MIAMI/SOUTH FLORIDA The biggest event at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival is getting a makeover. Since its inception, the Grand Tasting Village has been the festival's signature event, offering kitchen demonstrations and food and beverage samples from a mix of local restaurants and national brands.
For this year's festival, which takes place February 19 to 22, founder Lee Brian Schrager says his team sought to “put the 'grand' back in Grand Tasting” by reconfiguring the event layout and access.
The biggest change will happen inside the Grand Tasting tents, which will be broken up into “neighborhoods” based on South Florida geography. Local chef-appointed culinary captains will lead designated areas in the tents to help consumers identify samples and eateries. “What we really wanted to do was put the emphasis back on great local talent, with 25 to 30 percent more local restaurants participating,” Schrager says. A total of 104 exhibitors will showcase this year. Other layout changes include adding more seated lounges out of the sun and moving the KitchenAid Culinary Demo stages where the talent faces out toward the ocean.
“We want the Grand Tasting to be as great as it has ever been,” Schrager says. “This is the one area where all the big talent, local chefs, and wineries and spirits are. We put more attention into the Grand Tasting than anything we have ever done, because it is our signature event and what we are most proud of.”
Planners also are giving Grand Tasting ticketholders more access to the event. The entire event footprint will open at noon, earlier than previous years when attendees were confined until 1 p.m. to a courtyard to watch chef demonstrations and visit sponsor tents.
Additional changes to this year's festival include more late-night, mixology-driven events, like Medianoches & Mixology, the Art of Tiki: A Cocktail Showdown, Tacos After Dark, and Mix It Up With Morimoto & Friends. Schrager says the events are one way the festival is trying to appeal to a younger demographic. “These events aren’t as food-oriented, and we're able to do them for less money, and make more money for the charity,” he says of festival beneficiary Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. “These $100 and $125 tickets have brought us a whole new audience, and that's important.”
Another programming trend is to offer more intimate seated dinners—in many ways, the opposite of the environment at the Grand Tasting. The experiences generally limit ticketing to 80 or 90 guests and charge from $250 to $500 a ticket for dinners prepared by multiple celebrated chefs. “Not everyone wants to stand in a line to get a burger or a taco or have samples of the Best of the Best,” Schrager says. “And not every chef wants to cook at an event with 1,000 to 2,000 people.” Examples are the Star Power Dinner hosted by chefs Scott Conant, Stephanie Izard, and Jamie Bissonnette, and the Napa Style Dinner hosted by chefs Michael Chiarello and Stephane Caporal.
Finally, the festival will debut park-and-ride options from downtown Miami to South Beach. “Parking is always an issue on the beach,” Schrager says, “and a complimentary shuttle service shows that at least we made the effort.”