April 14, 2024

CPS

Travel Adventure

the most dynamic culinary destination in the US

6 min read

This article is part of a guide to Miami from FT Globetrotter

It’s Friday night in Miami Beach and we’re in the ballroom of the famous Fontainebleau hotel. Just past sparkling chandeliers the size of the moon, dozens of America’s best chefs, alongside a slew of top wine producers, are waiting.

Hundreds of revellers (young, old and age-defying) swarm in, feverish for the evening’s food and wine tasting — one with a generous garnish of Miami flair. The sartorial theme of the evening appears to be peacocking, and while a DJ and saxophonist play, some guests break out into dance. My inner cynic is quiet. It’s a blast.

A head of a tuna sitting on a bed of ice covered in slices of raw tuna at a South Beach Wine and Food Festival event
A tuna stand at ‘Best of the Best’, one of the more than 110 events at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (SOBEWFF)
A DJ at the decks by the crowded dancefloor in Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau hotel ballroom
The festival’s Best of the Best evening at Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau hotel

The event (called Best of the Best) is just one piece of the gargantuan South Beach Wine and Food Festival (SOBEWFF), an annual affair that since its inception in 2002 has grown into a citywide celebration that welcomes more than 500 industry experts and 65,000 attendees each February. The festival, alongside a Covid-era influx of chefs, restaurateurs and new residents — and the city’s current generation of culinary talent — has cemented Miami as one of the most dynamic and exciting epicurean destinations in the country. 

“Miami has grown a lot, and I think Lee Brian Schrager [founder of the SOBEWFF] has been a big part of it,” says Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the legendary chef and restaurateur with 60 global establishments, including three in Miami Beach, under his purview. “The festival not only celebrates local talent, but brings people from all over the country, from Europe, from Alain Ducasse to René Redzepi and TV chefs from the Food Network — industry people and fans from everywhere.” 

An aerial shot of the festival’s Goya Foods pop-up, a ‘tasting village’ on the sands of South Beach, with the ocean to the left
The festival’s Goya Foods pop-up: a ‘tasting village’ on the sands of South Beach

The festival draws a broad audience; here, the pretentiousness that can shroud food enthusiasm is replaced by an inclusive, party-like atmosphere, served in American-sized portions. There are more than 100 events over four days, ranging from sophisticated dinners hosted by fine-dining superstars, to street-food tasting tents and celebrity-chef cooking demonstrations, each larger, flashier and more unashamedly enjoyable than I anticipate. 

For fans of upscale dining, a highlight on the festival schedule each year is the Tribute Dinner, a homage to a culinary luminary cooked by their peers. The 2024 event will be dedicated to Campari Group chair Luca Garavoglia and Massimo Bottura, chef-patron of the three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena and a sustainability advocate with a focus on reducing global food waste. Guests will enjoy a several-course meal cooked by Alain Ducasse, one of the most lauded chefs in the world, Mauro Colagreco (Mirazur) and Albert Adrià Acosta (Enigma), among others.

Chef Albert Adrià Acosta sitting at a round wooden table by the semi-curtained window of a restaurant
The star chefs creating this year’s SOBEWFF Tribute Dinner include Albert Adrià Acosta © Fabian Ester

For those who prefer food with less fuss, a perennial headliner is the spiky-haired, self-styled “Mayor of Flavortown”, Guy Fieri, the Food Network’s most popular personality, who brings his long-running TV programme Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives to life with guests from a selection of casual eateries from across the US.

Fieri’s popularity is astounding. Last year, wearing sunglasses, a bowling shirt and smoking a stogy, he danced on to the stage to House of Pain’s “Jump Around” before a salivating audience of hundreds. “He’s such a rock star,” the woman next to me whispered as though she were witnessing the second coming of Christ, while the city councilman of deliciousness made a vat of margarita and passed a bottle of tequila around the audience to swig.

US TV chef Guy Fieri squirting mayonnaise and ketchup over a giant burrito at last year’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival
The flamboyant Guy Fieri will be bringing his US TV show ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dive’ to the event © Nathan Valentine

For more than two decades, the festival has increasingly brought epicures and bon viveurs to the city, but the surge of new arrivals during the pandemic, dubbed the Great Relocation, attracted a slew of top-tier culinary talent to Miami to stay. During that time, while much of the US was in various states of lockdown, Florida’s restaurants were back to operating at full capacity in October 2020. The big names behind some of NYC’s most sought-after tables, such as Mario Carbone, restaurateur Simon Kim of Korean hotspot Cote, and chef Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster, opened chichi new eateries in Miami. With the rise of remote working, and pandemic-weary northerners opting for a more laid-back, sunny lifestyle in Florida, Miami’s hospitality industry had an even greater audience. 

“This isn’t the first time that we’ve had this influx of chefs from outside our city,” says chef Michelle Bernstein, one of Miami’s most beloved culinary figures, who I spoke to on the sidelines of the festival, citing a previous wave that included the likes of Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Scott Conant. “A lot of people who came to open restaurants didn’t make any roots here, like they do in a lot of places.” Historically, chefs from elsewhere would also focus on the transient nature of the city — tourists visiting for sun and sea — so Miami’s culinary narrative largely unfolded around helicopter figures and their hotel-based restaurants. Miamians didn’t embrace those businesses, Bernstein says.

Florida International University marquees on a Miami beach during SOBEWFF
Miami’s Florida International University (FIU) is one of the festival’s hosts. SOBEWFF proceeds benefit the FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management © Margi Rentis
A small caviar dish topped with foam and sitting in a sea shell at a dinner created by chefs Gabriel Kreuther and Jeremy Ford for SOBEWFF
A foam-topped caviar dish at a dinner created by chefs Gabriel Kreuther and Jeremy Ford for SOBEWFF © Richard Alvarez

“But it’s different now,” she says. “Whereas before people would laugh at the idea of living in South Florida all year round, people now realise that it’s actually a really nice place to live and grow your family. So I think that a lot of these chefs, owners and restaurateurs are finding that when you become rooted, you can build.” 

While new arrivals have helped put the spotlight on the city — and have increasingly attracted more serious diners to visit, restaurateurs say — some of Miami’s most exciting food hails from the kitchens of the current generation of local chefs, whose modern cookery style reflects the city’s multicultural make-up (54 per cent of Miamians were born outside of the US). 

SOBEWFF founder Lee Brian Schrager standing in a doorway beside a large dog
SOBEWFF founder Lee Brian Schrager © James Jackman

“[Our] local talent is constantly pushing the boundaries and experimenting with new flavours and ingredients,” says Lee Brian Schrager, founder of SOBEWFF. “The fusion of flavours and techniques from Latin America, the Caribbean and beyond has created a melting pot of cuisines that you won’t find anywhere else.” A dinner at these new-gen restaurants, I find, is both a gustatory and learning experience — a meal often results in gaining new knowledge of global cuisines, traditions and produce. 

Restaurant critics have started to see Miami in a new light too. Most notably, the Michelin Guide’s recent arrival and the awarding of a total of 13 stars, 18 Bib Gourmands and the adding of 68 Miami restaurants to its books. “It’s logical that Michelin came,” Vongerichten says. “Miami is attracting the best in terms of restaurants . . . and we have fantastic talent here.” 

Niki Blasina was a guest of The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival presented by Capital One (SOBEWFF®). The next event will take place February 22—25, 2024, in Miami, Florida

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