Starstruck In Miami | A Weekend at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival

March 4, 2013
By Cody Lewis | SanDiegoVille Contributor

The opportunity to cover a full weekend of the Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting at the 12th annual South Beach Wine and Food Festival was both unexpected and exciting. After all, there are dozens of different foods to try, unlimited booze, and Food Network celebrity chefs hosting live shows and mingling with the crowd, all right on the beautiful South Beach sand in blistering Miami, Florida.  And yet, even with the incredible nature of this event in mind, the paradise that awaited me at SOBEWFF was shocking.

Iron Chef Morimoto doing his thing!
Arriving on the famed Ocean Drive, the sun was mighty, a beautiful wind was blowing gently, and parking was a breeze (those familiar with Miami know just how rare/promising of a start this is to any day).  We were quickly greeted at the entrance with a swag bag and an ideally refreshing glass of chardonnay to hang around our necks (yes you read that right; they gave wine glass necklaces, folks!). Within a minute of crossing the threshold of that baby blue archway, we sat up close to the centrally located KitchenAid stage and watched the original Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto as he effortlessly crafted sushi rolls with overhead mirrors emphasizing his immense skill and coordination for the awestruck onlookers.  As I reminisced on the time I spent salivating over his creations during the weight cutting regiment of high school wrestling, I felt my first of what would be many starstruck moments at SOBEWFF2013.

Beyond the two KitchenAid demo stages stood two enormous tents hosting the Mastercard Grand Tasting where participants were offered all you can consume food, cocktails, beer, wine, and all sorts of other culinary swag.  On our saunter to the feeding grounds, we walked past the Neely’s who were listing the legalities of why they couldn’t give out samples; got high fives from Tyler Florence; and loaded up on hydrating waters.  Our bellies led us to the bustling entrance of the Grand Tasting tents. Entering, I thought I would form some definitive plan to effectively navigate this environment, but it truly was overwhelming. I turned my head in circles like The Exorcist as I looked from sign to sign trying to decide where to travel first. Admittedly overpowered, we ultimately decided to keep it simple and commenced a counter-clockwise path. Diving in, we were flabbergasted by the sheer amount of food and drink at our disposal and soon found ourselves shaking our heads in disbelief with both mouths and hands completely full.

Some of the highlights from this flavor party:

Aaron's Catering Lechon with cornbread
Aaron’s Catering delivered one of my favorite bites of the event with their perfectly tender lechón paired with sweet and savory agave cornbread nuggets.

For the health conscious vegan Daiya cheese and Udi’s Gluten-Free delivered on some bomb bites. Daiya prepared both a surprisingly flavorful quesadilla and a sharp Daiya cheese with apricot jam that was simple and operative in demonstrating their efficiency as a cheese substitute. Udi’s made a brown bag style sandwich with turkey, provolone, roasted peppers, and mixed greens all on their multigrain.

Roho's Truffle Mac 'N Cheese with chocolate covered bacon
Roho Kitchen’s truffle macaroni and cheese with bacon breadcrumbs was comfort food elevated to the next level. It satisfied and surprised with the melted cheese and crunchy bacon crust swirling together and delighting with both taste and texture. As a dessert, they stuck with the bacon theme and made chocolate covered bacon with bourbon crème anglaise. The typical sweet and salty dichotomy was great, but it was the crème that really differentiated this dessert.

Tutto's Mare Miami's crispy ceviche
Tutto’s Mare Miami brought forth a unique dish with crispy ceviche over pear ravioli. One of my favorites at a festival filled with ceviche, the crisp in this dish added the necessary savory to the sour juices. The pear ravioli was surprisingly light and refreshing for pasta and had only the subtlest hint of pear as a finish.

The incredibly personable Chef Eric Grutka of Ian’s Tropical Grill, coming off of a victory at the Palm Beach Food and Wine festival, was cooking some traditional Spanish style rice with clams, and was more than happy to pose and show off some sautéing skills while doing so.

Tito's Vodka table
Tito’s Vodka put forth a great show and even held up to my intensive questioning about their distillation process. Those guys make a mighty strong cocktail.

The seared tuna served over heirloom tomato salad with a gazpacho dressing, was unbelievably fresh and cooked to perfection, and immediately transported me to my favorite beach in Spain, looking over the Mediterranean.

Goya shocked me with their gourmet spicy meatloaf over yuca mash, garnished with sprouts, and served in a smartly assembled cornhusk.

