Behind The Scenes at the 2011 South Beach Wine & Food Festival

Behind-The-Scenes At The South Beach Wine & Food Festival
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HuffPost Food will be on the ground at this weekend's South Beach Wine & Food Festival, providing live dispatches from the event's 10th anniversary, starting with Thursday night's Rachael Ray Burger Bash. Until then, here's Julie Mautner with a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the kitchen that serves as the home base for the festival -- and the chef behind it.

2011-02-21-sobe_2011.jpgPhoto courtesy South Beach Wine & Food Festival

Next week, 50,000 foodies will converge upon Miami Beach for the 10th annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival: four glorious days of food-and-wine-drenched decadence. In ten years, SoBe, as it's known, has drawn many the world's top chefs and raised close to $11 million for culinary and wine education at Florida International University. Festival-goers choose from 50 different events--sandy-feet casual to supremely elegant--staged, mostly, in vast tents on the beach and in oceanfront hotels. SoBe has been called the Sundance of food and wine, the biggest beach party on the planet and "an exuberant Foodstock."

As the official host hotel, the Loews Miami Beach plays a starring role: The hotel is festival HQ for the week, command central, home base. Not only do most celebrity chefs and other festival VIPS stay there, it's the venue for two major events: a gala Tribute Dinner for chef Alain Ducasse (600 people, $500 per person) and Paula Deen's Gospel Brunch (500 people, $125). Both events have been sold out for months, as has the hotel--all 790 rooms.

Starting Monday (Feb 21), 100 or so people will be working around the clock in the vast Loews kitchen: staff (many doing doubles), culinary students, volunteers, well-known guest chefs and their assistants. And running the show is a laid-back 38-year-old Frenchman named Frédéric Delaire, promoted just recently from exec sous to exec chef. Delaire calls the SoBe fest "the culinary world on steroids" and says that after five months of prep, he and his team are more than good to go. Julie Mautner asked for a peek behind the kitchen door.

The festival is just a few days away. Are you stressed? Excited? Medicated?

This is my first SoBe Fest as exec chef at the Loews but my third in the Loews kitchen. So I've got a pretty good idea of what's to come. Much of the work is already behind us: all the emails back and forth, the decisions about who's cooking what, the assigning of tasks, the ordering of the food, the printing of menus, the flow charts. Our job now is to make everything go smoothly for the guest chefs. It's stress--but fun stress.

There must be easier ways to make a living! What made you want to be a chef?

My grandfather was a well-known baker back home in Agen, between Bordeaux and Toulouse. We'd visit him on Sundays and he'd make wonderful breads, pastries and cakes for us. We'd arrive at 9 or 10 a.m. and I'd head straight into the kitchen because he'd let me beat the eggs and sugar, melt the chocolate for éclairs, cook the crepes. I loved it. Plus, my mom was a stay-at-home mom who made lunch and dinner every day. By age five or six, I was her exec sous: cracking eggs, peeling potatoes. I was a good kid, very polite, but I wasn't good in school--I just didn't care. I got my first computer at age 12 and taught myself programming. Playing, hacking and copying video games...that's what I cared about. My parents said 'You can learn this but not math or English?' When I turned 16, I got the big slap and the school Principal said I couldn't go any further there. My parents said 'OK...computer school or culinary school--pick one.' I wanted to be a chef.

Your first job was actually in a Michelin three-star kitchen. How did that happen?

In culinary school in France, you alternate one week in school with three weeks in a restaurant--for two years. I was placed as an apprentice at L'Aubergade with chef Michel Trama. After I earned my culinary degree, they signed me up for another two years, doing pastry.

What brought you to the U.S.?

I came in 1999. I wanted to open my horizons, see something different.

Where did you work before the Loews Miami Beach?

I joined the Loews almost three years ago and was Gordon Maybury's exec sous. When he left, I was promoted. Before that, I was exec chef at the National Hotel, just up the street.

So tell us about cooking for Alain Ducasse. What will that be like?

