People — 02 February 2018
Over breakfast, South Beach Wine & Food Festival founder talks wine, food, festivals and life

By Rebecca Cahilly-Taranto

Photos by Richard Taranto

It was dreary the morning we slogged south to Miami, weaving in and out of traffic dotted with red brake lights in fits and starts.

Not so long ago, if you wanted a good meal, you had to go south. If you were a foodie, Miami was the scene. And that’s why we were headed south this morning, battling grumpy-hour traffic, intent on reaching the man preparing breakfast for us in Coral Gables in a kitchen from a 100-year-old French château.

To say Lee Brian Schrager is a busy man is an understatement. The Senior Vice President of Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits is also the founder and organizer of two of the most anticipated and influential foodie gatherings in the country: the South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBEWFF) and the New York City Wine & Food Festival (NYCWFF).

But Schrager had set aside the morning to cook us breakfast and have a chat about food, wine and life.

“When I joined Southern in 2000, creating the Festival was not on my radar,” he says as he stirs a sizzling mélange of onions and diced green and red bell peppers in a cast-iron skillet. “I was looking for opportunities to profile the company and its brands and raise awareness for the local community.”

His phone, continuously abuzz, beeps and chirps on the countertop.

“About 19 years ago, I attended the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen,” he says. “It was an amazing event in a beautiful location, and afterwards I thought to myself, ‘What about doing something similar in Miami Beach?’”

Perhaps not immediately apparent to every attendee of SOBEWFF, which has become the ultimate see, eat and be seen event – drawing the biggest culinary names, celebrities, fashionistas and foodies to South Florida for the last 16 years – is that the Festival is a charity event. To date, SOBEWFF has raised over $26 million for the Florida International University (FIU) Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management and the Southern Wine & Spirits Beverage Management Center, located on FIU’s campus. Since its inception 10 years ago, the Food Network & Cooking Channel’s New York City Wine & Food Festival, also a charity event, has raised more than $11 million for hunger relief organizations No Kid Hungry and Food Bank For New York City (an organization for which Schrager serves on the Board of Directors).

“That’s really how the Festival came about,” he says, scattering cooked bacon pieces into a mouthwatering egg and potato mixture. “We were looking to raise money and awareness for nonprofit.”

Schrager took a fledgling, one-day food event on FIU’s campus, “put it on steroids and it grew from there.”

His phone, refusing to be ignored any further, buzzes from its position on the counter in a frenzy. Checking to make sure we’re content with our espressos, he excuses himself to take the call.

Minutes earlier, we’d stepped from the drizzling outdoors into the charming 5,800-square-foot château Lee shares with his partner, Ricardo Restrepo, in the coveted French Village neighborhood in Coral Gables. Their two dogs – an Old English sheepdog named Charlie and Stanley, a French Briard – were as gracious and welcoming as our host, showing us around the art-filled home the couple revived and furnished with help from interior designer Michael Christiano.

A chef by trade, Schrager, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America as well as the School of Hospitality Management & Tourism at FIU, worked his way through the hospitality world before leaving his role as food and beverage director at Miami’s InterContinental Hotel and joining Southern Wine & Spirits in 2000.

Little did he know then what would lead him to be credited for moving Miami and South Florida to the top of the culinary food scene.

Sinking his teeth into his new position with Southern, Schrager approached the Food Network. “The network was in the very early stages; it wasn’t what it was today,” he says as he returns from his call and presents the steaming skillet.

The dish he calls “German Breakfast,” consisting of eggs, potatoes, bacon, onions and red and green bell peppers, was the preferred quick-fix meal his mother served when he and his brothers were growing up. It features in the pages of a cookbook Schrager co-authored with Adeena Sussman and released in 2016, entitled America’s Best Breakfasts: Favorite Local Recipes from Coast to Coast.

Accompanied by fresh baked biscuits, marmalade, fruit and espresso, Schrager’s German Breakfast was the perfect comfort dish for a rainy Miami morning.

“Back then, chefs weren’t rock stars,” he says, back to the story. “It was a great time for us to partner with the Food Network.” Schrager was introduced to some representatives at the Network and had a meeting in the early 2000s, which he admits wasn’t particularly encouraging. “It took them coming down to Miami and experiencing the Festival firsthand before they could embrace the partnership.”

Now in its 17th year, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Feb. 21-25, will offer five days of mouthwatering and star-studded culinary experiences, from intimate dinners to grand tasting events.

What could possibly be more exciting than five days of foodie frivolity, particularly to foodies living 30 miles north on I-95? How about five days of foodie frivolity in Fort Lauderdale?

Launched in 2016, the Festival’s CRAVE Fort Lauderdale Series provides just that – bestowing a welcome endorsement of the culinary talent and dining options north of Miami. This year, nine Broward events are part of the CRAVE Greater Fort Lauderdale Series, including the kick-off BBQ Dinner hosted by world barbecue champion Chris Lilly and Chef Jorge Ramos of the new Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach (who will also co-host a poolside Clambake with Chef Emeril Lagasse); and the Lucky Chopsticks Asian street market event hosted by James Beard Award-winning TV personality Andrew Zimmern, among others.

“We’ll have Alton Brown at one of the family events this year,” says Schrager, who is always scouting out new talent and works with Forbes to create the 30 under 30: Food & Drink lists. “There’s something for everybody at our Festivals. Some prefer sit-down dinners, others the Burger Bash or Clambake, still others wine seminars and signature events.”

An early riser, Schrager is usually up and out of the house at dawn, tending to his full time job with Southern, the Festivals (is there a third on the horizon?) and his many board positions. When he does have down time he and Ricardo enjoy traveling and entertaining friends in their outdoor kitchen they had built with a pizza oven.

“I have the greatest job in the world,” he smiles as we say our goodbyes and prepare for the trek back north. He has a busy day ahead that also includes plans for a gala event he’s overseeing at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

And the phone is still buzzing.

For tickets and information about this year’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Feb. 21-25, see http://sobewff.org/

 

ONLINE BONUS

 

Marlene Schrager’s recipe for German Breakfast

(Serves 4 to 6)

½ pound bacon

1 jumbo yellow onion, chopped (3 cups)

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and diced (2 cups)

1 large green bell pepper, seeded and diced (2 cups)

1 ½ pounds russet potatoes, peeled, boiled, cooled and diced

10 large eggs, lightly beaten

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a very large (12- or 14-inch) skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp, 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate and crumble when cool. Transfer the bacon fat to a bowl and reserve, returning 3 tablespoons to the skillet. Add the onion and both peppers and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is browned and the peppers are softened, 11 to 12 minutes.

Add the potatoes and cook, stirring, until they begin to break up, 6 to 7 minutes. Push the mixture to one side of the skillet, add another tablespoon of bacon fat, and scramble the eggs until cooked. Add the bacon to the pan, stir together the entire mixture, season with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

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