Just An Ordinary Weekend At Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel

I never thought I’d be attracted to a piece of meat. But at 3:25, on an afternoon at Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel, it happened.

The meat was oversized, blown up on a screen that covered an entire wall of the Borgata’s Music Box theatre, where several hundred people watched the hamburger patty sizzle and sweat in a pan on the stove. Over the patty reigned Geoffrey Zakarian, otherwise known as “the guy who won The Next Iron Chef” or “the cute chef with the glasses.”

With his gift of gab (which he attributes to his mom: “She was bitingly sarcastic,” Zakarian says), the bespectacled chef serenades the crowd at his cooking demonstration with his Italian accents, self deprecation, and meat innuendos. After two hours of cooking a hamburger (“no sauces or spices, it’s all about the meat”), a ginger and golden raisin-inflected coleslaw, and a raspberry soufflé – the crowd was sold – and so were his cookbooks.

Zakarian is the culinary lifestyle consultant of The Water Club, the more luxury hotel branch inside the Borgata resort. And the term “lifestyle consultant” is really just a fancy name for someone who checks in and okays all the activities involving food and drink consumption.

And wowee, did a lot of that happen during my recent stay at the Club. The portions are three times the size of any entrée at most NY restaurants (yep, I’m looking at you, Izakaya’s peanut butter-chocolate-crispy sushi roll) and it’s the options themselves – choosing from the Borgata’s 12 restaurants – where a decisive appetite becomes more valuable than some chips at the poker table.

Lines like shoelaces – full of day-trippers and vacationers craving all-you-can-eat – loop around the corners of the Borgata Buffet, while dinners at Bobby Flay Steakhouse on a Friday and Saturday night necessitate reservations made days in advance. I dined at the resort’s Japanese restaurant Izakaya, and most notably the southern Italian restaurant Fornelletto, and let’s just say it’s inspired this strange dream about a plate of potato gnocchi with sage and brown butter, lifting into the heavens, on top of a dish of their heavenly vanilla ice cream.

But people don’t come to Atlantic City for the food. They come for the party. And on – oh, just an ordinary weekend in Atlantic City – two celebrity DJs were spinning at the Borgata’s mur.mur nightclub and MIXXSamantha Ronson (aka Lindsay Lohan’s ex) and Steve Aoki. So when you pair these two rockstars with the Zakarian visit, the Borgata suddenly becomes an oceanside celeb hub.

But for me, the star of the show was definitely the Immersion Spa, where I headed for some much-needed recovery. A masseuse named Elyssia somehow managed to restore my late-night pancake and vodka-stuffed self into a viable, blissed-out human being. The whirlpool also helped.

Now, I’m not going to tell you to go to the Borgata and stay at, more specifically, The Water Club. I’m all about showing, not telling, of course. But when you are, in fact, looking for a weekend that includes a view of the ocean, celebrities, and really good gnocchi, may you consider the Borgata. It’s the AC experience.

Get all the info on the Borgata’s Water Club hotel here, and follow Bonnie on Twitter.

Expert-Approved V-Day Dinner: Thanks To Find. Eat. Drink. App

Imagine this: it’s Valentine’s Day, and you’re dining on truffle pizza with your date at a restaurant beloved by her favorite chef. You’re both whispering and giggling over champagne-infused cocktails only a top mixologist would approve. And what your date doesn’t know, is that back at home you have a box of her favorite chocolates that happen to be her favorite baker’s # 1 choice. But how would you know that every bit of your night has been expert-approved? The answer: the new Find. Eat. Drink. iPhone app, the world’s first travel guide curated by the top people in the culinary world.

In NYC, it’s easy to get lost in the bitter Yelp rants about service, and tied to your humdrum going-out routine. The recently-launched Find. Eat. Drink app brings you back to the reason you moved to New York in the first place: you want the best. And there’s no better place to turn than to the app’s catalogue of 340 experts – chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, and artisans – who are pioneering the trends and recommending restaurants from 120 cities across the world. Each recommendation comes with a profile of not only the culinary pro, but also the establishment they so love.

The expert-touch extends beyond the app’s content; FED (acronym intentional) is created by former Food Network producer and host Robin Dorian, and Nick Bumstead, former manager of Chambers Street Wines. The app is an extension of FED’s official website, which has the same concept as the app, and a blog that’s updated multiple times a day.

