How do you convince the King and Queen of Spain, Michelle Obama, and Bill Clinton to show up at a food event? Ask Lee Schrager. Schrager is a force to be reckoned with in the food world. He not only launched the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, but also a second festival in New York City. And next week, on October 8th, he’ll host his second annual NYC festival. Highlights include Rachael Ray’s Burger Bash, Giada DeLaurentiis’ Meatball Madness, and dinner with Alain Ducasse.
To think, his first job in food was working at a Chinese take-out counter. Schrager studied at the CIA, oversaw room service, and owned a nightclub. But the pivotal turn in his career was when he became director of media relations and special events at Southern Wine & Spirits. He threw his first one-day festival in South Beach in 2002 and the rest is history.
In a long-term relationship.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Jacqueline Kennedy’s assistant.
What was your first job in food?What did you learn? Take-out counter at a Chinese place
in Massapequa – it’s not about where you start
out, it’s where you finish.
You studied at both the CIA and the School for Hospitality Management at FloridaInt’lUniversity.In the end, what drew you to the business end
of the culinary world?Had you ever
considered becoming a chef? I’m a chef by trade, having gone to CIA.I knew I didn’t want to work in the kitchen,
but wanted the background that graduating from CIA offered.The Festival(s) allow me to work in all of
the areas I enjoy – wine, food, and event planning.
While you were working at InterContinental hotels, how would you describe your
ascension from room service manager to Vice President of Food & Beverage? Calculated.
What are you most looking forward to at 2009’s New York City Food &
Wine Festival? Seeing so many friends that I haven’t gotten a chance to be
with in a while.
How did you go from owning a nightclub in South Beach to running not only the SouthBeach
Wine & Food Festival, but New
York’s as well? The nightclub was only an investment
while I was working for InterContinental Hotels.The Festival was something that I created in
my position at Southern Wine & Spirits of America.
If you could do last year’s again, what wouldn’t you
do? Not have our opening night party on
What are you doing different this year? There are plenty of new events, and
we have tweaked events from last year to make them even more exciting.
How do you go from a one day festival in SouthBeach
to a four day festival in SouthBeach and New
forsee that or did it evolve naturally? We expanded cautiously!While we’re not shocked at the great
response, we’re always happy to see the rise in ticket sales – seeing as both
SoBe and NYC Festival’s have beneficiaries.
How in the world did you get Ferran Adria aboard?Alain Ducasse?What’s your secret?
When you first started out, was it
difficult to attract such famous chefs and winemakers? My good friend Jeffrey Chodorow helped me with Alain
Ducasse, and Dan Halpern at Harper Collins gave me the intro to Ferran Adria
when his first book was coming out – it was all about the timing.Getting started, it took a lot of tap
Do you party hop from one event to another for four consecutive days
straight?If not, how do you pick and
choose events to attend? I try to go to as many events as I
can without stressing myself out – too much. But it’s a goal of mine to try and say hello at least once to every
What event are you most excited about?(Yes, you must answer.)
Meatball Madness hosted by Giada –
it’s brand new and very New York City.It has proven to be as popular as I knew it
What event are you least excited
for?(See above.) Weighing in for the Chefs Lose for
Good campaign with Weight Watchers – only because I’m afraid I haven’t lost as
much weight as I hoped to.
What’s the newest addition to the festival this year that
you’re most looking forward to? The amazing panel discussion at Fun
and Fit in the City – Rachael Ray, Dr. Mehmet Oz, moderated by Tara Parker-Pope,
with a special introduction from President Bill Clinton.
A considerable number of festival events will be taking
place in the Meatpacking District, including the kick-off event “Chelsea Market
After Dark.”What was is about that
area that attracted you in the first place? It’s the home of our title sponsor –
The SouthBeach Wine & Food Festival originally started out
as the one-day “Florida
Extravaganza.”How did you blossom and
become one of the most anticipated and important culinary events of the year? It really happened on its own.For both Festivals, NYC & SoBe, it’s all
about the location.Location. Location.
Location.Amazing talent and great
sponsors don’t hurt either.
Once upon a time, you opened a health food restaurant
in SouthBeach called Chow.How did that present
itself and are you still involved, or, is it even still in business? It was the idea of my partner from
the nightclub, Torpedo, John Jacobus – he was really into fitness and
health.The timing wasn’t right – if we
had done it a year later, we’d still be open.
You’ve met everyone, including Britney Spears.But you actually teamed up with Mickey Rourke
to open a dinner club called Spot.Is that still in business and are you still
in contact with Mickey? It’s not in business – we sold the real estate.I saw Mickey last November at the opening of
the Fontainebleau on SouthBeach.That was the first time in many years.We reconnected – had dinner together recently
in New York.
Your first book Sizzlin’ Hot: Celebrating
10 Years of the South Beach Food and Wine Festival is due out next
year!What can we expect?Can you give us a preview perhaps…? Lots of behind the scenes stories
about the making of the Festival – great photos and great memories.
Tell us some of your favorite personalities featured at the
festival ever and why. They are all favorites – my most
memorable was probably the King & Queen of Spain
at SouthBeach in 2009.
In 2008 you expanded the festival to New York City.What was the impetus behind that
decision?Do you, from a culinary
standpoint, prefer one city over the other? It has a lot to do with Southern Wine & Spirits entering
the market there – as the Director of Media Relations and Special Events for
Southern Wine & Spirits of America,
it was a natural expansion.Also, it was
a nice challenge – I wanted people to know I wasn’t just a one trick pony.
Do you predict any culinary trends on the horizon? I predict there will be more, I just can’t predict what they
Are there any current trends you wish would just die already? YES! Restaurants that don’t have telephone numbers to make reservations.
Who would you love to see at next year’s New
York or South Beach Festival?Anyone you can’t woo?If so, why?
would love to see Michelle Obama take part in our family-oriented events – in SouthBeach
it’s called Fun and Fit as a Family, in NYC it’s called Fun and Fit in the
Any new festivals we
can look forward to?Spill the beans… I’m sure there’s one
more in me . . . more pizza than beans . . .