As South Beach Wine and Food Kicks Off, New York Chefs Reflect on the Festival Circuit


The 13th annual South Beach Wine and Food Festival kicks off today, and myriad Big Apple-based chefs aren’t passing up the opportunity to head to warmer temperatures for the four-day extravaganza of dinners, tastings, demos, and parties. SoBe is just one opportunity for chefs to partake in the food festival circuit, an industry subculture that continues to gain participants for its unique ability to connect food and beverage professionals in an otherwise impossible context. And while a year-round flurry of fests can monopolize a chef’s calendar nowadays, that wasn’t always the case.

“The idea of getting a group of chefs together to serve small plates of food, and maybe inviting wineries, was a very new concept back in the mid-’80s,” explains Gotham Bar and Grill (12 East 12th Street, 212-620-4020) executive chef Alfred Portale, whose festival experience began in 1987 when Wolfgang Puck invited him to cook at his Five Star Sensation festival in Cleveland alongside chefs Robert del Grande and Jasper White. “It was a tremendous experience, and really an honor, to be included in the club,” he notes.

That inclusion continues to carry big-time social perks among chefs today, while also setting the stage for sweet reunions. “Food festivals are sort of like culinary camp for adults,” explains Hill Country Barbecue (30 West 26th Street, 212-255-4544) and Hill Country Chicken (1123 Broadway, 212-257-6446) executive chef Elizabeth Karmel. “The best part about them is that you get to go, work hard, play hard, and see lots of people that you maybe only see once a year.” While Karmel participates in several festivals throughout the year, she is particularly fond of SoBe for its proximal activity quarters. “Because everyone is in from out of town and staying within the same couple of square miles, it really makes it a communal event,” she notes.

“What’s great about this festival is that it’s structured so perfectly in terms of timing,” explains Atera (77 Worth Street, 212-226-1444) executive chef Matt Lightner. “You want to have locals go to the fest, but you also want people from around the country to go. February in Miami is great in that you’ll be able to get a lot of different chefs from around the country there — and that makes for a good time.” This weekend will be Lightner’s first time at SoBe — and his first trip to Florida — and in addition to the events and desirable climate, he’s eager to feel the rush of excitement that can only be experienced through the exploration of new territory. “It’s that first 20-minute feeling that I get when I’m off a plane and in [a new city] — that’s what I’m looking forward to,” he says.

It’s Matt Lightner’s first year at South Beach Wine and Food

It’s this glimpse into the bigger vibe of a city that began to draw Lightner to certain festivals. “You want it to be a cultural experience,” he explains. “If you really want to get the beautiful, coastal vibe of what goes on in [California,] Pebble Beach Food & Wine is perfect. And all of the local people [in Portland] make Feast Portland special.”

Benevolence is another big incentive for chefs to say “yes” to the fest. “Some type of charity must be involved for us to participate,” notes Portale, who especially enjoys the New York-based C-Cap Benefit, whose funds help to provide culinary career education and opportunities to at-risk youth, and the Citymeals-on-Wheels Chefs Tribute, which supports the organization’s meal delivery practices to the city’s homebound elderly.

Most of all, all food festivals share one large benefit: building community — especially for those who might be new to the circuit. “For a young chef starting out, it’s really beneficial because not only does it offer some sense of camaraderie, but the networking is actually very, very important,” says Portale, who always brings a handful of team members to festivals to expose them to the experience. “A lot of opportunities come up at these events. It’s really good for a young chef to be involved, to get his name out there, and to bolster his reputation.”

Lightner, whose festival career took off in 2010 after he was selected as Best New Chef by Food & Wine, agrees that the face time is invaluable. “It’s a good way to be a part of your own community,” he explains. “Sometimes we close the doors on ourselves, and we don’t get to see other people and shake hands with other chefs or guests. It’s fun to put ourselves out there.”

Experienced fest-goers like Karmel know that community building means chefs should go prepared: “There are a few things I always pack with me,” she says. “A lot of energy, a box of Emergen-C — and I always have my flask filled with whiskey. It’s a great way to celebrate with old friends, and to meet new ones.”