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 PaulaDeenRidingThings.com.
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.