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It's 'spring break for chefs'

"Bobby's doing an event at the Delano hotel," said Lee Brian Schrager, the founder of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. "Mario is doing an Ernst Benz watch event, Rachael's doing a wine event. Even Eater.com is doing a party at Duomo."

Schrager was referring, of course, to Bobby Flay, Mario Batali and Rachael Ray with the same first-name nonchalance Hollywood-types reserve for Angelina and Brad.

Sitting in a Cadillac Escalade provided by a sponsor to ferry him around South Beach this weekend, Schrager, who started this festival seven years ago, was fretting about the number of unofficial side events that are starting to proliferate.

There are 54 official events at the festival, ranging from a $500-a-head tribute dinner for Jean-Georges Vongerichten with courses prepared by Nobu Matsuhisa, Claudia Fleming and Jacques Torres, to an obesity awareness event for children given by Arthur Agatston, the author of The South Beach Diet.

There are rumblings that this celebrity-drenched food festival, like the once-homey Sundance Film Festival presided over by Robert Redford, is in danger of being taken up a notch too far.

"Our talent used to be able to walk around the Grand Tasting Tent," said Schrager, referring to the beachside tents where chefs conduct demonstrations. "It's not like that anymore. These people have become rock stars. A lot of them have security now."

There are no swag rooms yet, but on a weekend when much of the talk here focused on Emeril Lagasse's $50 million deal to sell his television shows and licensed products to Martha Stewart's company, can giveaways to celebrity chefs be far behind?

Even Lagasse sounded more like an M.B.A. than a chef on Thursday night, when he boasted about the advantages of his deal with Stewart.

"As soon as the deal closes, we will add Ebita to Martha's company," he said, which stands for earnings before interest, taxes and amortization.

Although the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., is nearly two decades older, no other food festival in the United States has attained the sudden prominence of South Beach, which Schrager cals "spring break for chefs."

Total attendance should reach a complete sellout of 35,000 people, he said, up 15 percent from last year.

What started in 1999 as a one-day wine festival on the campus of Florida International University to raise money for its hospitality school has evolved into a four-day event, which dominates South Beach and this year is expected to raise $2 million for FIU.

For the main event Thursday night, 2,000 carnivores paid $150 each to judge which hamburger is the best in America (the winner was topped with cheddar, crispy onions and horseradish sauce from Radius in Boston).

"This," said Christi Elias, of Coral Gables, "is more exciting to me than watching the Academy Awards."

It's 'spring break for chefs' 02/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 8:57am]
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