Sunday, February 20, 2011

If You Love French Chefs...

Miami will get a big taste of France this week as the South Beach Wine & Food Festival celebrates its 10th Anniversary (Feb 24 to 27) and a slew of French chefs show up to strut their culinary stuff.

For one long weekend each February, sixty to eighty of world’s most-popular chefs drop what they’re doing to transform southern Miami Beach into the world’s largest and liveliest kitchen, providing four days of nonstop food-and-wine-drenched decadence for those lucky enough to land a ticket.

An equal number of winemakers will be on hand, pouring the crème de la crème of both old and newer vintages.

If you’re curious about current food-and-wine trends, want to see what top chefs are putting on their plates today, looking for a great party or just hungry to get away from nasty winter weather, there’s no better place to be in late February.

Or maybe you want to support the next generation of culinarians, wine experts and hoteliers-in-training? This is a pretty pleasant way to do it as every penny of festival profits benefits culinary and wine education at Florida International University. To date $11 million has been raised.

The festival also allows FIU students to work side-by-side with top chefs and wine experts, getting valuable experience which leads to great jobs. Many return as volunteers after graduation.

Maybe you’re a young chef, job-hunting or looking to move up. Maybe you’ve got a cookbook in you just waiting to bust out—if you could only meet an agent to get the ball rolling. Maybe you dream of being on TV, like Bobby, Rachael, Emeril, Paula and Jamie, all of whom will be at SoBe. Indeed for four days straight, celebrity chefs are everywhere on South Beach: cooking, eating, helping out their friends, eyeing the competition, swimming, sunning and schmoozing up a storm.

SoBe long ago eclipsed other events of its type in terms of A-list attendance, industry relevance, food and wine quality and fun factor. “Anyone who’s important is there, having the time of their life,” Wolfgang Puck says.

I’ve been to a million food-and-wine events. Not only is SoBe the largest and most successful, it’s far and away the most fun. "When it comes to SoBe, I can't find anything to complain about," Tony Bourdain told me. "And I complain about everything."

The festival is an enormous undertaking that requires 18 months of planning to pull off. This year, 50,000 people will attend at least one of 50 different events, ranging from sandy-feet casual to supremely refined.

And this year as in years past, the French flag will be flying high.

Alain Ducasse, who earned his first Michelin three-star review in 1990 at age 33, will be honored at a glittering Saturday night Tribute Dinner—and seven of his favorite chefs will do the cooking. Six hundred people paid $500 each to attend the sold-out event.

Born on a farm in Southwestern France, Ducasse was 12 when he famously proclaimed “Grand-mere, these beans are overcooked!” and 16 when he began his culinary career. He’s considered a master of Provencal cooking, which he has elevated through his cooking schools, cookbooks, restaurants, food products and more. Today Ducasse has more than 20 restaurants in eight countries, including three Michelin three-stars: Monaco, Paris and London.

Ducasse was one of the SoBe festival’s earliest supporters and festival founder/director Lee Schrager credits him with helping to nudge the then-tiny event into the national spotlight. It was Ducasse’s participation, Schrager says, that encouraged other big-name chefs to sign on, to agree to leave their busy kitchens behind and come down to cook for a great cause.  

Following SoBe tradition, Mr. Ducasse chose the chefs who will cook his Tribute Dinner. (If I were a chef and Alain asked me to cook his Tribute Dinner, I’d be pretty proud, eh?) The chefs he chose? Laurent Gras (soon to open a restaurant in NYC), Alex Stratta (Stratta at the Wynn, Las Vegas), Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter's, Chicago), Frédéric Robert (former exec pastry chef, Wynn Las Vegas) and Frédéric Delaire (exec chef, Loews Miami Beach Hotel).

Doing the hors d’oeuvres for the reception are three chefs currently working for Ducasse: Phillipe Bertineau (Benoit Bistro, NYC), Didier Elena (Adour Alain Ducasse at the St Regis, NYC) and Sebastien Rondier (Mix on the Beach, Vieques, Puerto Rico).

Jean Paul Veziano, a top baker who once worked with Ducasse, is coming from Antibes to do the breads. And Marc Ehrler, who hails from Antibes but now lives in Houston, is bringing buckets of luxurious butters—truffle, yuzu, brown, sea salt—from National Dairy Brands, where he’s now the corporate chef.

French actress and model Carole Bouquet will be the evening’s emcee. Bouquet has appeared in more than 40 films--she’s best known to Americans as Bond girl Melina Havelock in the 1981 film For Your Eyes Only--and was the face of Chanel in the 1990s. Bouquet is also a winemaker: she has a home in Pantelleria, a small island between Sicily and Tunisia, where she produces a sweet white wine called Sangue d’Oro. 

The 790-room Loews Miami Beach Hotel is both the venue for the Ducasse Tribute Dinner and the host hotel for the festival. Overseeing the hotel’s vast kitchens is French chef Frédéric Delaire, a native of Agen. I rang Delaire up just now to ask him how his festival prep was going and found him triple-checking his market list for the week ahead. For the Ducasse dinner alone he’s ordered 60 whole turbot (about $6,000 wholesale), three pounds of Perigord truffles ($3,000) and 400 lamb loins ($6,400) plus scores of other luxe ingredients.

