South Beach Wine & Food Festival changes Miami's culinary scene, impacts economy

For Miami restaurateurs, this is Showtime.

With dozens of top chefs — Bobby Flay, Todd English, Daniel Boloud and Masaharu Morimoto among the list — in town for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, the pressure is on everywhere, from Michy’s to the new Catch Miami. The goal: Show everyone from around the country that Miami’s food scene has arrived on the national stage.

Chef Michelle Bernstein’s staff whipped up dishes designed to impress guests at Michy’s — like foie gras, oxtail and apple tarte tatin — while she juggled menus for multiple events. Bernstein kept her cellphone handy to make sure any chef friends could get a table, even though her namesake restaurant was sold out.

As always, Joe’s Stone Crab was a must-do stop for many, including Paula Deen and New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. Aussie Chef Curtis Stone attracted a string of admirers as he ate his way around town, with stops at Prime 112, Pubbelly Sushi and Puerto Sagua. Khong River House and Yardbird Southern Table & Bar hosted Meyer, The Food Network’s Anne Burrell and Chef Anita Lo.

Michael’s Genuine was another hot spot.

“This is kind of our coming out party for Khong and it’s our chance to knock it out of the park and wow people,” said John Kunkel, owner of Khong and Yardbird.

Prime 112 owner Myles Chefetz admits he’s a fanatic about checking plates when they come back from a chef’s table. And he’s always on the lookout for the table ordering 20 different items, because that’s usually a restaurateur doing research.

“If you have Jean-Gorges or Bobby Flay eating at your restaurant, you want to make sure he has a great experience,” Chefetz said. “You want to put your best foot forward because you know you’re going to get scrutinized.”

The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival is not just a forum for impressing the culinary elite. It’s among the top three tourist draws for Miami restaurants and hotels. In its 12th year, the festival draws more than 60,000 people to Miami Beach for a weekend of decadence, featuring more than 50 events spread over four days.

It is neck and neck with two of the area’s other most prominent weekends: Art Basel and Presidents’ Day (which coincides with the Miami International Boat Show).

There’s the immediate economic impact, of course, but the festival has made its mark in other ways: helping transform Miami’s food scene from a cultural wasteland to one of the country’s hot spots, one where top chefs all want to set up shop.

“Twelve years ago I don’t know if you could even name five really good restaurants. Now, you can’t think of where you want to eat because there are so many good restaurants,” said Lee Brian Schrager, festival founder and vice president of communications for Southern Wine & Spirits, its host. “What the festival can take credit for is introducing the culinary world to the great talent down here, and really highlighting South Florida as a great dining destination.”

There has been plenty of indulgence to go around. Flay finally broke his losing streak and took home top honors at the Burger Bash with his award-winning crunchified green chili burger. At the Q, barbecue lovers had their choice of Al Roker’s lamb ribs with baked beans or Geoffrey Zakarian’s smoked tagarashi crusted tuna, among other offerings.

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