Jetting to Miami for ABSOLUT Miami ‘Art of the Party’ Panel

I’m out of here! An opportunity, the ABSOLUT Miami "Art of the Party" Panel, has reared its lovely head and now I’m heading to Miami. This morning, I will jet to a place where the grass is still green and the winds not as mean. I’m trading the 18 degrees of balmy Brooklyn for the 81 of South Beach.

Last night, a dozen people and I dressed like Arctic explorers while trying to get warm at Kellogg’s Diner. Our friendly banter was all about the weather. It dominated our every thought as we clutched coffee cups to warm our hands. Everyone was showing off their new gloves and socks and scarves and such as my mind wandered south toward warmth and salvation.
 
I like Miami Beach. I have been going there since before its dramatic makeover. Back then, it was Tony Montana types and mahjong-playing octogenarians. I stayed at the Clevelander for pennies and ate every meal at the new News Cafe. Nowadays, the charms are different. Tony has been banished with his little friends and the octo-crowd has, well, either moved along or moved elsewhere. It’s been models and bottles in a club-friendly atmosphere. Some people say it has lost some of its luster lately as some travelers opt for the oppulence of Vegas. Vegas may have this and that and many other things, but one thing it will never have: the Atlantic Ocean beachfront. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.
 
At the Panel, ABSOLUT Miami will launch, eliciting an intriguing list of Miami-centric participants. Stories and photos of "some of the best parties over the last 30 years" will excite the crowds. "We’ll learn about the ‘Art of the Party’ – where it’s been and where it might be headed in the future, and we’ll enjoy some signature cocktails along the way." Here are some of the players:
 
"Moderators:
Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben (directors and co-owners of Miami production company Rakontur): Spellman and Corbin were the men behind critically-acclaimed, Miami-centric documentaries Cocaine Cowboys and The U. Rakontur’s development slate this year includes a Cocaine Cowboys dramatic series for HBO, with executive producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay, and the animated comedy series Miami Cowboys with executive producer Pharrell Williams.
 
Panelists:
Ingrid Casares: the “Queen of Miami nightlife” has been seen in gossip pages since 1991 with gal pals like Madonna, k.d. lang and Sandra Bernhard, just to name a few. Her entrepreneurial exploits and celeb connections helped solidify South Beach as an international playground for the rich and famous.
 
Biz Martinez: Music Director for LIV/Arkadia/MMG; created Miami’s longest running Saturday Electric Dance Music night and after-hours
 
Conrad Gomez: Has manned the gates of Miami hottest clubs including, but not limited to, LIV Nightclub/Blade Lounge, and Pool and La Cote at the Fontainebleau. He’s also co-owner of mega-club Klutch.
 
Freddy Diaz: From head bartender at Club 50 Viceroy to the 5-star Setai Hotel Miami Beach, Freddy Diaz has been behind the bar for more than 18 years. He employs classic, modern day, and molecular gastronomy to develop his outstanding libations.
 
Seth Browarnik: A photographer to the celebrities, hee can be seen at every star-studded South Beach event, taking shots of all the best moments.
 
Cocktails will be created and served by three of Miami’s leading bartenders."
 
After all this, we’ll all hit the town. I have many friends in Miami and am looking forward to catching up. I’ll let you know what I see and hear. Now I have to get dressed to go … a process that has been taking me 30 minutes these days.

This Week’s Miami Happenings: Cecconi’s, Brothers Beckett, Serafina Brunch

NOW:  Cecconi’s Adopts Mixology Pairings
If coupling lamb chops with Shiraz feels too old school, head on down to Ceccioni’s at the Soho Beach House Miami for some mind-boggling mixology pairings on executive chef Sergio Sigala’s new, customizable spring menu. You’ll find yourself sipping on reposado tequila with Aperol and grapefruit peel served with hamachi crudo and a gingery gin concoction that tastes nothing like it sounds when paired with bufala mozzarella. Best part: the face time with the mixologists, who are as generous with shoptalk as they are with alcohol.

Mixology parings are now available at Cecconi’s Miami Beach (4385 Collins Ave., South Beach). For details, check out the listing in BlackBook Guides.

WEDNESDAY: Sibling Satire At The Arsht Center
Supporting the performing arts is belly-hurting hilarious thanks to Brothers Beckett, a cheeky play penned by a local playwright about friendship, family, and slacker siblings, laced with sharp banter and dark humor.

Brothers Beckett is playing at The Adrienne Arsht Center (1300 Biscayne Blvd., Downtown) through Sunday, March 24. For ticket information, visit the official website.

