Meet the Man Behind…
The South Beach (& NYC!) Wine & Food Festivals
By Jana Soeldner Danger
Lee Schrager is the creator of both the nationally renowned South Beach and New York City Wine & Food Festivals, each of which has grown into a star-studded destination event. The senior vice president at Southern Wine & Spirits is also the author of three cookbooks, and his latest, America’s Best Breakfasts, celebrates his favorite meal of the day. “I love starting the day with a great breakfast,” he said. “It’s where I plan out the rest of my day.”
Schrager has loved to cook since he was a child. “My mother was a great cook, and I was always in the kitchen when my brothers were out doing other things,” he said. “My earliest memories are of family meals and the wonderful smell of them. I love cooking the way some people love ballet and opera.” His culinary penchant grew during high school. “In those days, boys went to wood shop and girls went to home economics,” he said. “I hated machines and was afraid of the wood shop class, so my mom went to the school and arranged for me to take home ec. I thrived there.”
Although he is a food professional, Schrager prefers simple fare. “I don’t like pretentious food,” he said. “I’m a basic eater, and I love good, hearty comfort food.” When he entertains at home, it’s usually a casual affair. “I dislike formal dinners, and I rarely do a seated dinner,” he said. “I’d rather have a good burger than a set menu at a formal restaurant and I’d rather cook for 25 people than four. I love having a meal in the kitchen with people sitting around talking about food and enjoying it. The popularity of cooking is growing among both men and women,” Schrager said. “The Food Network and the Cooking Channel have made it more mainstream.
“Cooking shouldn’t be intimidating,” Schrager continued. “It’s really just reading a recipe and following directions. But a good meal is more than just cooking. It involves serving it correctly and putting the right things together.” At his home, putting the right things together can sometimes take an unusual turn. He recently hosted a party to try out his new pizza oven. “I served pizza and filet,” he said.
What gave Schrager the idea for the SoBe Wine & Food Festival? “Friends had taken me to the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen,” he recalled. “On the plane coming home I thought, ‘this is the greatest thing in the world. But think how much better it would be on our beautiful beaches.’”
The annual SoBe Festival – the 15th of which took place in February – benefits the Chaplain School of Hospitality and Tourism at Florida International University. It grew from a small, one-day event to its current status as a three-day extravaganza that draws guests and media from all over the country. In 2008, many of his same partners in the Florida festival joined him to create its New York counterpart, an affair that stretches throughout the city from the Meat Packing District to Pier 54 while raising funds for the Food Bank for New York City and Share Our Strength.
His new breakfast cookbook
Schrager still appreciates his mother’s cooking. In fact, his new cookbook has a recipe from her called ‘German Breakfast’, a concoction that includes, among other things, potatoes, onions and peppers. “We always had it for dinner,” he recalled. “It’s still one of my favorites.”