When party organizer Lee Schrager approached the Food Network about producing a food festival with television chefs like Mario Batali and Alton Brown, channel executives turned him down.
“They said they aren’t in the food-festival business, and you should be paying us for using our talent,” Schrager said in an interview.
A few years later, the network saw the promotional benefit of food festivals for its whisk-wielding stars and joined the foodie bashes organized by Schrager, who is a vice president at the Southern Wine & Spirits of America distributorship in Miami.
After launching a festival there, he and the network created a New York version in 2009. The nonprofit Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival, which runs from today through Sunday, is now one of the U.S.’s largest culinary fairs, attracting more than 40,000 people to about 140 events.
Last year, about $1.2 million of the event’s net proceeds went to Share Our Strength, a Washington-based charity that aims to end childhood hunger, and to Food Bank for New York City where Schrager is a board member.
Friday’s Blue Moon Burger Bash, hosted by actor Whoopi Goldberg, sold out within days. Schrager said he created it after TV host Rachael Ray nudged him about starting an event for burger lovers. The two then traveled the globe looking for the best recipes. Friday’s burger fest at Brooklyn Bridge Park has attracted a sell-out crowd of 2,000 people paying $225 each.
Ticket buyers paid $200 for “The Art of the Taco” hosted by Bobby Flay and $400 to eat a meal prepared by David Bouley in his TriBeCa test kitchen. Parents and kids will learn the fine points of cake decorating for $40 from “Ace of Cakes” star Duff Goldman.
Talking to Adria
One of the festival’s best bargains is a free conversation with legendary chef Ferran Adria. On Saturday he’ll talk at the Standard-New York hotel about his culinary pursuits since closing his famed El Bulli restaurant.
“Chefs as rock stars, that’s the thing for us,” Adria said. “When I went to culinary school 30 years ago, I wanted to be a chef. Now people go and want to be Bobby Flay.”
Schrager got the food bug while watching his mother cook as a child growing up in Massapequa, New York. After finishing his studies at the Culinary Institute of America, he segued into the nightclub business and in the 1980s ran Torpedo, a club in Miami’s South Beach favored by models and fashion designers. In the 1990s he became an event planner and philanthropist, chairing and designing Make-A-Wish Foundation’s galas.
Eating in Aspen
The idea for a food festival came when a friend took him to one in Aspen for his 40th birthday celebration 12 years ago. Schrager launched the South Beach Wine & Food Festival more than a decade ago to raise money for Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Annual proceeds have grown to about $2.5 million last year from $63,000, he said.
“Food festivals are on people’s calendars now, just like people in classical music know about the opening night at the Metropolitan Opera,” Schrager said.
(The Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival starts today and runs through Sunday. Information and tickets: http://www.nycwineandfoodfestival.com/2011/events.php)