EVERY WEEKEND: Brunch Debuts At Serafina
The latest NYC culinary transport is rolling out its brunch menu. Serafina’s chef Marco Zuccala will be serving up Italian dishes, such as egg white frittatas and lemon ricotta pancakes, which will go deliciously with those bottomless Bellinis.

Serafina is open now (1111 Collins Ave., South Beach). For details, check out the listing in BlackBook Guides.

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Where To Eat During Art Basel Miami Beach

When you head down to Miami Beach for Art Basel next week, dine at the spots where food is an art in itself. During those culture-filled four days, stick to our carefully curated list of the top Miami restaurants: Where To Eat During Art Basel Miami Beach. No matter what crowd you’re cruising with, you will find your place at one of these spots.

Industry Insiders: Mark Zeitouni, High Standard

It’s November, which means executive chef Mark Zeitouni is back at the Standard Spa, Miami Beach, cooking light yet flavorful foods with an eastern Mediterranean edge for his health-conscious guests. He recently wrapped another successful summer at Sunset Beach on Shelter Island, where the similarly light menu nods to Saint-Tropez, but his focus on seasonal produce and local ingredients ensures plenty of variety for sun-seekers fleeing the big city for some zen-like calm by the ocean. BlackBook caught up with Zeitouni while he was still in New York–on a fishing boat, no less–and got the lowdown on how he grew to love fresh, simple, “un-muddied” flavors.

Where were you born and where were you brought up? 

I was born in Staten Island, New York. We moved down to South Florida when I was in elementary school. I took to everything from horseback riding to fishing to tennis to soccer. For me, it was like moving to heaven. I finished up school there and went to the University of Florida. I started out in the engineering school and finished up in design and art school. In college I worked in a Japanese restaurant and at that point, after cooking for a few years, I decided I really didn’t want to be a starving artist and there really wasn’t much else you could do with an art degree, so I went to cooking school. They were building a new cooking school in South Florida, so the stars seemed to be in alignment.

How did you wind up at The Standard?

After graduating from cooking school and cooking around Miami, I met a chef who took me to San Francisco and I worked there for a while. The produce and everything that they were doing in San Francisco was just mind-boggling at the time. A few people I knew told me that this job was open at The Standard, and they actually came to me and said, “Mark, that job is perfect for you, it’s a health spa. You’re known for light cooking. You cook a lot of vegetables.” I went down there, and everything just kind of clicked. My style and what they were looking for and what the hotel was about was a great match.

Your background in cooking involves a lot of vegetables and lighter takes on dishes. Does that have to do with you being into fitness and wanting something more healthy but also flavorful?

Some of that. I’ve never been a gym rat, but I love cycling and playing around outside. But I think it’s more about listening to your body. I’ve always been into very bright foods that are what I would call un-muddied. I really wasn’t into the French styles of cooking where they would cook stuff down and cook it and cook it and add twenty different things to it and it just would get these muddy flavors. I’m like, let’s keep it as pure as possible. Let’s not cook it if we don’t have to, let’s use very bright flavors, things like lemon juice and vegetables. I would always opt to make a sauce out of a puree of a vegetable rather than a veal sauce or a heavy chicken sauce. When you’re cycling, for example, the last thing you want to do is eat a heavy meal laden with cream and butter and then jump on your bike. After I was hired at The Standard, I was looking back and wondering, “How did I end up as the chef of a health spa?” It really just seemed like a very natural thing to me. So I don’t think it was anything forced, it was just the way I was heading anyway. It just happened to be a great match.

As far as The Standard is concerned, what would you say is one of the signature dishes that you’ve made there that’s really proven popular, and what about it do you think makes people like it so much?

We do a mussel dish there that’s basically mussels cooked on a very hot skillet, and the only thing we really do to them is add a little bit of sea salt and cracked pepper. And we also do a lot of what we call simply grilled food, which is the same thing, with just fish. And I think that’s what we’re really known for. What we do special is what we don’t do to the food. We’re known for very fresh ingredients and for really highlighting the innate flavors. With this mussel dish, for example, it’s probably one of the only mussel preparations you’ll ever see where it’s not being cooked in a liquid. It’s not being cooked in wine or some type of stock or something like that. We also do a ton of vegan items. We are the type of retreat hotel where people come to stay with us for three or four days at a time and usually don’t like to leave the premises much. They’re coming from places like New York or LA, and they really want to come there, take some classes, get some massages, sit by the pool and hang out on the water. We try to have a menu where you can always find something that’s going to fit within your diet or food taste. We also do a raw vegan lasagna, which has become a signature dish at the hotel. It uses a cashew cheese and dehydrated vegetables and nuts. It’s very light food. The flavors are very bright, and there’s nothing confusing about it. Even though it’s a couple of different flavors layered in a lasagna, you can taste each one of them separately.