Every year, festival founder/director Lee Schrager chooses one chef to honor. That chef, in turn, chooses who will prepare the meal. It's a wonderful evening with toasts, tribute videos, amazing food and the very best wines. It's a big deal, both for the honoree and the chefs cooking. This year, we'll have seven guest chefs: four on the dinner, three on the reception. Each brings a sous or another assistant...so that's another seven or eight chefs. The reception chefs are all current Ducasse chefs: Phillipe Bertineau (Benoit Bistro, NYC), Didier Elena (Adour Alain Ducasse at the St Regis, NYC) and Sébastien Rondier (Mix on the Beach, Vieques, Puerto Rico). The dinner chefs are Laurent Gras, Alex Stratta, Charlie Trotter and Frédéric Robert. And Jean-Paul Veziano, a top baker who once worked with Ducasse, is coming from France to do the breads. Carole Bouquet--the French actress, model and winemaker--will be the emcee.

The next day, we host Paula Deen's Gospel Brunch: 500 people seated, eight guest chefs cooking, all bringing assistants. We order much of the food and our kitchen is their home away from home. Our staff works side by side with them to get their dishes prepped, prepared and served.

So what's your most important role this weekend?

To understand how different it is for chefs to work in kitchens not their own and to be sure they have absolutely everything they need: product, equipment, staff. We answer a million questions. One chef was worried how he'd get from the hotel down to the demo tents. (It's a quick walk but golf carts are available.) This one needs coolers, that one freezer space. Anything they can't ship, they ask for: blenders, mixers, sous vide machines. When they arrive, everything they've requested is ready and waiting. There are thousands of details in pulling off a weekend like this. So many things can go wrong.

What's your biggest fear?

The Tribute Dinner as a whole...it's Alain Ducasse! Plus it's the 10th anniversary and I want it to be the best yet. The run-up to the Tribute Dinner is such a weird time, it's like The Matrix. For seven or eight hours, you're in a different world. Anything can happen.

I've been in the Loews' kitchen for a few Tribute Dinners and it's quite remarkable: half ballet, half military mission. Can you take us through it?

The reception starts at 7 p.m. with Champagne and nine different hors d'oeuvres. At 8 p.m., 600 people take their seats. The ballroom, the flowers, the tables--it's always very beautiful. Then the show begins, with toasts and a video. At 8:25, the first course goes out. That's the tricky part: serving 600 dishes in 12 minutes. We'll have 50 people behind the ballroom wall, plating at long tables, and 80 people serving.

Then the 600 plates are cleared and taken to be washed and the second course goes out at 9 p.m., while there are more video tributes and toasts. The third course is at 9:25, followed by the main course--and two more videos--at 9:50. After that there's another presentation and at 10:10, dessert. And then Lee Schrager always plans a surprise. Even I don't know what it is.

After the main course is served, I send ¼ of the staff home because they have to be back at 5 or 6 a.m. to prepare for brunch. The rest stay to clean up. When we come back in the morning, we're all set and ready to go.

Who figured this all out?

Marc Ehrler, Loews' exec chef for the first six festivals, laid the foundation, the organization of the ordering, prep and production, the physical layout, the time frame. Plus, he forged the relationships with vendors, festival staff, FIU students and faculty and of course the celebrity chefs. It was Marc who figured out the best way to plate 600 dishes in 12 minutes, times five courses. Then Gordon Maybury, who replaced Marc, took that foundation and pushed it to the next level. Marc and Gordon definitely gave us the tools.

In the dining room that evening will be of the biggest names in our biz, including Ducasse, your boss Jonathan Tisch (head of Loews Hotels), Brooke Johnson (head of Food Network), Dana Cowin (editor of Food & Wine) and many famous chefs and winemakers. What will that be like?

We're used to serving famous people but this is definitely more than usual! Celebrity chefs in the kitchen, celebrity foodies in the dining room--it's all part of the experience.

Now tell us about the Sunday Paula Deen Brunch.

