The tents have been taken down, the chefs have all gone home, and South Floridians can now return to more pressing matters like spring training, but the memories of my first South Beach Wine and Food Festival linger for any number of reasons, even if I didn't see the pantsless Paula Deen fiasco.
But what did I make of the main event? The Grand Tasting, a series of huge white tents right on the South Beach waterfront where extremely polite folks served up massive (unlimited) quantities of wine, spirits, and cocktails, and celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Tom Colicchio, and Emeril Lagasse drew in big crowds to answer questions, kibbitz, make jokes, and yes, even cook?
I was struck by so many things. Thousands of people paid $212 to get in and seemed to have a great, great time. And why not? They paid more than $200 for:
1. An eight hour-long open bar.
2. The opportunity to see their favorite food celebrities cook, crack jokes, and entertain.
3. The chance to rub elbows and maybe get pictures taken with Flay, Colicchio, or Lagasse, or any one of their heroes. I was interviewing Colicchio when somebody came up to him and said, "Hey, Tom Colicchio, Top Chef is the best show on TV, but you screwed up with Fabio. He shouldn't have been sent packing. But you're still the man, Tom. Would you mind if my girlfriend took a picture of you and me together?" Colicchio smiled and obliged, and I am sure that guy walked away thrilled with Colicchio, the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, and himself.
What really surprised me is what they didn't get at the Grand Tasting: food made by big-name chefs or artisanal purveyors. In fact, though there were certainly a lot of booths to get nibbles, there wasn't much in the way of substantial food at all.
Guacamole, yes, tiny slices of Jamón ibérico, yes, but something to sink your teeth into? Not so much.
But I'm first and foremost a food guy, a serious eats kind of fellow, so unlike most of the other people, I was there for the food and not the drinks.
As far as I could tell, no one except me cared about the wine-and-spirits-to-food imbalance. The overall vibe at the festival was remarkably positive. In fact, one New York restaurateur said to me, "You know what's cool about this festival? There are almost no haters here." And you know what. He was absolutely right. The throngs of serious drinkers and eaters were having a great time.
All in all, the festival was a fun hang for me and others who went. It's not a cheap hang, but just about everyone thought they got their money's worth. And it was nice to be in a warm place in February where people were partying like it was 1999. For one weekend at least, the crippling recession was nowhere to be found, except in the conversations the chefs were having with each other.