Plus, the app is just really, really good looking. It’s orange and sleek, and all so easy to use. Actually, it’s too easy; there’s no reason you shouldn’t be downloading it for free and using it tonight. There’s still time…

Download the Find.Eat.Drink. app here, and follow Bonnie on Twitter.

In Their Own Words: Four Entrepreneurs’ Favorite Apps

What do a dominatrix, two celebrity chefs, and a fitness founder have in common? Not much. So we brought them all together under one umbrella question: “What is your favorite app?”And like most things that can fit inside your phone and purse, these apps give great insight into who these stop-at-nothing entrepreneurs are. It’s like hacking into someone’s cellphone, but with descriptive consent. Here are these four visionaries’ favorite apps, in their own words.

Aarón Sanchez
Aarón Sanchez is the co-star of two Food Network series (Chopped and Heat Seekers), and the culinary visionary behind NYC’s taqueria Tacombi, Kansas City’s Mestizo, and Crossroads restaurant at House of Blues nationwide. Sanchez was recently a guest chef at the White House and received the “National Award” at the Flavors of Passion Awards, honoring the nation’s best Latin chefs.

"Since my wife, a pro musician, and I are constantly on the road, we like to use SongKick to find which of our favorite bands are playing in the cities we travel to. It’s also a great way to track lesser-known artists who may not have the reach of bigger acts. It’s brilliant.”

Brynn Jinnett
Brynn Jinnett is a former dancer with the New York City Ballet and the founder of Refine Method, a chain of boutique circuit training studios in NYC, whose clients have included Ivanka Trump and Kelly Ripa. Rooted in the latest research in exercise science, Refine exercises your body by using its own weight – pairing squats, kicks, and pushes with its own unique pulley system and high-intensity cardio. Since opening in 2010, Jinnett’s Method has exploded, expanding to three locations across NYC.

“My favorite app is MindBody Biz Mode [FREE], which allows me to schedule clients on my iPhone. With our third location opening this month on the Upper West Side, it’s great to be able to manage multiple locations while on the go!”

Hung Huynh
As the executive chef of NYC’s Catch seafood restaurant in Meatpacking and third season-winner of Top Chef, Hung Huynh is joining with EMM Group again to open the second outpost of Catch in South Beach, inside the James Royal Palm on Collins Avenue.

“My favorite app, Seafood Watch [FREE], keeps me up-to-date with current and fresh fish from the area’s nearby restaurants and stores, inspires new ideas, and educates me on the importance of sustainable seafood.”

Nina Payne
Nina Payne is the founder and president of Domi Dollz, a company of professional dominatrixes who bring kink out of the dungeon and into the mainstream with their New York-based workshops and educational performances. This month, the Dollz are launching their first eBook titled Kinky Amour; with personal stories and kinky tips from Payne and company, as well as video tutorials and photographs, the Dollz’ teachings will be downloadable and available worldwide.

“The Domi Dollz love the Dirty Game – Truth or Dare app [FREE]: it’s a huge collection of very naughty and wild truth or dares. It’s such fun to revisit the game we played as teenagers, bring the app to parties, and spice things up.” 

Top NYC Restaurants and Bars of 2012

The end of 2012 brings excitement for what’s to come in 2013, but also a slew of tasty memories from dining and drinking out for almost 365 days this year. Of all the places I tried, these nine New York places, people, and events stuck out.

1. Xixa: Opened by the team from Traif, this cozy, yet swank Mexican food restaurant proved a real winner in my book. From their delicate butterfish ceviche, to the fresh braised artichoke guacamole, to the whimsical wine list dedicated to fierce woman in show business, this Brooklyn eatery is worth going back to in 2013.

2. Mission Chinese: Yes, it’s that good, not to mention fun and comforting. But don’t take my word for it, when Danny Bowien opened up his second location of Mission Chinese in the Lower East Side, the first being in the Mission district of San Francisco, he hasn’t had a moment to breath since the press and fandom has been so great. Aside from that, he makes a mean mapo tofu. 

3. Charity: Pete Wells said it best in his New York Times article, “What made an equally deep impression on me, though, was the restaurant industry’s response to something else that seemed to come out of nowhere, the beating the city took when Hurricane Sandy trampled over the region.” All over the city, and country for that matter, service people rallied to help restaurants and bars that had been hit hard by the fall storm. You go NYC. 