Yet as light as they are, there’s still some energy there, some protein so people can still work out, go to the beach and stuff?

Yeah, actually, most of those people have much higher caloric intakes. Somebody who’s practicing yoga for an hour and a half a day has a much higher caloric intake. You just have to make sure they’re not empty calories.

How did you wind up at Sunset Beach?

Even though the food at The Standard is healthy, it’s definitely not the type of experience like at Canyon Ranch where you really feel like you’re on this health diet. It’s healthy, but it’s also flavorful. So what really works for it at Sunset Beach is that our restaurant is on the water as well. I think that when you’re eating outside in an environment like that it’s not the same as when you’re sitting in an indoor dining room. At The Standard Miami, a lot of my guests are in robes and bathing suits and flip flops. So over the years, we would hire chefs for Sunset Beach, and André [Balazs] would say, “Hey Mark, can you go up there and help them cook like you know I like it when you’re sitting on the water?” Over time, I became more and more active in the menu and what was going on at Sunset Beach. Andre and I would talk about what we wanted to achieve at Sunset Beach. In Miami, when people get on the plane and fly down there, the last thing they want to be reminded of is the hustle and bustle of New York. So with Sunset Beach, we wanted people to be able to leave the city by car, by bus, by train, and now by our little sea plane, and be able in a very short amount of time to feel like they’ve been transported somewhere much farther away. It’s another outdoor restaurant. You’re going to be doing activities, whether you’re going to a party in the Hamptons later on in the night, or you’re eating lunch there and you’re going to go lay on the beach, and it’s all about how you are going to feel after you eat that food.

What are the differences between the two menus? Are there overlaps between The Standard and Sunset Beach?

Definitely. The menus are about 50% similar. The thing that is different though is that in Miami, where the spa is modeled after a Turkish style bathing spa, we do a lot more eastern Mediterranean foods. We have all sorts of hummus and baba ghanoush, and the cheeses are more towards the side of feta and cheeses like that. At Sunset Beach we want people to be able to close their eyes, assuming there’s not a New Yorker talking loudly next to them, and feel like they’re in Saint-Tropez. So at Sunset Beach, we’re not a health spa, but we definitely want light food. Food that you can sit at a table outside and snack on, that’s wonderful for seaside eating. We’re definitely modeling it after a Southern French coastal restaurant. So we do things like bouillabaisse, or a crudité modeled after Club 55 in Saint-Tropez and rotisserie chicken and things like that. We also serve a whole fish. We have sea bass, fluke on the menu, local scallops, lobster, all from the Long Island area. In Miami we serve snapper, grouper, Florida lobster. I wouldn’t serve a Maine lobster in Miami, but then again I wouldn’t serve a Florida lobster in New York. At both places we always have what we call market fish, which leaves it open for myself and my assistants to order whatever’s fresh and also pair it with whatever produce is available. So in Florida we have corn and tomatoes and local greens. Those are actually all available in the winter and then you have similar items here. We’re getting a ton of zucchini and fiddlehead ferns and all different types of kales and squash up here. And those dishes just give us the ability to basically say, ok here’s a very simply grilled local fish and here’s what the farmers have. Generally, with those we don’t even put a sauce with it, we just put a little olive oil with it and some lemon. But most of the guests I have, and most diners who are used to eating in coastal areas, generally just want a really fresh piece of fish grilled and a little sea salt and lemon. And those are things I think that really define what we do, because even though it is simple there is a lot of ways you can screw it up.

Sounds like you cook the kind of food you like yourself. Is that right?

Yeah. Last night I was at a dinner party in the Hamptons and it was basically a platter of grilled scallops, grilled shrimp, clams, and some cold orzo salad and tomato salad. I was with the general manager of Sunset Beach and some people who eat there quite a bit, and it was funny because after years of working in fine dining in San Francisco, it’s coming back and cooking with my wife’s mother and filling a table like we did last night that has really become the inspiration. It’s taking that type of experience, sitting there with friends eating super fresh seafood, simply grilled, but bringing that to a restaurant setting. That is something that I still look to as motivation and what we try to achieve at those two hotels.

