Lee Brian Schrager
Julie Mautner / January 2008
Food Arts presents the January/February 2008 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Lee Brian Schrager, event planner extraordinaire, for giving birth to one of America's most prestigious gastronomic gatherings. Thanks to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, you can't pop a Champagne cork in Miami in February without splashing a famous foodie. Emeril Lagasse calls it "spring break for chefs."
Bit SoBe is far more than an excuse for top chefs to party with their pals: it generates millions for Miami businesses and gives hundreds of culinary students work experience alongside world-class chefs. Its essential raison d'être is raising funds for wine and culinary education: $$1.8 million last year, almost $6 million to date. The money supports Florida International University's School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and its Southern Wine & Spirits Beverage Management Center, named for the huge ($7 billion in sales) Miami-based supplier that serves as its patron.
The festival falls under the aegis of Schrager's "real" job, director of special events and media relations for Southern Wines & Spirits of America, and it's just one of many events to which he lends his time each year. It's South Beach, however, that brought Schrager onto the global food-world radar and made him the man whom everyone wants to schmooze. Nothing gets poured, promoted, or popped into goodie bags at SoBe without his final approval. His Blackberry contains 5,100 names.
An enormous logistical undertaking, South Beach takes a full year of planning, 500 people, and over $3 million to pull off. While ticket sales add to the coffers considerably, the biggest chunk of the operating budget comes from more than 40 corporate sponsors. Schrager calls on virtually all of them, using legwork, patience, and tenacity to get them to pony up.
Born on Long Island, Schrager moved to Florida at 15 and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1979. He went on to study at FIU, receiving an honorary degree in 2003. He joined InterContinental Hotels in 1982. then quit in '88 to open bars and restaurants on South Beach. He returned to InterContinental in 1992 and resigned, eight years later, as the company's vice president of f&b.
Arriving at Southern in 2000, Schrager scrutinized their annual one day wine tasting, held on the FIU campus, and saw the potential for something grander. "We plopped the event onto the most beautiful beach in the world," he says, "and we knew we were on our way." The Schedule for 2008 (February 21 to 24; sobewineandfoodfest.com) boasts more than 100 chefs.
Schrager and his team have kicked off a New York version of the fest (nycwff.org) and a spin-off Miami event as well (Fun and Fit as a Family). He's immensely proud of what he's accomplished and says there are many more great things to come. "We never wanted to be the biggest," he says, "but our goal was definitely to be the best."