4. The Expansion of DavidsTea: When this Canadian-based tea company came to the West Village in 2011, no one really knew who they were, or what they were about. But, between an energetic staff and tea blends including a cinnamon-green called Exotica, and coffee mixed with mate or pu’erh, they now have a solid following, which means, they keep opening up new shops all over the city and that makes me happy.

5. Gallow Green: I can’t help it, I adore Sleep No More. Now, with the airy Gallow Green bar on the roof, you don’t have to drop $75 to get a little theatrical entertainment at the fabled McKittrick Hotel. There they have live music, small bites, and excellent craft cocktails like Blonde in Peril, which mixes vodka, Lillet, and crimson port. 

6.  Yunnan Kitchen: For a first venture, Erika Chou and chef Travis Post nailed it. Impart that’s because the food is phenomenal, but the other part is due to the lack of Yunnan-style Chinese food in the city. After traveling in the Yunnan province, Post learned to serve up stellar plates of tea-smoked duck and fried pork belly, which people flock too, even if NYC’s Chinatown is just a few blocks away.

7. The Pines: At the end of September, the owners of Littleneck opened The Pines next door to their shop in Brooklyn. The inside looks like an abandoned lodge, which makes sense given they scored dishes, signs, and knickknacks from a summer resort bearing the same name as the restaurant. Not that you would just go for the décor—it’s chef Angelo Romano’s cooking that won us over with dishes like his oxtail cappellacci and the pork shoulder with chestnut, pineapple and rye berry.

8. Justin Warner: Watching the quirky chef and co-owner of Brooklyn’s Do or Dine team up with Alton Brown on Food Network Star had me actually paying attention to the show for the first time. Plus, he won!

9. Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria: The vibe this NoHo restaurant exudes is a modern-industrial-meets-Italian-village sort of thing, and it works. So does the food expertly prepared by chef Justin Smillie. Of all the new Italian places that have opened in 2012, Smillie’s plates of bucatini cacio e pepe and gnudi with brown butter and cherry tomatoes shine through the rest.

Is Guy’s American Kitchen Really That Bad?

It’s odd to walk into a restaurant on the day it got incredibly slammed by the New York Times. There is a hush to it, almost as if you are doing something daring and bold for walking through those condemned doors. Last Tuesday, that’s exactly how it felt when I checked out Guy Fieri’s first New York restaurant, Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, which opened two months ago in Times Square.

As we sat down in one of the immense, plush booths, I couldn’t help but wonder if the food would turn out as bad as restaurant critic Pete Wells made it seem in his now infamous NYT review. So, we started with that “blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste” and a caliente margarita. The former tasted like a watermelon Jolly Rancher and the margarita had no heat, but where they terrible? Not really. I mean, I don’t really want to drink a beverage that sweet, but I don’t like appletinis either.

But, many people do like appletinis, and it’s obvious that those are the people Fieri’s restaurant is catering to. Lest us not forget, he opened the 500-seat eatery in Times Square. As to the food Wells complained about, true, the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders aren’t very awesome and lack any hint of smoked almonds or salty pretzel, but they didn’t exude “chewy air.” The Guy-talian Nachos taste like an Italian hero was dumped on chips and heated up, and Guy’s Famous Big Bite Caesar salad proved uninspired and definitely not a “big bite,” but it is a side salad, and on that note, a huge portion.

Actually, all the portions are hefty, just like many Americans want them to be, and the food, while not spicy enough for me and way too sweet, is actually the flavor profile many Americans crave—especially Americans traveling to New York to eat in Times Square.

Last week I ate there as their guest, so on Saturday I decided to pop in on the sly to see if the food remained decent. Short answer: yes. The only real difference was the service, but where during the week it remained quiet, it was packed with people waiting to sit down on the weekend. And of those, not one person I spoke to lived in the city.

At the bar, a woman from Colorado and her 16-year-old daughter waited for a table, they had come to celebrate the teen’s birthday. On my left, an older couple from Philadelphia was visiting and wanted to check out the restaurant because they love Fieri’s show. The woman shook her head and commented on how mean the review was and her husband elegantly pointed out, “This is fun dining, not fine dining.”

No one in the culinary world is really standing up to say Guy’s American Kitchen is a great restaurant, but I don’t believe anyone ever thought it would be. After all, it’s cut from two molds: Food Network stardom, and Heartland Brewery’s corporate model. It’s like Applebee’s or, as the clever mock-paper The Onion pointed out, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.  It’s not a place meant to be taken seriously, and it appears Wells did, or does, or whatever. FierI told The Today Show that he felt Wells had an agenda, and even if that’s true, the real question is, should the New York Times be reviewing a place like this? It’s hard to say, but one thing is for sure: now curious people are flocking to check out Fieri’s spot, for better or for worse. 