What do you have planned for this fall? Heading back down to The Standard, any new innovations you have planned for the menu?

Yeah, I’m heading back down there. In fall we have stone crabs and Florida lobster. There are a few things that I think fit up here that will work down there as well, like the bouillabaisse. As the temperature in Miami drops slightly, especially by the water, putting a bouillabaisse on the menu is a good idea. And the fall is actually one of my favorite times of the year because I love pumpkin and some of the heartier squash, and then you start getting into some of the fruits that start coming later in the year.

All this healthy food, healthy living, environment, outdoorsy stuff. Don’t you ever eat junk food?

Every once in a while, I’ll eat a bag of Cheetos. But it’s like once a year.

I’m glad you didn’t say Pirates Booty because Cheetos at least give you the satisfaction.

Somebody brought home some Pirates Booty. I don’t even know what that is. Whether it’s Cheetos or something else, it’s still processed, it still has preservatives, it still has sodium in it, it still has all of these things in it, so just because they put it in a different wrapper I don’t really know how much better it is for you. I find that the biggest problem with most Americans’ diets is they don’t eat just vegetables, uncooked vegetables, whether it’s a cut up tomato or a sliced cucumber. And listen, I fight that as well, it’s very easy to go through the whole day just grabbing a piece of bread and eating that, not eating something that’s healthy. It’s a slippery slope.

People are in a hurry and the easiest food is the processed stuff. It is a little more work and sometimes more expensive to eat healthily.

Someone once told me that the hardest thing about being a vegetarian is having to plan. If you’re going to try to be a raw vegan or something like that you’re really going to have to carry around dried fruit with you because you get to the point where you’re so hungry and you didn’t plan and you just end up saying screw it and grabbing a chunk of bread or something like that. I’m not perfect in any way but there are a few easy things you can do. For example, I wish most Americans would stop drinking soda. Corn syrup is horrible. But I try not to tell people what to do.

Hopefully people will start to realize the effects of junk food on their health and how they feel when they eat it.

If you focus on how you feel after you eat something, generally you’ll start eating better. If you go to McDonald’s and you get a Big Mac and fries and a giant soda, and then you question how you feel two hours later, I guarantee you’ll start to change your diet.

You’re probably busy all the time, but when you do have some spare time, what do you do? Do you hang out at the beach?

Actually I’m on a boat right now. I just got done fishing. We’re heading back into the coast. I love fishing and cycling. Those are my two main activities. Occasionally, I’ll go out and play golf but I’m not very good at it so it’s frustrating.

What did you catch today?

Striped bass and bluefish.

The world record great white shark was caught out there off Montauk.

Thank God we didn’t see one of those.

Other than your own restaurants, name a couple of restaurants where you like what the chefs are doing and that you honestly enjoy going to.

I went to one the other day where it’s a guy from San Francisco that I used to work with and it really brought me back to Northern California cuisine. It’s called Almond, and it’s in Bridgehampton. I really enjoyed that. In Miami, I pretty regularly go to Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink. He does a whole roasted fish in his wood oven that’s just to die for.

Still more healthy food. When you want to go out and get a steak is there a steakhouse you like?

I haven’t been to one in ages. Usually I’ll just cook it at home. I can’t actually think of a steakhouse. It’s been a long time.

Miami Opening: Jelsomino

As their Russian party empire spreads across America (a new Mari Vanna will open soon in LA), it’s no surprise Ginza Project invades America’s most unapologetic bastion of decadence. Their glamorous NYC karaoke bar Jelsomino has set up shop in the former Areobar space on Miami’s Collins Avenue.

Jelsomino transcends sing-along cheese by planting performers amongst the staff – blurring the experience of contemporary cabaret and the often disconcerting experience of having to listen to your friends try to belt out "Take On Me" after a dozen glasses of bubbly. To emphasize the musical essence, VIP rooms have names like Amy Winehouse and Jim Morrison, and there’s a Champagne Supernova house cocktail. 

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A Delectable Experience at Art Basel Miami Beach, Courtesy of Jennifer Rubell

At Art Basel Miami Beach this year, there were many contenders for top culinary attraction. The Dutch’s new Miami outpost was a major draw, booking up well in advance by New Yorkers eager to get their hands on their favorite little oyster sandwiches. Cecconi’s at the Soho Beach House was crammed with brunch-going scenesters sipping bloody mary’s and basking on the olive tree lined terrace. Pubbelly and Yardbird earned the foodies’ attention, while classics such as Mr. Chow and Casa Tua remained packed throughout the event. But the real draw for food-loving art-goers was Jennifer Rubell’s 11th annual breakfast installation at the Rubell Family Collection.

