Food Festival Mastermind
At the helm of Southern Wine & Spirits’ communications and event planning, Lee Schrager is the brains (and charisma) behind the South Beach and New York Wine & Food Festivals – he’s planning the parties, wrangling stars and celebrity chefs, and pulling it all off without a hitch for 60,000 guests. We chat with Lee about the NYC Wine & Food Festival (October 11-14), this year’s must-see events and tips for festival-goers. Headed to NYC for the weekend? Catch Andrew at Trucks & Train on October 14.
AndrewZimmern.com: How did the Wine & Food Festivals come into fruition?
Lee Schrager: When I joined Southern Wine & Spirits in 2000 as their director of media and special events, they had just started the “Florida Extravaganza” with FIU. It was a one-day wine tasting on the Biscayne Bay campus that drew 600 people and raised $30,000 for the School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. Having just been to the Aspen FOOD & WINE Classic the year before, I took one look and saw great potential to move it to one of the world’s most beautiful beaches and turn it into a destination event. And here we are, 12 years and $17 million in proceeds later, drawing about 60,000 guests each year and finishing construction on a brand new, state-of-the-art teaching restaurant for the School. After our 5th year of #SOBEWFF, our sister Festival in New York City started to come to fruition. NYC is one of the greatest dining destinations in the world and home to so many renowned wine, spirits and culinary personalities – it made sense to me to bring it all together to showcase this through fun and unique event experiences. It started on a smaller scale, much like #SOBEWFF, with one event (that is now a signature event at the Festival) called SWEET in 2007. The next year, it officially become the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival and mirrored the charitable component by benefiting the Food Bank For New York City and Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. Now, 120 events over four days, 50,000 guests, and $5 million in proceeds later it has taken on its own persona as a premier event for both the industry and passionate gourmands everywhere.
AZ.com: What makes the New York and SoBe Wine & Food Festivals unique?
LS: Every wine and culinary event is special in its own way. For #SOBEWFF and #NYCWFF, I feel it’s the abundance of renowned talent, industry relevance, quality of wine and food offered, and truly unique event concepts that set us apart. And, like a real estate agent would say, location, location, location! Both Miami and New York City are incredible destinations at their respective times of year that the Festival takes place. Who wouldn’t want to be hanging out on the beach in February, or enjoy a beautiful fall day in the city in October?
AZ.com: What festival event is often overlooked?
LS: For both Festivals, I think it’s our Lifestyle and Wine Seminar Series that don’t get enough attention. They are more intimate tasting experiences – usually around 100 people – that offer incredible access to some of the best minds in the industry. These experts and chefs – from Ray Isle, Andrea Robinson, Tony Abou-Ganim, Josh Wesson, Laura Werlin, Art Smith, Roy Choi, Ming Tsai, Danny Meyer, The Tippling Bros. and more – have such a great time sharing their passion with a smaller group of people.
AZ.com: What’s new at this year’s New York Wine & Food Festival?
LS: So much! Our Roast of Anthony Bourdain hosted by Mario Batali and Willie Geist is something people are really excited about. Plus we have a whole series of special events going on through a new partnership with the International Culinary Center this year, and our Shake & Bake event hosted by Art Smith, Whoopi Goldberg and guest DJ Questlove is going to be quite a party. We’ve moved some of our signature events – including the Blue Moon Burger Bash, Fun and Fit in the City presented by Target, and your annual soirée Trucks & Train with Save Me, San Francisco Wine Co. and The New York Times – into a new venue, Basketball City at Pier 36.
AZ.com: How far in advance do you start preparing for each festival?
LS: A couple of months ago there was a discussion about some ideas for #SOBEWFF 2014 . . . usually anywhere from 12 to 18 months though. We tend to think pretty far down the road on a regular basis! And we try to do things that are tied into what’s current on the wine, spirits and culinary scene. There’s a balance of sticking to our classic events that people have grown to love, and offering new opportunities and access to the latest industry trends and talent.
AZ.com: What is the biggest challenge in wooing celebrity chefs?
LS: I think sometimes it’s hard to understand the Festivals if you’ve never been – plus scheduling! We’re fortunate to have developed really great relationships over the past decade and are constantly developing new ones with up-and-coming talent. For the most part, everyone has gotten really into what the Festivals are all about–throwing out event ideas and suggesting new things we could do or ways to improve our signature events. It’s invigorating for us to work with such energized talent!
AZ.com: Any survival tips for festival-goers?
LS: Plan ahead and pace yourself! Our website is really an all-encompassing source of information – for the larger tasting events, take a look at who’s there and who you absolutely want to see and take advantage of the menus and maps that are provided on-site. If you’re going to multiple events, don’t forget to drink lots of water in between and plan on allowing enough time for you to get from one venue to another. And don’t forget your camera – you never know who might be standing next to you! For #SOBEWFF specifically: ladies, heels are really not the best choice if you’re going to one of our events held in the sand.
AZ.com: What was your first job in the culinary field?
LS: I started out at the take-out counter for a Chinese restaurant in my hometown of Massapequa and I also worked early on at Dean & Deluca in the cheese department, before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
LS: Seeing as it’s right before #NYCWFF, it’s only Fresh Diet right now! Otherwise it usually has fresh vegetables and an assortment of Pat LaFrieda Meats, plus lots of Whispering Angel rosé and champagne.
Lee Brian Schrager is the Vice President of Corporate Communications & National Events for Southern Wine & Spirits of America, Inc. He is widely recognized for his creation of both the Food Network South Beach and New York City Wine & Food Festivals and recently released the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook (Clarkson Potter). Schrager studied at the Culinary Institute of America and at the School of Hospitality Management at Florida International University. He serves as the consulting director of THE TASTE in Los Angeles, a regular contributor for Ocean Drive magazine, serves as the Chief Lifestyle Advisor for Gilt City, and is a current board member for the Food Bank For New York City.