks onstage wearing a sky blue body shirt and cradling a giant dish of butter. Deen suggests he remove his shirt all Chippendales-like. Instead, he dips an index finger into the dairy product, takes a lick and then rubs the remainder all over his ribbed abs. As her husband Michael watches, Deen drops down for a lick off his hairy belly. And then Irvine inexplicably goes down on all fours with the precision of a man who has great experience doing so. Deen proceeds to ride him like a jockey to the delight of the Photoshop geniuses who would go on to create

To borrow a phrase, this festival is no ordinary day at the beach.

Originally conceived by organizer Lee Schrager as a fundraiser for Florida International University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, the festival last year sold more than 53,000 tickets to more than 40 events and raised $2.2 million. In a decade, SoBe has eclipsed Aspen’s Food & Wine Classic in popularity and prestige. For four days, Miami’s South Beach district turns into a rollicking buffet of strange and glitzy decadence as Food Network personalities and reality TV stars descend on Florida’s nether region to pimp their brands, press the flesh, see their friends, and blow off some steam.

“Its sun and surf and sex and suds,” Miami chef Norman Van Aken told me last year. Van Aken, father of New World cuisine and executive chef at the Miami Culinary Institute’s Tuyo, says the festival is “the big daddy of food festivals like American Idol is the big daddy of American TV.”

If that’s the case, then spiky-haired bro Guy Fieri is South Beach’s Steven Tyler. He and Emeril Lagasse will host the first big shindig of the weekend on Thursday night, Moet Hennessy’s the Q, presented by Allen Brothers Steaks. This is the first year for the event since the retirement in 2011 of the festival’s wildly popular BubbleQ event, which married the venerable pastimes of barbecue and carbonated French beverages. BubbleQ was the festival’s way of keeping it real, inviting the likes of barbecue gods like Myron Mixon and Chris Lilly to pull some pork seaside with Food Network stars like Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill in New York City and such locals as Miami Beach chefs Dewey Losasso of The Forge and Mark Zeitouni of Lido. What has changed for this year? Not much. Different brand of bubbly and different chefs but the same beachside tent behind the Delano Hotel. And the same expensive ticket — $300 a pop. For another hundred bucks, patrons get a 45-minute VIP head-start at the chandeliered hog trough.

This year’s heavy hitters include Stephen Stryjewski of Cochon in New Orleans, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and Ben Ford of Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City, California (Ben’s dad is some old guy named Harrison.) The local roster includes Michelle Bernstein of SRA. Martinez and Jordi Vallés of J&G Grill.

The big change is that this year’s Q will have a three-hour after-party called The Q After Dark (which is odd, because the Q itself takes place in the dark). One imagines besotted foodies raving barefoot on the beach, reeking of KC Masterpiece parfum as DJ Ruckus spins his trance-hop canon from Phunked Up Records.

If that hasn’t crushed all culinary souls, Friday’s schedule includes Rachael Ray’s Burger Bash, a carne-extravaganza featuring 30 chefs from joints across the country. Meatmeister Michael Symon of B-Spot Burgers in Cleveland is going for a three-peat trophy this year — his fried salami, provolone cheese, shasha sauce and pickled onion burger took the top prize in 2011. But it’s far more impressive that the burger craze — which took over for the bacon craze, which took over for the cupcake craze, which took over for the seasoned salt craze — is still going strong enough to survive 1,000 episodes of Ray’s daytime talk show.

Later that night, Robert Irvine (he of the buttered and lickable British abs) will host the Party Impossible bash at 1111 Lincoln Road. And while that might sound impressive, it helps to know that 1111 Lincoln Road is an open-air parking garage. A very nice parking garage in a very swanky part of South Beach’s shopping district, mind you. A parking garage designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the same Swiss firm that created the ground-breaking, Lifesavers-looking Allianz Arena in Munich. But it’s a parking garage, one with jutting, off-angle concrete pillars and uneven cathedral ceilings that give the impression that, cool or not, it could crumble at any second (which could be a buzz kill).

Saturday’s schedule hits the throttle with a blur of two dozen events, including a farm-to-table brunch at the Miami Beach botanical gardens hosted by Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink in Miami. Seminars like those by fromageinatrix Laura Werlin’s grilled cheese and wine-pairing class lend the day an educational aroma. But before things get too esoteric, The Best Thing I Ever Ate Late Night Bites & Sweets party, named unsubtly after Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” series, showcases finger foods and desserts (read: munchies) at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach.

Which brings us back to Paula Deen, who hosts her annual Down Home Cookin’ Sunday Brunch. Last year’s shindig nursed hangovers with fried chicken, pocket pies and the lip-smacking goodness of Fort Worth, Texas, chef Tim Love’s beef short ribs with anasazi bean stew and ricotta cheese. Oh, and Deen making up new lyrics to long-established gospel standards. At a gospel brunch. Halleluiah.

By the time Travel Channel bug chewer Andrew Zimmern hosts the Trucks on the Beach closing food truck party that night, it’s a good bet Deen will be asleep. Unless there’s more butter to lick.

If that happens, all britches are off.