I arrived to find a fascinating two-part installation, each side exploring the creations of life, art, and food. The first was an incubation gallery where yogurt was being made and served by sterile and expressionless women in nurse uniforms. The second was an observation gallery where both gallery-goers and local bees feasted on honey being dripped from the ceiling. Spectators were encouraged to scoop up spoonfuls of the honey to mix with yogurt for a sumptuous breakfast.

Rubell, yet again, created a successful conversation starter that infuses food, art, and social gatherings to create a consumable sensory experience. Beckoning onlookers to participate and engage, Rubell’s large-scale installations form a shared experience, where gallery goers can eat, touch, and deconstruct the piece’s edible goods, breaking the traditional boundaries of art. Rubell’s past projects have included constructing a gargantuan size piñata of Andy Warhol’s head for Icons at the Brooklyn Museum’s 2010 Brooklyn Ball, creating a performance piece called The de Pury Diptych at London’s Saatchi Gallery – which involved thousands of edible props–and producing an installation at the former Dia Center for the Arts called Creation, wherein Rubell pulled from biblical inspirations to create an enthralling installation involving honey being dripped onto a ton of ribs (she must have a thing for honey).

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As with most provocative artists, Rubell’s craft is difficult to define. Performance, installation, and food artist don’t quite suffice in describing her dexterity. In addition to working as a vegetable butcher at Mario Batali’s Eataly, producing wine in Puyloubier, Provence, and raising her daughter, Stevie, the Harvard grad is a seasoned hostess. Her book Real Life Entertaining was published by HarperCollins in 2006. As the niece of Steve Rubell, famed co-owner of Studio 54, Rubell has been surrounded by artful and creative minds from an early age. She learned her love of entertaining from her famous uncle as well as her art-collecting parents, Don and Mera, whose legendary Whitney Biennial parties were frequented by the likes of Liza Minnelli, Ryan O’Neal, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol.

While restaurants in Miami’s dining scene come and go, Rubell’s bona fide expertise in hosting social gatherings has led her breakfast installations to remain a hit for 11 years and counting. Make sure to check out what artful and edible treats she conjures up for 2012.

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Helicopter DJs & Electric Models: Hennessy Black Parties Hard in Miami Beach

What is it going to take to get you to try Hennessy Black? How about a renowned DJ performing for a party in Miami Beach while suspended from a helicopter hovering 350 feet above the ocean. Would that do the trick? Because that’s what the world’s largest cognac producer did last weekend at the Fontainebleau to celebrate its latest spirit, and frankly, I don’t know how they could top it. Your move, Courvoisier.

image Hennessy hosted me and a handful of other journalists for a series of events to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Hennessy Black, a cognac designed to appeal to younger drinkers and mix well in the kind of cocktails you drink at nightclubs where the patrons are all sexy or rich or both, and to introduce the 2011 ambassadors of the Hennessy Black Done Different DJ program. It was VIP treatment all the way, from the flight to my 28th floor ocean-view suite to the posh pool cabanas to the bottle service we enjoyed at the nightclubs Arkadia and LIV, and if the company’s goal was to position itself as the brand of choice for nightlife taste-makers, I think they succeeded. Because quite frankly, it was the wildest, most outrageous, and most expensive party I’ve ever attended, and it all but overshadowed and certainly outclassed the Ultra Music Festival, which was going on a few blocks down the boardwalk. By the end, it was clear. If this is what Hennessy Black is about, goodness what a drink! It also raised a few philosophical questions about the nature of product promotion and the sheer power of a dominant brand, but we’ll get to that after the parties.

We convened at the Fontainebleau on Friday night, fortunate to be there on time after a fire at the American Airlines fuel farm at Miami International canceled scores of flights. I checked into my suite, which was beautiful, of course, as the entire resort had recently undergone a $1 billion renovation that included the construction of the tower in which I was staying. Waiting for me in the room was a gift bag filled with all sorts of goodies, including, not surprisingly, a bottle of Hennessy Black. As a spirits columnist, I wanted to sample it privately, unadulterated by mixers and away from the scrutiny of publicists. After all, maybe I wouldn’t like it, and wouldn’t that make for an awkward weekend? So I shook up a couple of shots with ice in the mini-shaker from the gift bag, poured it in one of the two small glass tumblers from the bathroom, and took my first-ever taste of Hennessy Black out to the balcony to sip it while gazing at the shimmering blue water. And it was delightful – crisp, smooth, and well balanced, with a mild sweetness that brought out notes of fruit and honey. It has a golden color and a floral and citrus aroma, and while it’s one of the only cognacs in the world specifically designed for mixing, it also stands up just fine on its own. I swirled and sipped and watched the waves roll in for a few blissful minutes before heading out to dinner.

