Southern Wine & Spirits Vice President of Corporate Communications & National Event’s Lee Brian Schrager is the front man of the Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach and New York City Wine & Food Festivals. Schrager, who has his third cookbook “America’s Best Breakfasts,” out this April, is responsible for creating these consummate food fests. This year, the South Beach festival is celebrating its 15th birthday. That means 15 years of fundraising for the Florida International University Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, which equates to a whopping $22 million.
HH: Do you feel a huge sense of accomplishment celebrating 15 years of the festival?
LS: We feel very proud. I think we were an important part in the change of Miami’s dining landscape, helping with the rise of the food culture here in South Florida. The scene is very different than 15 years ago—so many great young chefs have succeeded in opening up restaurants here and we take great pleasure in that. Of course, we can’t take credit for the degree to which it’s blown up.
HH: How has the festival evolved in the last 15 years?
LS: The quality of chefs that we have, the amount of money that we raise, the exposure that we give to the university is much greater than year one. We’ve grown physically too—the great properties on the beach all have a festival event from the Faena or Edition to the Delano. We also have events down south at the Biltmore Hotel and we are expanding into Ft. Lauderdale this year.
HH: What events are you most excited about this year?
LS:There is not just one. It’s the 10-year anniversary of the Burger Bash, which has been so success- ful that it helped put us on the map. We are celebrating the festival’s 15-year anniversary party at the Versace mansion. There is also an exciting tribute dinner honoring Jonathan Waxman… and so much more.
HH: What do you think are the defining characteristics of the smaller South Beach festival events?
LS: The smaller events attract a different demographic. You know, people who often don’t want to be at the big tents and don’t like crowds. They want to be seated and served. That’s why we do so many small dinners—we have over 25 of them this year.
HH: You launched the New York City Wine & Food Festival in 2007, do you have your sights set on anything else?
LS: I think having two of the largest wine and food festivals in the country is enough for me! I’m not saying that I’m never intrigued, but I can honestly say I just want to keep the ones we have fresh and exciting with great talent.
HH: What are Lee Schrager’s favorite restaurants in Miami?
LS: I have a lot! I like very clean, simple, not fussy food. I love Fooq’s downtown and Alter in Wyn- wood. I also like Marion and Byblos. And there are a few I’m looking forward to trying, Chef Bee’s NaiYaRa and Dirt.