Paula is the host, the guest of honor. Ten chefs will be cooking at stations, doing dishes with a connection to Paula: fried chicken, pancakes, grits, shrimp and lots of Bloody Marys and spiked ice tea. It's all very cool. Many of the guests will still be hungover, I'm sure. Most come for brunch and then head straight down to the tents on the beach.

Do all these guest chefs order their own food--or do you?

Of the 16 guest chefs coming this year, I'd say we ordered for half. In some cases we do the prep and in others, they do. But either way, when the chef arrives, we have everything ready for him. Sometimes they order specialty ingredients to be shipped directly to us; it's our job to receive them, label them, store them and chase them down when they don't arrive. Certain things, the chef has to bring.

For example?

Myron Mixon is coming down from Unadilla, Georgia with two whole hogs, 220 pounds each, fully dressed, plus 80 pounds of St. Louis Ribs. He brings his huge 20' x 20' foot wood-fired smoker/cooker and a mountain of peach wood and fires it up Thursday night, in advance of the BubbleQ on Friday night, where he'll serve smoked hog with coleslaw and peach barbecue beans. The hogs take at least 18 hours to cook. Since Myron is also doing the Brunch, we might need to move the smoker/cooker...but to where? The lawn by the pool? The garage? We'll find a place. Or maybe it'll just stay on the beach.

Any strange requests from chefs?

Two years ago, one chef wanted a live octopus for his demo. Not to cook, just to show. We must have called 20 companies to find one. We received it in ice and sea water...and kept it in the cooler. The happy ending? After the demo, we released it in the ocean.

And any drama?

For Emeril's Tribute Dinner in 2009, one guest chef was doing a lamb loin with sweet-potato gratin. So we ordered 120 pounds of sweet potatoes and a specific type of chipotle that his sous chef requested. But the pepper was one they had never used before and the gratin came out way too spicy. So we had to start over and re-do 600 portions. But when we got on the phone to order another 120 pounds of sweet potato, it was almost impossible to find. So we got two buckets from here, one box from there...five different purveyors total. All of this, just 24 hours before the dinner. But overall we've been lucky and things go pretty smoothly.

You must have quite a shopping list! How much will you spend?

For the Tribute Dinner, Alex Stratta requested 60 whole turbot; that's probably $6,000 right there. For the Loews' dish (we're preparing the main course, a lamb loin noisette with truffled polenta), I've ordered three pounds of Perigord truffles at $3,000 wholesale. I have no idea what the total will be...accounting handles it. On the Monday after the festival, I give them all the invoices--and run!

And your kitchen also handles prep for all the demos down on the beach as well, right?

Yes, we'll have a large group of FIU students in our kitchen prepping all the food for the demos. We order it, work with them to prep it, provide logistics and equipment. They'll be doing two or three dishes each for Jamie Oliver, Emeril, Rachael Ray, Morimoto, Rick Bayless, Ming Tsai, Claire Robinson, Sunny Anderson, Rocco DiSpirito, Bobby Flay, Paula Deen, Michael Symon, the Neelys, Anne Burrell, Bethenny Frankel, Andrew Zimmern, Duff Goldman, Tyler Florence and Guy Fieri. It's a lot.

I know you have a receiver on the hotel roof so you and the team down on the beach can communicate. What sort of things might they call for?

Oh, the usual. Maybe a chef forgot limes and needs five pounds right away. We send someone down there in a golf cart. Our role is support, whatever it takes.

How many people work in your kitchen normally?

Normally, 65 full and part time. During the fest there will be 100 or so. It's chefs all over the place for four days straight! And then Sunday at 5 p.m., whoop, they're gone! You wouldn't believe how quiet it is in here on Sunday evening...like a nuclear war zone!

In the early days of the fest, the Loews kitchen was sort of a clubhouse for visiting chefs. There were always chefs dropping in to chat or have a coffee. Is that still the case?

We love to see our chef friends but in reality we're very very busy during the fest. And now most of the big-name chefs cook or host multiple events: a demo, a dinner, another dinner, an after party. So they're on the run too. No one really has the time to come drink coffee with us!