We had dinner in the garden of Cecconi’s at the Soho Beach House next door, and I chatted with our hosts from Hennessy and MSLGROUP and my fellow writers, who included Chloé A. Hilliard of Vibe, Dana Storm Santiago of The Source, Tyler Trykowski of Playboy, and Jim Shi, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Financial Times and Huffington Post. As we talked about Hennessy and munched on octopus and branzino, Paul Shaffer, Eugene Levy, and Martin Short sat down at the table next to ours. It happened to be Short’s 61st birthday that day, and his fellow screen legends serenaded him with rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.” To cap off our meal, we sipped Hennessy XO out of snifters and picked at tiramisu, Key lime pie, and chocolate torte. One could get used to this. image

Later that evening we all went to a nightclub on the property called Arkadia, which involved bottle service – Hennessy Black and assorted mixers – along with sparkler-adorned bottles, leather-clad models, and cyberpunk dancing girls shimmying on platforms while adorned with hundreds of pink lights. The dance floor was packed, the music was pumping, and the low ceiling gave the place the feeling of a basement party on crack. Apparently the club owners have no problem with people sitting on top of the seat backs of the banquettes, putting their feet right on the upholstery. Don’t try that at my place. I also observed that at any given moment, roughly half the people in the club were looking down at their phones, either texting or tweeting or tumbling or stumbling or whatever else the tech crowd is crushing on these days. I conked out early – if 3am is early – and enjoyed a blissful night’s sleep in the suite’s big bed.

Saturday arrived with brilliant sunlight streaming through the sliding glass doors. The pool scene at the Fontainebleau is legendary, and Hennessy Black had rented out a couple of cabanas for relaxing on settees, eating snacks, and drinking cocktails. The pools – there are about a half-dozen on the ground level alone, in addition to one on the 7th floor – were packed with hard-bodied guys and sexy women wearing jewel-adorned bikinis, and they were all splashing in the water, dancing to techno music, and laying in the sun. As Chloé from Vibe pointed out, it was like a scene from CSI: Miami before the body is found.

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At this point, we were given a chance to interview Samantha Ronson and D-Nice, the 2011 ambassadors of the Hennessy Black Done Different DJ program. Samantha was a bit tired from an early-morning flight – she had done a gig at the Borgata in Atlantic City the previous evening – but was doing her best to rally for the evening’s party. She explained how she got involved in the Hennessy Black DJ project: Hennessy contacted her, she tasted the spirit, liked it, wound up inventing a pretty kick-ass cocktail with it while in Paris, and decided to be a part of the fun. But don’t expect any compromises from the New York-born, LA-based music legend. “I’m going to play what I play and drink what I drink,” she said. Fortunately for Hennessy, she happens to be fond of the stuff.

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D-Nice, who, true to his name, is a sincerely nice guy, said that he appreciated how serious the brand was with its nightlife integration, since he himself feeds off the energy at clubs when he spins (“The music follows the vibe”). We talked for a while about his upbringing in the Bronx, his history with KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, his work as a photographer (he carries a Leica camera everywhere he goes and even took my picture), and his truly eclectic taste in collaborators, including Tom Petty and Kid Rock, before he excused himself to prepare for the evening’s set. Little did we know at the time what that set would involve. I also had a few minutes with Patrick Madendjian, Hennessy’s International Marketing Manager-Premium, who explained that the brand simply sets the scene and lets the artists take it from there, mixing up music much like Hennessy Black mixes more than 35 eaux de vie to craft its signature taste. I can dig it.

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After a blissful swim in the ocean, I showered, donned my only finest Hugo Boss suit, and headed over to La Côte, the Fontainebleau’s outdoor beachside restaurant and club, for an evening of falafel burgers, Hennessy Black cocktails (I’m a fan of the Hennessy Black Xpearience, which is inspired by a cocktail created by the Fontainebleau at Bleau Bar), house music, and one very big surprise. There were models everywhere – passing out drinks, standing on platforms, and looking generally lovely. Samantha Ronson performed first, filling the dance floor with revelers by mixing everything from Jay-Z and DMX to Bob Seger.

image It was at this point that I realized that Hennessy knows what they’re doing with their artist series. Samantha was doing more than just spinning records, she was actually creating a scene, sending a party vibe that worked its way through the open-air club. At one point she took the microphone and shouted to the crowd, “Are you getting fucked up?” A chorus of voices screamed in assent. (Hennessy encourages responsible drinking.) A sweet smell wafted through the air at times: Apparently one more thing that mixes well with the fine Irish-French spirit.

