Industry Insiders: Lee Schrager, Foodie Network

Lee Schrager, the man behind the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, as well as its recent New York incarnation is prepping for his big event in South Florida from February 25th to February 28th. For the upscale foodie celebration, the vice president of corporate communications and national events for Southern Wine & Spirits has recruited kitchen all-stars such as Paula Deen, Daniel Boulud, Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray and Bobby Flay to cook, attend events and lead demonstrations for guests. The former Miami club owner gives us the inside view on the festivals, celebrity chefs and his love/hate relationship with food bloggers after the jump.

On the New York vs South Beach event: The biggest difference is that we have so much more space available in Florida to do something. We have three city blocks to do our big grand tasting that the city of Miami Beach gives us complimentary. In New York, we have a pier which is probably 15% of our Miami space. It’s just the limitations of doing work in New York City, and wanting to be outdoors in a great location in a great time of year. I never wanted to be in a ballroom, I didn’t want to be in a convention center. I really wanted to be in a neighborhood. And that’s what Chelsea offered us this past year.

On feedback from attendees: When I started this nine years ago, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I’m never insulted by feedback. A lot of times it’s bullshit, but 50% of the time you get something out of it. I think when you listen to people and you listen to the comments and what bothers them, whether it’s that the restrooms are too far away, or the welcome center isn’t running as smoothly as it should, you can make a positive impact. On planning for the unexpected: In South Beach, you can’t control the rain. I never used to look at weather reports. But about four years ago, at a major event called the Bubble Q. which is big champagne and BBQ event on South Beach with Bobby Flay hosting we had a disaster. It was gorgeous weather all day, and I was getting dressed in the hotel and watching the weather on the six o’ clock news. There was a chance of light showers later in the night. This party started around 7 or 7:30, and when I was heading over to the sight, there were clouds coming, but I wasn’t overly concerned. Around 8:30 p.m., the skies opened up and it was absolute rain. In my 30 years of living in Miami I’d never seen a typhoon like this. Guests had been at the party for about an hour to two hours. It’s an outdoor party under the sky, so was the party a wash out? Absolutely. I can tell you we’ve had tents ever since. You learn your lesson. On dealing with rock star/celebrity chefs: Listen, these are the talent. You’re dealing with talent that’s pulled in every direction. These are people that make big dollars to attend events, or be at events or headline events, and they all donate their time to support the hunger cause. There are very few things that we find as cons. It’s like anything; we’re dealing with people who have people and it’s normally the people’s people who, if there are issues it’s them, not the people. Anyone who does the festival or hosts one of our headline events are people who I’ve had relationships with over the years, who’ve been very loyal and supportive of anything I’ve asked. The few times I’ve had issues it’s never with my people, it’s their people. What he misses about nightlife: Not a thing. The cash. Definitely not the lifestyle. On being known as the “attention to detail” man: I live by the rule of thumb: a pound of ice per person and good lighting. On food bloggers: They’ve helped us get our message out quicker and to a larger base in a more timely fashion. I read some of them, whether their writing is good or bad and some days you like them and some days you don’t like them. But in the end, we wouldn’t have the success that we’ve had at our festivals, certainly in New York, nowadays without the attention of the bloggers. I think almost any press is good press. Almost.

On getting shit done: Listen, we’re raising money to fight hunger. We’re not doing brain surgery; we’re not planning your daughter’s wedding. We want to produce a good event at good value, fairly priced and we want it to be fun and that’s always been our goal. We didn’t want to be the biggest, we hopefully wanted to be one of the best, but that’s what we really strive for. We really want to put on a great event. Go-to spots in Miami: I obviously don’t have a favorite, I have many favorites. I mean I love Michael Psilakis’ restaurant at the Viceroy called Eos. I love Michelle Bernstein’s themed restaurant Michy’s, I love an Italian restaurant on Miami beach called Macaluso. I happen to love Hakkasan at the Fontainebleau and Scarpetta.

