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.