It must be pretty surreal, having all these celebrity chefs running around your hotel, lounging at your pool? The staff and guests must love it.

We're used to seeing them on TV and now they're here. And it's fun to see how casual they are. Sometimes they ask our advice about stuff, which we love. It's a good time for everyone. Our cooks take pictures, gets autographs. It's cool. We love it.

And on top of all this, you're feeding 790 rooms...a sold-out hotel.

Because there's so much eating at the fest, our numbers that weekend aren't huge. We do about 400 breakfasts daily in the dining room, 120 or so lunches and another 500 to 600 at the pool. There's not much room service during the day...the orders start coming in around Midnight or 1 a.m. Per day, we'll serve maybe 300 pounds of shrimp, 500 to 600 croissants, 350 to 400 bagels, 200 to 350 burgers at the pool.

Does your kitchen ever close?

It's open 24/7, all year long.

Do you sleep in the hotel during the fest?

No! Thank you! I live 20 minutes away and find the drive home very relaxing.

What's the one thing in your kitchen you couldn't possibly do without?

My staff.

Anyone in particular?

Sébastien Ratti (exec banquet chef) is in charge of two Tribute Dinner hot dishes and is the point person for all the Brunch chefs. Daniel Rivera (banquet sous) and Veronica Garcia (garde manger sous chef) oversee all VIP culinary amenities and help several chefs at the Brunch. Jason Prevatt (restaurant chef) handles all the ordering, including specialty items for guest chefs. He'll also represent our Preston's restaurant Sunday in the tasting tents. Rene Contee (exec pastry chef) and Evan Sargent (pastry sous) will help Frédéric Robert with his Tribute Dinner dessert. Rene will also oversee the post-Tribute Dinner VIP turn-down amenity and all the Brunch desserts. Patrick Frey (director of purchasing) coordinates all food deliveries for the celebrity chef demos and handles all last-minute requests.

What happens to your leftovers?

We're very careful. Anything that needs to be eaten right away goes to the staff cafeteria. If it can wait a day or two, it gets donated--to homeless shelters, food pantries, even animal shelters. Leftovers from SoBe weekend get picked up Monday or Tuesday latest. Last year we gave milk, coffee, potatoes, pastries, breads, brioche, bagels, smoked salmon...lots of things.

Is there one chef you've never met or worked with that you'd like to?

Marco Pierre White. When I was cooking in Germany in the late '80s or early '90s, my chef had the book White Heat. At that time, cookbooks were a little, boring, a little old school. But White Heat, with its edgy black-and-white photography, the black-and-white-striped chefs' coats, the smoking in the kitchen, the long hair...Marco was like the first of the rock-star chefs. The book broke all the rules. You either liked it or you didn't and I loved it. Later I talked with other guys who hated it. They said 'White's a clown, he doesn't wear a proper uniform'--that sort of thing. Today most books from that era look dated but White Heat still looks fresh. Many of Marco's dishes, if you changed the plate, would still be a wow today.

And how about a wine you've never tried but would love to?

When I was a kid, we'd be 20 at the table for Christmas at my Uncle's. Under the staircase there was a wine cave and every year, he'd open a special bottle. In 1985, it was a very rare 1920 Bordeaux, a bottle thick with dust. It was the last bottle of something he had bought when he was very young. I don't remember the exact wine but I remember the room going silent! To this day, I wish I'd tried it.

I hear you and your wife Deborah are expecting your first child. Would you like him or her to be a chef?

I'd like to do what my parents did and support his decision whatever it is. They gave direction and advice but were open minded and never pushed. If my son or daughter wants to be a chef, that's fine. Something else? That's fine too.

For more info and tickets for select events: 2011.sobefest.com

Julie Mautner is the co-author, with Lee Schrager, of the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 2010). The former executive editor of Food Arts Magazine in New York, Julie now splits her time between the U.S. and the South of France, writing about food, wine and travel for magazines and websites. Her wildly popular website/blog is called ProvencePost.com.

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