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And then our hosts advised us to make our way to the back railing for the big surprise. I was afraid they’d say “Surprise, we’re not paying for your rooms after all!” The sun had recently set, and we looked out over the dark ocean to see a brightly-lighted object approaching in the distance while the music in the club got louder and louder. What could it be? When it got closer, we realized it was a helicopter ferrying a portable DJ booth attached to it with a cable. Inside the booth was D-Nice, who was performing his set for the party while hovering about 350 feet above the ocean, a dozen or so yards from shore. The music he was playing was beamed to the party and the crowd went nuts at the spectacle. A second helicopter and a remote video camera attached to the booth captured footage that was shown on big screens positioned throughout the club. D-Nice bounced to the music himself, despite being attached to his floating booth with a safety harness. The colored lights shining from the booth reflected off the ocean waves below, and we all marveled at what we were seeing and hearing. Had this ever been done before, we wondered?

At this point, I became a bit philosophical. This started out as a standard – if amazingly opulent – press junket. But it had just crossed the line from marketing into an actual news event worthy of coverage by any journalist. So, on the one hand, I had to accept the idea that it is possible for a company to create news and shape opinion by sheer force of money. After all, how much could two helicopters, world-class DJs, a camera crew, more than 20 models, a big block of hotel rooms, fancy meals, and an entire nightclub cost? I don’t know, but I’m thinking it’s in the millions.

Yet there was more to it than a simple show of cash. The flying DJ stunt – and the artist program in general – was actually a really cool idea. (Here’s a cool video of it.) Hennessy Black wants to be associated with nightlife. Nightlife, at the highest level, is about creating a grand spectacle and reveling in the moment. And I’ve never experienced a grander spectacle and a more sublime moment than watching a major DJ performing for a party from a light-adorned booth suspended from a helicopter floating above the Atlantic Ocean on a warm, beautiful night in Miami Beach.

And so, as the helicopter flew away and lowered D-Nice onto a barge moored offshore, where a dinghy would ferry him back to dry land, I couldn’t help but joke around with Tyler from Playboy about where Hennessy – or any of its competitors – could possibly go from there. Hennessy had thrown down the gauntlet, doubled down, raised the bar, and set a new standard in drinks promotion all at the same time. “What more can we do for you people?” I imagined the Hennessy brand masters saying. “What else could it possibly take for you to try Hennessy Black? A squadron of fighter jets? A submarine? A space ship? Forget it, we just gave you the spectacle of a lifetime. If you don’t want to try our drink after that, have a nice life, because we’re done.”

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But they weren’t done. After the party at La Côte, we all headed to LIV, the mega-club of all mega-clubs at the Fontainebleau. I’d never in all my life been in a nightclub like that, with lights zigzagging across the ceiling, outrageously sexy servers, and a sound system that filled the place with music while somehow allowing you to talk to your seat mate if you wanted to. It was VIP service all the way as we breezed to our table, and within minutes the bottles started showing up. Hennessy Black was on the table, of course, but also Moët-Chandon Imperial Rosé, a fellow member of the LVMH family that I like very much. There was also a high-energy set from DJ Erick Morillo, and, at around 2am, a performance by the Hennessy girls (above) who danced near oversized bottles of Hennessy Black and waved their wings to the music. The music got louder, high-caliber cannons blasted black confetti throughout the place, laser beams shot across the dance floor, club employees tossed handfuls of green luminescent necklaces to the crowd, A-list celebrities mingled with the merely fabulous, and black-leather-clad girls danced on platforms. It was a wild party.

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Eventually, high-flying DJ D-Nice (born Derrick Jones) dropped by our table, and we all congratulated him on an amazing feat. He was all smiles, and, while admitting that he was somewhat nervous about the whole affair, said that he enjoyed every minute of it. I couldn’t help but don my Kanye West shades and get a picture with the man. I wouldn’t normally embrace the rock star look, but it was Saturday night in Miami Beach, the music and Hennessy were going to my head, and it just felt right. I have no regrets.

