ST. PETERSBURG — Celebrity chefs Todd English, Ming Tsai and Curtis Stone strode through the crowd to have a word with Ace of Cakes reality show superstar Duff Goldman. In the deep blue light of the nighttime Dalí Museum, Goldman stood in front of his confection masterpiece, part Persistence of Memory, part The Elephants — all of it a jaw-dropping tribute to Salvador Dalí's work and the tremendous ambition of the first Enjoy Arts and Tastes St. Pete food, wine and arts festival.
Earlier Friday night, two Maseratis stretched like sleek sentinels in front of the Museum of Fine Arts, but most eyes were elsewhere at the sold-out Sense Immersion dinner hosted by chef English and artist Duncan McClellan. At the seated dinner for 250 in the museum's atrium, all eyes were on the plates as a procession of courses wowed the assembled foodies, each dish inspired by the work of a regional artist.
Still earlier in the evening at a VIP party at HSN headquarters, HSN CEO Mindy Grossman, in a stunning animal-print dress, spoke about the festival's beginning.
"I live downtown in St. Petersburg, so I see what's happening. What's unique here is arts and culture, and the recent obsession with food is compelling. So a whole group of us got together and started brainstorming."
HSN, the Edwards Group, Visit St. Pete Clearwater and local arts venues and restaurants collaborated to launch the three-day food and arts festival, which concludes today with a sold-out Battle of the 'Burg burger battle at the Club at Treasure Island hosted by restaurateur and frequent Iron Chef judge Donatella Arpaia. But even before the last burger is flipped, one thing is clear: This first-time event exceeded the expectations of organizers and attendees.
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker says that the main challenge of an event of this scope is doing something new.
"We've done a lot of new things in St. Petersburg in the past 10 years. The key is helping people to understand what it's going to be."
Because, as Baker says, "St. Petersburg is such a walk-up market," the hair-raising part of executing a first-time event is anticipating attendance numbers. While total numbers are not yet tallied, most events, including seven cooking demos and a panel discussion, were nearly at capacity.
Hunky Australian chef Curtis Stone presided over a standing-room-only demonstration at the Mahaffey Saturday afternoon.
"I still get nervous in front of a group, so the first thing I'm going to do is make myself a cocktail," he began with a smirk, enlisting audience members in a Sangria Martini shakeoff.
Stone and many of the festival's other television chefs are no strangers to St. Petersburg. Many work frequently with HSN to promote their kitchen equipment, books and products. In conversation with attendees and demo audiences, nearly all of them expressed their affection for St. Petersburg.
"Everybody is really nice. I'm not used to nice," said chef Arpaia before demurring on the rumor that she's opening a St. Petersburg restaurant.
On a more intimate scale than the Food Network's South Beach Wine & Food Festival and the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, Enjoy Arts and Tastes St. Pete allowed tremendous access to the celebs while providing a showcase for local chefs' talent (best bites: Datz bacon bar and Mazzaro's vitello tonnato at Saturday's Grand Tasting, William Dean chocolates and macarons at Friday's Dalí event).
At Saturday evening's Sip Savor and Swing dinner hosted by the Cooking Channel's Ingrid Hoffman at the Vinoy, local restaurants from Red Mesa Cantina to the Black Palm Restaurant offered Latin-inspired dishes before dancing got underway.
Attendee Nick Okeson, a family doctor in Largo, has been to South Beach Wine & Food Festival, where he says packed venues can mar the experience. Speaking of the first Enjoy Arts and Tastes St. Pete, he was succinct.
"It's great times and no pretensions."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.