By Deborah Wilker
Lee Brian Schrager, a man so passionate about extraordinary food and drink he founded the South Beach Food & Wine Festival, has always been equally fervent about down-home grub. His favorite by a mile is fried chicken – a dish so close to his heart he’s written a book about it.
In Fried & True, Schrager scours the land for the best fried chicken and sides recipes and restaurants – a fact-finding mission that took him the better part of a summer, and during which he did indeed test “every bite.”
“More than once!”
Packed with stunning photographs of heartland cooks and kitchens, and easy-to-follow how-to’s, his book names Atlanta, New Orleans and Nashville America’s “fried chicken strongholds.” But you can get some of the best fried chicken in the world, he says, right here at Publix.
Schrager first became aware of the magical, calming qualities of an old-fashioned fried chicken dinner on Saturday nights at home on Long Island when he was a little boy. Date-night for his parents meant the kids could order-in from their favorite restaurant, Chicken Delight. The old TV jingle, which played endlessly in the New York area, is still fresh in his mind: “Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight!”
Schrager, who moved to Fort Lauderdale at 14, attended Nova and Piper high schools, went back to New York to graduate from The Culinary Institute of America, and then returned to SoFla to enroll in Florida International University’s School of Hospitality. His adventures in food and wine have been taking him back and forth ever since.
After 20 years of rising through the ranks with InterContinental Hotels in Miami, Schrager began an almost entirely new career after 40, when he joined the nation’s top wine distributor, Southern Wine & Spirits in Miami.
“They challenged me to do something that would be good for them,” he says. “I think my story is about someone who took an opportunity afforded to them.”
Schrager, who also had the foresight to own bars and clubs during the early days of South Beach gentrification, immediately saw potential in a one-day hospitality festival that had been operating on his old campus at FIU. In 2002 he relocated the school’s annual “Florida Extravaganza” to South Beach, renaming and expanding it.
The event has grown exponentially, to more than 65,000 guests during its most recent outing earlier this year. The spin-off – The Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival – is now in its seventh year, and takes place again this October.
In talent-wrangling the world’s top chefs, restaurants and associated professionals, Schrager has created a centralized food universe like no other. The fests have brought him fame and riches and superstar friends. (Whoopi Goldberg, a close pal, writes Fried & True’s forward).
Yet Schrager still lives in the same Miami home he bought 21 years ago when the Design District was still sketchy and frightened his parents, and while he was still toiling away at the InterContinental. He’s also never left his day job with Southern Wine & Spirits, where he is still vice president of corporate communications.
“I have a bunch of full-time jobs,” Schrager says. “Festivals are my night job. Then I do midnight things, like write books, that keep me fueled and going.”
So at the end of a marathon day, does he cook? Does he whip up a fantastic meal?
“Seldom. Almost never.”
Fried & True: More than 50 Recipes for America’s Best Fried Chicken and Sides (Clarkson Potter, $22.50); New York City Wine & Food Festival, Oct. 16-19, 2014: nycwff.org #NYCWFF; South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Feb. 19-22, 2015: sobefest.com