Our adventure started with a red-eye flight from Seattle, WA to Miami, FL. After landing in Miami at 8 am, we grabbed some coffee at the airport and hopped in a town car to South Beach, where we arrived at our friends stunning condo. The quintessential South Beach landscape of beach and ocean, was just steps from their abode on the 15th floor. White sand, turquoise waters, flawless sky and 80-degree temperature beckoned us, as we all spent several hours lounging under large beach umbrellas chatting and catching up.
We did not have a festival event to attend until the following evening, so we ate dinner at Juvia. Eating outside on the deck with sweeping views of Miami was ideal in the mild evening heat.
Juvia’s menu featured “a trinity of French, Japanese and Peruvian cooking styles, studied and meticulously crafted as a result of a decades of training within each culture”. Our meal was pretty phenomenal. The flavors were very fresh and seasonal. We started with cocktails and several small, crudo (raw in Italian) plates. We then moved on to entrees and even desert.
The first event we attended of the Food and Wine Festival was Paella & Tapas by the Pool with José Andrés (head chef behind multiple award winning restaurants) at the SLS Hotel. This outdoor event with walk-around tastings was surrounding the pool area. Food and winery booths were set up and a large space was dedicated to several enormous pans of paella being made. Having never been to this caliber of event before, Michael and I quickly realized that if there were any doubt small tastes would not be filling, we were quickly corrected. Some bites were better than others. Our favorite bite of the evening was a date wrapped in bacon, stuffed with cheese, deep fried then drizzled with Dulce de leche.
I was looking forward to the opportunity to see/meet José Andrés. I’ve seen him on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, he was a judge on Top Chef and he was also the food consultant for the TV show Hannibal. His fun loving and whimsical attitude on these shows was enduring. We did manage to get a photo with José, however he seemed much too busy to really chat with us and insisted on making goofy faces in the photos. Needless to say, I was a bit let down.
The following evening, we attended the Best of the Best event at the famous Fountainbleau Hotel. Held in a large ballroom with the dessert area spilling out into a large hall, this event was also walk-around tastings. The scale of the event (and those attending) was unlike anything I had ever seen. Live and DJ’d music, special blue lighting, elegant floating candle centerpieces, large vendor displays, and hordes of fabulous people. At the door you were presented a wine glass with a neck strap, as well as a plate with a glass holder – all for the convenience of freeing your hands up. Because holding a wine glass, a small plate of food, and a napkin – while trying to take a photo with your phone of said food, a display, yourself, your friends, a celebrity chef or anything else that catches your eye was a challenge. At times this event was very crowded. It was a small miracle that while maneuvering through masses of people, balancing food and drink, none of us managed to spill anything on ourselves or anyone else (that we know of).
Scott Conant (judge on TV show Chopped, multiple restaurants including Scarpetta) made an appearance near the booth of his restaurant and we just happened to be in the area. My perception of him rang true as his “do” was quite big with not a single hair out of place and the aura of his ego was equally as big. However, he happened to be the chef crush of the female friend we were with, so I tagged along for a photo with him.
The next day we went to the Goya Foods Grand Tasting Village & Demos set up on the beach in tents just steps from the condo. There we were fortunate enough to see demonstrations by Giada, David Burtka and Neil Patrick Harris, Morimoto, and Arrón Sánchez. In addition, we also sampled some food and drinks under the sandy floored tents.
In the evening we attended a dinner at Scott Conant’s restaurant Scarpetta located in the Fountainbleau Hotel. The dinner was hosted by Scott, Michael Pirolo and Nina Compton (Top Chef Season 11). This was a multi-course, fixed menu, sit down dinner with beverage pairings. Since this was my third evening in heels, my feet were thankful for a sit-down affair. To me, this meal ate rather heavy and seemed a bit rich. There was no light, fresh, or even acid component to any of the meal.
Our last day in Miami, we attended brunch hosted by Nigella Lawson at restaurant Casa Tua. I was aware of who Nigella Lawson was, however she had not really been on my radar much. This, by far was my favorite event from the festival. For starters, the multi-course, fixed menu, sit down brunch was far more intimate. Ms. Lawson was available to her guests, more so than any other host had been. She made her way over to every table taking time for questions and photos. For me, the “dessert” was the best. Strawberry Consommé with yogurt ice cream and fresh blueberries, served with Old-Rag Pie with Honey and Thyme. And as we left, we all received a signed copy of her latest cookbook.
I am very thankful and fortunate to have attended this food and wine festival, not to mention staying with such generous and hospitable hosts. This was a rather expensive vacation as each event held its own ticket price and some events were more spendy than others. If I judge this experience on value, then I’m looking at it from the wrong perspective. In my opinion, I could have not eaten the value of any one of the ticket cost. And besides the Nigella’s cookbook, the “giveaways” didn’t amount to much. I believe this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Going into it, my expectation was to be wowed with every bite, sample, small plate, taste and morsel. I learned that while some amazing restaurants and chefs were represented, a taste coming from a booth in the middle of a hotel ballroom, heated on a hot plate or plated from ingredients in a cooler, is not the same as coming from a professional kitchen. The point is, individual ingredients lose something when they are prepped ahead of time due to the fact that limited heat and cooling resources are available by a hotel pool or in a ballroom. Not to mention having enough supplies to serve several hundred people. (Now I have greater appreciation for what the Top Chef contestants go through!) While each restaurant wanted to stand out as innovative and original, showy themes of tartare, foie gras, and truffle were common. So much so, that by my second event, I was tired of truffles (can you imagine). Some beverage parings hit the mark and some did not. Namely tequila paired with truffle risotto, missed the mark by far.
I also became aware of the chef’s who are more about branding themselves and those who’s focus seem to be more about the food they present. Some of these chef personalities have TV shows, many have cook books, some endorse products, some have their own spice line, pots and pans, or utensil series. I’m sure they all wish to be successful, however with some, the marketing effort is more obvious than others. As I sat and watched a few chef demonstrations, I noticed how the crowd cheered like school girls at a Beatles concert when the chef came to the stage. Is that because they are on TV? (This event was hosted by the Food Network.) Or is it truly because the fans actually cook their food and care about food quality, what’s in season, where it is sourced, etc, etc, etc.? It may be a combination of the two. Although I think that’s a very valid question: in a day and age of convenience & processed foods, where people are in fact cooking less – then why are chefs the new rock stars and TV cooking show popularity on the rise?
Answer: because by in large, people don’t want to cook themselves, they want someone else to do the cooking, and they even want to watch them do it.