Some of the samplings from the Whole Foods tent
The Whole Foods tasting tent offered a varied menu as well with the extremely helpful and kind Russ Benblatt explaining the intricacies of each dish. Key lime shrimp shooters were the stars of the show for me, with the salty shrimp accented by the refreshingly mojito-esque lime sauce. Other dishes included a Korean style kimchi salad served over a slightly spicy pork belly and a melted raclette cheese over steamed potatoes, pickles, and mushrooms. While the eccentric nature of the dishes initially put me off, they were quite palatable and definitely earned the uniquely textured raclette cheese a place on my next shopping list. To finish off this meal we savored the way-too-small dulce de leche brownie, which had my eyes closed, indulging in every hint of subtle sweetness.

Chef Aaron Sanchez's demo
After all that eating, it was time to sit back and watch the show. We settled in to view hilarious presenter, Aaron Sanchez of Chopped, as he prepared an incredible smelling vatapa - a savory Brazilian seafood stew with a coconut milk base. Though we weren’t able to sample the dish, his stories of humble beginnings, abuela inspiration, and world travel satisfied and humored more than most food can.

Emeril Lagasse kept the good humor going as he comfortably cussed up a storm in front of the crowd while he prepared a curried chicken salad and lectured extensively on the use of tamarind in glazes and the need to get out of the same boring rhythm when cooking chicken.

Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Dawson also provided some witty banter, calling themselves the Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of cooking, respectively. Bourdain provided reason, saying “its because people don’t know how the hell I’m still alive.”

The Sandwich King doing his thing for all to see!
Jeff Mauro, the Sandwich King, was the surprise of the show. His presentation was stand up comedy and cooking rolled into one, and the best part: he actually gave us food! In between busting his helpers’ balls and sarcastically promoting the KitchenAid workshop he was using, he made sure to mix up some jalapeño accented Manhattans and cooked extra breaded steak sandwiches with a garlic and roasted red pepper dressing.

Meeting some Iron Chefs!
The following day, Bobby Flay and Michael Symon each took the stage and talked briefly about their influences and favorite aspects of food. They took turns talking trash about each other as the other was signing books, and clearly have a competitive relationship due to Iron Chef America co-stardom. Both were incredibly friendly during book signings and happy to sign any merchandise brought forward. Bobby Flay appeared to be nursing a mean hangover, and got a kick out of me referencing his small part in HBO’s Entourage.  Michael Symon joked briefly about the struggles of having a vegan son since he is a world-renowned carnivore.

I missed that part!
To close out the festival for me, Robert Irvine (who gave me a bone-crushing handshake) came out with surprise guest Mark Summers and made a beautiful fried snapper as they chatted about their dangerous trip to Honduras and the ensuing humor. His energetic and charitable nature came through easily and kept the whole crowd smiling.

Tips for future attendees:

Dress comfortably - even in the shade of the tents overcrowding keeps temperatures high. Thick button downs or long dresses wont suit this event. I learned this on day one. Also, be careful with white - it doesn’t go well with the wine necklace.

Dress like that guy!
Don’t get your heart set on one line – any waiting that you do during the festival is your choice. Sometimes lines get held up, restaurants confront obstacles while they’re cooking, whatever. There are thousands of people to serve, it’ll happen. There are also hundreds of different restaurants, wineries, and companies vying for your support; so just be understanding, get another drink, and go back once things are flowing. This rule applies to meet and greets and book signings as well.

Go shoeless! Nothing beats swishing a fine wine with a tray full of grub between your hands and sand between your toes. Plus, seeing inebriated people trudge open toed shoes through sand is awkward for all.

Look - My phone!  Oh, and Rachael Ray
Cherish closing time. The last hour that the grand tasting tents are open is a wonderful one. The vendors are looking to push out their remaining food items, the crowd is thinned out, and those left remaining provide some hilarious moments (double fisting fails, sprinting from table to table excitedly, stumbling while holding their bellies, etc.). I unfortunately, did not learn of this phenomenon until day two.

Do your research.  It helps to have a vague plan for the day so you don’t end up in a vicious cycle of going randomly from food to drink to food all day long. The presentations really are worth your time and even some of the lesser-known chefs give killer, often times hilarious shows. The two best I saw were on the ‘JV’ Green stage and far more entertaining and personable than the big names. Looking up the vendors competing in “best bites on the beach” is another brilliant plan. It gives you an idea of the frontrunners and an idea of which stands are likely to blow you away.

Check your shyness at the door. Everyone at this event is looking for good food, good drink, and good times. The vibes are wonderful and it’s all too easy to coast on them if you have the right mindset.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a festival following foodie or you just eat to survive. Going to this unbelievable event you are guaranteed to experience a weekend of pure content and will come out with a full heart, mind and belly.