The Food Network Wine & Food festival is an event that’s been called a Woodstock for the world of food. The festival started in South Beach, Miami and has been known to attract the world’s most renowned chefs and restaurateurs – a concept that quickly spread to New York. This Thursday marks the start of the New York festival, and somewhere between planning Giada’s Meatball Madness and Rachael Ray’s Burger Bash, the festival’s founder, Lee Schrager, found time to sit down with us. From the inception of his festival Schrager has been the ultimate curator, but you’ll be delightfully surprised at how down to earth his taste really is…
What would be your ideal food day?
I eat out seven nights a week – lunch most days as well. I have to say; I think an ideal food day for me would be getting to eat as much as I’d like without feeling full.
For the day, I’d love to have breakfast at the Brasserie De Paris right on the square in Marrakesh, followed by lunch on the Left Bank of Paris at a restaurant called La Voltaire. Dinner would be probably be just getting in the car in Italy and driving through the back roads of Tuscany – with no reservation – and just exploring Tuscany and finding a local trattoria or restaurant and having a fabulous meal.
People have called your festivals the Woodstock of the food world. If they are like Woodstock, how do you think they’ll be remembered in forty years?
Hopefully we’ll still be around then and people won’t have to think back on us. Trends change and I always say to people; the thing about the festival is that not everyone loves baseball or fashion shows, but everyone eats. So as long as the festivals stay current and we’re introducing new talent, new trends and new food, I think we’ll stay relevant.
What will the industry be like in the future?
If I knew what the trends were going to be then I wouldn’t be doing it for a living. In this industry, an educated consumer is the best consumer. More people now are educated in wine and food, so they crave the opportunity to experience it at a festival. It’s all about staying current and staying relevant. You have the best names in the industry creating food that’s relevant to people. Whether it’s a tribute dinner at Nobu or a Meatball dinner, I think we manage to appeal to everyone.
Why do you think it’s important for all these food personalities to gather in one place?
I don’t think it matters why I think it’s important, but why they do [gather in one place]. I think people want to be involved. The festivals are the greatest networking opportunities out there. For chefs who have a new restaurant and chefs who want to stay current, it’s important that these people talk to their consumer. I think that’s why we’re so successful in our tickets and our sponsorships. We deliver the right consumer to the right event.
How did you first start convincing chefs to take part in the festivals?
When I started this twelve years ago, I didn’t know anyone. I think it was just about being introduced to people and meeting people. Alain Ducasse was our first big get. And even when we first spoke with Ducasse’s people, they wanted to come the second year once we worked the kinks out. And I was saying if we don’t have someone like Ducasse that first year, we may not be around a second year. So. I think it was getting that first big name. I remember thinking how cool it was to get him (And still think it). I just think he’s current with what he’s doing and people love to be around him and enjoy his food.
Do you take note of trends each year when putting together the festival?
I think you could spend your life trying to stay current. I try to read as much as I can, but I think I have very middle America taste. Things I like – hamburgers, meatballs, fried chicken – are never gonna go out of fashion, which is why the festival is incredibly successful. It why we’re sold out of the meatball, fried chicken and taco events. What is so great is that you have those comfort food events, while also having these incredible dinners – like the April Bloomfield and Bill Telepan dinner.
Where else can you go and try to decide whether you want to spend $225 for a big hamburger event or sit down for dinner with Jean Georges?
What’s a recent trend you’re into?
I don’t know if it’s new anymore but certainly food trucks. It’s worked really well for us – we have a big food truck event this year. We also have the band Train performing at it. So it’s great street food, with great recording artists. Having that combination of pop culture and pop music is what keeps us current.
What’s one that’s not doing it for you?
One [trend] that I’m happy has disappeared is bacon.
What event are you most looking forward to this year?
There are few. The roast of Anthony Bourdain should be amazing – with comedians and culinary friends. As you know I love fried chicken, so the fried chicken event with Whoopi Goldberg and Art Smith featuring DJ QuestLove. I love Train so I’m happy we’re wrapping up the weekend with them performing. Also Shabbat dinner Friday; that was something I wanted to do so I’m excited about that as well.