But the chefs producing the Ducasse Tribute Dinner are hardly the only ambassadors of French cuisine who will be out and about at SoBe this year. Since it launched in 2001, the festival has always had a strong French accent, thanks to elite chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Eric Ripert and Claude Troisgros, who have become mainstays on the talent roster.

Other well-known French chefs who have participated over the years include Michel Roux, Jean-Marie Auboine, Jean-Francois Bruel, Jean-Philippe Delmas, Tony Esnault, Pierre Hermé, Hubert Keller, Pascal Oudin, François Payard, Marc Poidevin, Michel Richard and Guy Savoy.

All sorts of heavyweights in French gastronomy, such as Jean-Luc Naret (former director of the Michelin Guide) and Ariane Daguin (of D’Artagnan) have also been involved.

Scores of top French winemakers come to SoBe to pour and the wines are always superb. Festival host Southern Wine & Spirits is the largest importer/distributor in the country and there’s no one in the wine-world they don’t know. The Wine Spectator is a major sponsor which lends both expertise and cachet. 

This year, another sold-out dinner, this one called The Brilliance of France, will be held at the legendary Biltmore Hotel. The menu follows the “imperial route” taken every summer by Napoleon’s Spanish-born wife, the Empress Eugenie de Montijo, and will feature dishes from three of her favorite gastronomic destinations: Biarritz, Bordeaux and Eugenie-les-Bains. Chefs for the evening are Pascal Nibaudeau (who has one Michelin star at Le Pressoir d’Argent in the Regent Grand Hotel Bordeaux), Biltmore executive chef Philippe Ruiz (a Frenchman who has worked in numerous Michelin-starred kitchens) and yet another Michelin-starred chef: Jean-Marie Gautier from Le Villa Eugenie in the Hotel du Palais in Biarritz. (Alain Ducasse was married at the Hotel du Palais, by the way, and Gautier prepared the dinner.)  

The wines for the Brilliance of France dinner include Champagne Pommery,  Château Suduiraut’s 'S’ de Suduiraut Bordeaux Blanc 2007, Château Petit-Village Pomerol 2007, Château Pichon-Longueville Baron Grand Cru Classé (Pauillac) 2003 and Château Suduiraut Grand Cru Classé Sauternes 2001.

At yet another elegant event called Best of the Best, in the ballroom of the Fountainebleau,  40-plus superstar chefs will each be cooking and serving a signature dish. Every dish will be paired with a wine, rated 90 points or higher by Wine Spectator. I quickly scanned of the list and saw Nicolas Feuillatte, Pol Roger, Pommery, Krug, Mumm, Hugel et Fils, Laurent-Perrier, Duboeuf, Latour, Leflaive, Jolivet, Jaboulet…many top French domaines.

If Champagne is your thing…one of the festival’s most popular events is a glorious beach barbecue called the BubbleQ. Twenty-five or so chefs will be grilling at stations around an enormous open-air tent and event manager Michael Moran is chilling 2,400 bottles of Perrier-Jouët for the four-hour party.

This year, Emeril Lagasse and Martha Stewart are co-hosting a dessert party called Let Them Eat Cake. Eleven top pastry chefs will fly in to create elegant, over-the-top desserts, served up with Moët. Jacques Torres is in charge of the piece de resistance: a 10-foot-tall birthday cake composed of…well let’s just say a lot of chocolate. It’s coming down from New York in a Fed Ex special-care truck. And knowing Jacques, it will be extravagant, dramatic and insanely delicious, the perfect way to wish Bonne Anniversaire to this spirited and very-special celebration.

Tickets to a few SoBe events are still available. For more info, visit the SoBe website here

To read about The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, November 2010), with 100 food and drink recipes from festival chefs, go here.

To buy the cookbook, go hereTo enter to win a copy, go here.

Bid on tons of great items in the SoBe online auction here.

Photo of Alain Ducasse by Mikael Vojinovic.


  1. Sounds like the place to be Julie, and if Tony Boudain said there's nothing to complain about - well it must be good!!
    "All Things French"

  2. Look like it will be a Gallic affair of epic proportions. Enjoy yourself. Wish I could be there to share the success of your book.

  3. This is a fantastic article. Thank you for sharing the history of the event & also the chefs attending, learned a great deal. Enjoy!

  4. Wow, this event has certainly grown and you seem to have all the major players.... I have always wanted to eat at the restaurant at Eugenie des Bains, and Alain Ducasses Bastide de Moustiers.....I 'll just love it through you.... Another book in the works?????Maryanne xo

  5. Sounds wonderful! Wish I could be there to partake!

  6. Being that I am a rabid Francophile and the editor of a blog dedicated to Life, Love and Accidental Adventures, I can't believe I have never found this wonderful blog before.

    I just posed an article about the delicacies of Normandy - when, through a series of mad clicks, I ended up here.

    Thank goodness for serendipitious blog encounters. I loved this article and am off to read more of your postings.




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