Food Network’s Alton Brown on Brooklyn’s Do or Dine and Upcoming TV Projects

Alton Brown, a Food Network personality who has done just about every show out there, is now taking a turn with the network’s latest cooking extravagance, The Next Iron Chef: Redemption. In a quick, 15-minute interview, I talked to the oft-described “nerd” or “geek” of the food television world about the new show (which airs November 4), what he wants to see, his work with Justin Warner of Do or Dine, and why Welch’s makes the best grape juice. Nothing about this man is dull; I just wish I could have gotten 15 minutes more.

I have to say, I am excited about your work with Food Network Star winner Justin Warner. What’s it like to work with him?
We are finally really getting to work on his show. Food Network was great and didn’t rush us into being foolish. I can tell you what the working title is; it’s Justin’s Excellent Adventure. It should get produced around the end of year, maybe in February or March, and it’s going to be prime time on the Food Network. At first, it will be an hour special that may or may not be a series. [Justin] is special and I know it. I don’t want to mess it up. It’s one of those things about being a mentor, screwing up yourself is okay, but screwing up someone else is something different.

What do you think about his restaurant Do or Dine?
I don’t have a lot of business in Bed-Stuy, so when I am there I go all out. As for Do or Dine, I love it. Everything about it appeals to me.

What cooking show would you like to see on the Food Network, or any other channel for that matter?
I have tried out a lot of genres. One of my goals in the last few years was to make every genre of show on Food Network. That’s why I got in on the Next Food Network Star; it’s different from Iron Chef, which is, well, basically a sporting event. Good Eats is a scripted, one-camera sort of thing. I have tried every hat.

As someone who has hosted, judged, and been on so many shows, what are you hoping to gain from The Next Iron Chef: Redemption?
Well, there is redemption for one thing. Redemption is an interesting thing. Here we have a bunch people who have already been in the competitions, so they know what they are getting into. Some got close enough to detect wisps of victory in the air, and others barely were on it. Everyone has something to prove and they are obsessed in a way. There is nothing as interesting to observe as an obsessed character. Then, there is thought of redemption. Proving you can do something that you had failed to do before.

Do you think you are a good fit?
Good fit? I don’t know. I have no idea—that is up to the viewers. [The Food Network] keeps asking me to do it, so I try no t to look that one in the eye. You start asking those questions…eh, you just go do it. But, I know enough about food and cooking, and if you are going to have a competition show about food, there are worst people to have in there. I know a lot and I have been around for every Iron Chef episode.

Aside from The Next Iron Chef: Redemption, what else can we look forward to from you?
I am doing two projects I am gassed about. One is producing Justin’s show, it will be an on the roads of food sort of thing. The other is Foods That Made America, a five-hour series on the foods that allowed America to become the country that it is. Basically it’s historic story telling as we talk about the top five things about how they changed American food. I don’t think food history has been done well. So I am going to talk a shot at it. 

Where did you get the idea to use Post-It notes on your twitter?
I started doing that during Food Network Star, but I don’t remember why. I stared sticking them on TV or computer screens when I was trying to taunt Giada De Laurentiis or Bobby Flay. I would stick Post-Its by their pictures just for fun. As for Twitter, I don’t like the 140 characters impute, so I stared with the Post-Its. I have gone thorough lots of Post-Its.

Ha, do they sponsor your habit yet?
No! They got their own Twitter account that would analog tweet like I did. They even used my name! That annoyed me, so I went off Post-Its and did index cards for a few weeks. But, I missed the Post-Its so I went back. I still just buy them at the drug store like everyone else. Only Welch’s sponsors me, though they don’t pay me to tweet about them. I end up tweeting them just because I have so much juice from them. So I end up tweeting things I make with it, like this cocktail I made with gin, tonic, and grape juice. I have loved it [Welch’s grape juice] all my life. I jumped at the chance to work with them.

It’s kind of sweet…
They don’t add sugar. That is an urban legend. All they do is use real juice. They got eight hours to pick, skin, and seed. Then it gets low pasteurized so it doesn’t ferment.

Wow, I had no idea. That brings me to another stereotype, the food nerd. I have heard you referred to as that. What do you think?
Food nerd? Well yeah, I would be one of those. I would count. If not the king of the food nerds, at least high royalty. I have earned that. People who get into food on the science angle are nerdy. We are different, quirky, and not like everybody else.