[Images via Seth Browarnik of WorldRedEye.com, Manny Hernandez, and me]

Our Man in Miami: Going Gone with Pete Tong

Labor Day is usually a time when nightlife veterans such as I retreat to anywhere but Miami Beach. The crowds are colossal and their behavior is generally just as monstrous—anyone in their right mind tends to avoid it at all costs. But when Pete Tong is flying in for a spin at SET and you’re offered some face-time, well, dealing with rash behavior seems not to matter so much.

But I couldn’t get gone with Pete Tong without prefacing it with some good new-fangled rock music. So I snuck in the side door at Bayfront Park and sidled up to the stage for a set by Paramore, perhaps the most rambunctious young’uns touring the world these days. It was a strange affair, what with the shrill shrieks and massive crunch of neo-classic power pop. Then again I don’t often stand between 6000 screaming teens and their idols.

On to SET where things were decidedly more adult. That’s not to say there wasn’t some frenzy in the air, mind you—it’s just that the frenzy seemed to be tempered by everyone’s concerted effort to impress each other. Tong of course, has no such need. The cat’s been at it for so long his name is pretty much ubiquitous with the night. And though in person he’s coolly understated, on the decks he’s no such thing. There’s good reason this DJ’s a superstar. Just ask the masses who lost their minds at the foot of his booth.

Tong had flown in from spinning Randall’s Island Electric Zoo, and was set to floor SET before heading out to Vegas in order to do it all over again. That he found time to get with your Man in Miami between spins only means he’s not just a superstar DJ, he’s also a gentleman.

Okay, you literally just flew in from spinning at Electric Zoo in New York. How many people do you think were there? I didn’t count ‘em (laughs). It was a very, very cool location, just at the top corner of Manhattan under the bridge between the Bronx and Queens. The weather was fantastic. When I was back in England there was all this talk of hurricanes, so I didn’t know what to expect. The only unfortunate thing was that I literally just flew in, did it, and flew out again. I’ve been coming to New York since 1979 and this was by far my shortest visit. But taking off from La Guardia I got the most stunning view of Manhattan I’ve even seen. It was a crystal clear night and we flew right over the city. I didn’t think you were allowed to do that anymore.

Tomorrow you’re in Vegas for another drive-by? Yeah, I’ve been coming to America for a long, long time but I’d never done Labor Day because it’s always in the middle of the Ibiza season. But it’s obviously getting more and more hot over here, and this seemed like the perfect year to do it. So you want to sort of maximize it, and do as many shows as you can in a short span of time. It’s three shows in 26 hours: Electric Zoo, SET tonight, then on to Vegas for a daytime party at Encore Las Vegas.

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Then it’s back across the pond for Wonderland Ibiza right? I do Wonderland every week for 16 weeks. This last Friday was the only Friday I would’ve missed. It ends on October 1. That is the closing weekend.

Did you open the Ibiza season with another of your International Music Summits? Yeah, we did our third year of the Summit. It’s kind of inspired by the old New Music Seminar and Tony Wilson’s In the City; kind of a hybrid of the two. There really isn’t one in the UK right now, Miami’s Winter Music Conference is in March, and the Amsterdam dance event isn’t until October, so it seemed sensible for me and my partners to do this in Ibiza, and kind of set the agenda for the whole summer.

The Summit itself is about 600 people, and we do a big scrum around the evenings, different showcase events, and then it ends up with the big concert in a heritage site on top of this town that no one’s every used before, which is beautiful. It’s meant to be a bit intimate so everyone gets something out of it. It’s a kind of antidote to Miami, which I now call ‘an exhibition in nightclubbing in one week.’ Most people that come to Miami for Conference don’t even realize there’s a conference going on.

Is this your first time at SET? No, no, I did SET back when it first opened. I used to do a lot of Opium Group shows; then I started doing one-offs – Ultra and Space. Lately I’ve been spinning Mynt Lounge a lot. My friend Roman [Jones] owns it. This time I’m changing up.

Winter Music Conference 2011. What do you have planned? We’ll be doing another pool party, but we may move from The Surfcomber, I’m not sure yet. It’s easy to overdo it during Conference. Last year I did only two events: The Surfcomber and Space.

Underworld, U2 and Spoon are the first three mixes on your site right now. What do you have to hear from a song for you to get involved? There has to be something quite remarkable about it. I always look for some kind of soul in the music – and I don’t mean soul singer soul; just something special, something magic. It’s kind of a sixth sense really.

Kinda like your DJing? Exactly.