A line in a New York Times profile nicely sums up Lee Brian Schrager's contribution to society. “No one else does or has ever done what Mr. Schrager does in the food world,” the paper pronounced. The writer likened Schrager's deal-making prowess to that of two other legends, rock promoter Bill Graham and Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar.
One look at the crowds flocking to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival every February and you realize that's not hypberbole. Schrager, with a casual phone call or a quick e-mail, is able to summon the brightest of star chefs to Miami Beach. In 10 years he has transformed a one-day wine tasting to a four-day party attracting tens of thousands of food-crazed visitors who line up to watch celebrity chefs cook, talk and flip burgers. He's been aided by the backing and marketing muscle of Food & Wine magazine and the Food Network. The sister festival he brought to New York in 2007 is already a success. And Clarkson Potter just issued his Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook, with recipes and anecdotes chronicling the last decade. Schrager, whose day job is v.p. of corporate communications & national events at Southern Wine & Spirits of America, talked with us recently.
RH: What are some of the biggest differences between your inaugural South Beach festival and what it's become today?
Schrager: In the earliest days, we had to beg people to come. Even in years two and three, we would call people and they didn't know about it. It took forever to get a response. Today we make a phone call or send an e-mail and they know who we are. Most people want to participate. It's not a hard sell: mid-February, South Beach.
RH: How did you convince the doubters?
Schrager: By being committed, driven, not taking no for an answer. The big “get” was for us was Alain Ducasse. I remember dealing with his people; they said “maybe he'll do it the second year,” and I told them, “without him, we may not have a second year.” Having him really was significant.
RH: One of the reasons chefs agree to do South Beach, besides the location and weather, is the way they are treated. How do you handle some of the more difficult personalities?
Schrager: I don't take it personally. We are dealing with the superstars of the culinary world, and we are not paying them to come here — other than their travel expenses. So we're very respectful of them, and we do our best to overdeliver when they get here. We do our best to accommodate them. We make sure we don't overwork them when they come here. Because we're asking them to come as our guests, we don't bombard them.
RH: How do you keep it fun for the guests and the chefs?
Schrager: For the guests, we always bring new personalities and have new events every year. That's one of the things that keeps us fresh. With the personalities, we give them a lot of free time and have a lot of private events, where they can unwind and be with their peers. We give them all access to every event of the weekend so they can attend.
RH: What has surprised you most over the years?
Schrager: It was after Guy Fieri won on The Next Food Network Star show. I had seen the show and could see he was bigger than life. But when he came here the first time, we weren't doing a lot of events around him. Right away I saw how magnetic he was with the crowd, and realized I made a big mistake.
I'm also surprised at how genuinely nice people are. I can't say these people are my best friends, although I'm friendly with them, what surprises me the most is how genuine people like Rachel Ray and Paula Deen are. We share the same passion — food — but they ended up on TV as stars.
RH: Do you see the interest in celebrity chefs hitting a plateau?
Schrager: I'm sure it will peak, but I don't think it will disappear, because everyone loves to eat. Food has become so popular because of Food & Wine and the Food Network. I see these guys becoming more and more popular. I talk to Junior Achievement clubs all over the country, and a lot of these kids want to go to culinary school. When I was growing up we only had Julia Child and Graham Kerr as role models. Today you have so many more. And today it's okay to be a boy and want to go to cooking school. The Food Network has made cooking cool.
RH: When did Food & Wine start sponsoring the festival, and how did the Food Network get involved?
Schrager: The editor came down to check it out the second year. I had a lot of respect for what they had done in Aspen. I had gone there for my 40th birthday, and it's what inspired the South Beach festival. The relationship was very natural, very organic.
As for the Food Network, I approached them early on. I knocked on their door and said, “Wouldn't it be great to have the Food Network South Beach Festival?” No one would listen. It wasn't until year four when I was introduced to them formally, and Brooke Johnson, the network's president, came to the festival. She got it right away. We were wildly popular by then already, but they gave us visibility we would never have had.
RH: How has the New York event been received?
Schrager: We just finished our fourth year. The number of people and dollars raised have both doubled. We have almost 130 events in New York over four days, and attendance in the low 40,000s.