Guy Fieri Takes Manhattan

It’s official; starting Monday, Guy Fieri takes New York. After overseeing five restaurants in California and spending two years as the face of the Food Network, the celebrity chef opens Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, his first New York restaurant in the heart of the city: Times Square. His new joint has around 500 seats, three levels, and will feature the food that helped make the frost-tipped chef famous. I pulled Fieri away from grilling up pizzas at his son’s birthday party in order to chat on the phone with the chef about his New York debut. 

What took you so long to get to New York?
I am a California guy. I came to New York before, but I had never spent a long time there. It’s an amazing place with such a strong collection of restaurants. To be honest, not being from the East Coast, you kind of go play ball where you know how to play ball. But the more times I was in New York, the more I looked at it and thought, “Wow, I would sure like to do a restaurant here.” But I didn’t have any roots in the city. Then I met Jon Bloostein, who owns Heartland Brewery. Someone came to me and said Jon was interested in doing a restaurant with me and suddenly we were off running.

Why did you decide now was the time?
You have to do it when it’s the right time, and I wanted make sure I got the right connections, the right partner, and the right energy.

So, you and Bloostein have become quite the pair…
Jon is a mastermind; the dude has got it ten-fold. Jon is so creative, and he goes at everything with such a drive and such a passion. I love seeing someone who runs that hard.

Why Times Square?
Being in Times Square and being around all these types of people—it’s the heartbeat of the city.

Do you feel like the space suits you?
I lost my little sister to cancer a year and half ago and I have a tattoo on my arm for her. When you walk into the restaurant, by the side of the bar, they are doing a chalk mural of this tattoo of mine. There are a lot of pictures of my cars, and a lot of stuff about me. It’s funny the things you will see on the wall, like “love, peace and taco grease.” This is my hangout, this is my casa, this is my gig.

How do you think your restaurant will fit into the New York food scene?
I am trying to make something for everybody but still gives people a lot of culinary opportunities. It’s going to be great food in an eclectic environment. If you are looking for loud and wild, we got that. Quieter, or large tables, or watching the kitchen—we got that, too. We know we are going to have to deliver the real-deal food. We will have to stay focused, but I am confident that we really have sharp players. Two of my culinary guys from my team [in Los Angeles] are there full time. It’s going to be really fun

Will you have any special, signature dishes just for your New York restaurant?
The whole menu is the tough part. When we were designing it, there were 90 items, and then we had to pare down. Now, we got an eclectic mix of pastas, and not your traditional Italian linguine and clams. For example, we have Louisiana pasta with blackened chicken breast. We have spicy onion rings that we hand make, and sashimi tuna tacos in crispy wanton skins. Basically, it’s my style of doing food and it’s all fortified with my Guy Fieri style and flavors.

When people come to a restaurant like this, whether it’s because they are fans of mine, for the food, or just because they’re in New York, I want them to walk away thinking they are taking something back with them. We are also making some custom beers with some great names like the El Jefe. Jon made all these beers in the style we were looking for, and my tattoo artist made all the logos for the beer, like there is a keg that is in a gun. It’s just really cool

Does this new restaurant mean we will be seeing more of you here?
Like crazy. The TV thing is a blessed opportunity, but I am still a chef in a restaurant. I make it to New York once or twice a month, and now, even more. We might get an apartment since the restaurant will be my home base.

Did ‘Barefoot Contessa’ Ina Garten Film with Special Needs Kids to Offset Make-A-Wish PR Debacle?

A year ago tomorrow, celebrity chef and Barefoot Contessa star Ina Garten became embroiled in a PR nightmare when it was reported she’d rejected a six-year-old cancer patient’s Make-a-Wish Foundation request to cook with her. Garten was later vindicated–it turns out she wasn’t even aware of the boy’s request until his immature, revenge-seeking parents ran to TMZ and set off the firestorm–but many believed the damage to her name had already been done. So, what was Garten to do?

If you guessed, "Air a new episode of her show almost exactly one year after the scandal broke in which she volunteers to teach a group of special needs students at East Hampton High School how to make blueberry muffins and ice banana cake, before using it all–plus brownies she’d made at home–to run a bake sale that will benefit the students’ annual field trip," you’d be correct. Congratulations!

My four-minute video recap of the episode is above.

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.