Industry Insiders: Shimon Bokovza, Samba Savvy

As a 21-year-old Russian beach bum, he started Israel’s first and only ski resort, followed by an open-air Amazon village complete with volleyball court and golf driving range on the Hudson River. He went on to open the Kit Kat Club that featured Cabaret off-Broadway, and finally Sushi Samba. His Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill will also open in coming months in Miami, just in time for New Year’s. While celebrating Sushi Samba’s 10 Year Anniversary this month, Shimon Bokovza is just warming up.

What’s your job description? I’m trying to be like the Kennedys now! In charge of all of the operations of Sushi Samba, worldwide. I basically am into the operation of the places and reinventing how to keep Sushi Samba relevant, how to keep it going — from the menu to sprucing up the places. We’ve been in operation for ten years, and some locations need capital improvement to update them, so there’s a lot to do, plus bringing in a new management to the places. Above all, we’re looking into expansion, to see exactly where we’re going next. We’d like to do it where we get the most for our efforts. We just opened in Vegas, and it takes a lot of “push” to keep it going. Then, there are meetings with managers, tastings, meetings with the corporate chiefs, the managing partners. It’s a big schedule and requires a lot of traveling on a weekly basis. When I don’t travel, I’m really happy.

How’d you get your start? As a kid I was walking with my father in the market, shopping with him, so I learned from him how to pick up the right foods. In the Mediterranean, shopping is done on a daily basis. Knowing how to buy foods is really important, so when you eat it, you’re really happy with it. Then I went to Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, and then to the hospitality industry.

But you did that after you’d already opened a ski resort when you were only 21. Yes, but that was in 1979. I had a lot to learn before I opened Harvest, Apropos, then the first Amazon Club in Philadelphia before we came to Manhattan and Sag Harbor.

What are your go-to places? Because of my travel, I really don’t eat much outside of Sushi Samba, except when I’m home. I have two little ones, so I cook a lot at home to spend time with them. If I go out, one of my favorite places is the Bar Room in The Modern at the MoMA. My son is the chef de cuisine there, so obviously I go there more often than most places. When I go to Miami, I like Michy’s by Michelle Bernstein. I also like Senora Martinez, a fresh tapas place. Other than that, in Vegas, if I don’t eat at my restaurant, I like Robuchon.

Who are your mentors? I really like somebody who came to speak at Cornell, Joe Baum, who has unfortunately passed away. He really influence me quite a bit, besides being my wife’s ex-boss. I really respected him. I admire my wife and my mother for whatever they do, and after all, my wife is in the business!

What’s going on in hospitality? I think a lot of good things are happening: the industry is becoming more sophisticated, more computerized. What we do today with OpenTable is amazing, you’d never have thought that something we did for ten years would now be industry wide. Most of our reservations are coming through the web. There’s another company that’s dealing with intelligent programs: Avero. I don’t now what we’d do without them, and ten years ago they didn’t exist. I think we were their second or third contract. In addition to that, the industry is more green friendly than before. Food is going to become more and more local; you need to be in a certain radius of the food range to get really good, locally grown, organic food. Slowly, slowly it’s moving through the industry. Thirty years ago, this was the most primitive part of the industry.

Things that annoy you about owning a restaurant? I’m not sure if it’s negative or not: it’s the regulations by different cities, by different codes. We’re a business that consists of thousands of little things that need to be put together to become a restaurant. If you stop it with regulations, it becomes really difficult, probably one of the toughest things in this business. Like everything else, you overcome it make it happen, move on.

Something that people might not know about you? I like to eat fish heads! Probably, if I would say that I love Guns N’ Roses and that I play guitar, people wouldn’t believe me.

Favorite guitarist? I really like Paco de Lucía because he’s the best guitar player on this planet. I’m a guitar player, but I’m so bad. Once I heard him play, I stopped.

Who are your favorite artists? I like Piet Mondrian, and am very much influenced by him at Sushi Samba. That takes me into the most recent love: graffiti art. We’ve started working with it and it’s become fashionable in the past three years. We exhibit at Art Basel every year, graffiti artists from Brazil and Japan at the restaurant in Miami Beach, and we design the restaurants with artists in mind. Our Graffiti Gone Global initiative is the city’s largest international street art fair. We’ll also publish a corresponding book with GGG curators James and Karla Murray. A lot of our food is based on street food, so other street elements, like graffiti make Sushi Samba a complete experience in a great place to eat.