Lee Brian Schrager is preparing for another food and wine festival — one of his signature events that draw thousands and feature big names like Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray.
One big concern: He’s looking for locations to hold it.
With the fourth annual New York City Wine & Food Festival looming in nine months, Schrager and his assistants scout an old industrial building on a Hudson River pier. It’s old and rundown, but Schrager pictures it painted and open to the river.
“I don’t dislike it,” Schrager says into the vast empty space. “I can imagine that if the doors were open, this could be a fantastic space.”
Schrager’s big thinking has made him the pre-eminent event planner in the food world. At 51, he is a ball of energy who is able to charm and/or wheedle festival appearances from top chefs as diverse as Emeril Lagasse and Alice Waters. His main claim to fame is the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, a sort of culinary Woodstock meets red carpet meets spring break. It will mark its 10th year in February. A few years ago, he started a sister charity festival in New York City.
“I think Lee’s a genius. How he pulls these things off is beyond me,” said Food Network star Paula Deen. “I don’t know how he does it with such perfection.”
“If I were him,” she joked, “I would be laying in a ditch dead of a heart attack.”
Schrager lives in Miami, but spends about a quarter of the year in New York City, where he checked out possible sites for the 2011 city festival recently. On a frosty day as Manhattan geared up for Christmas, Schrager crisscrossed the island for meetings.
The Brooklyn site for the festival’s popular burger bash was still a question mark for next year. Plus, Rachael Ray won’t be able to host it, so Schrager was trying to land comedian Jimmy Fallon. Schrager needed to meet with event planners from two big hotels to talk about details of their involvement. At the hotel Eventi, he mused about showing food-related movies like “Babette’s Feast” during the outdoor food-cart event on a giant building-side screen.
But an overriding issue involves Pier 54 on the Hudson River, the festival’s former site for the tastings. The open-air pier might be unavailable next fall due to preparations to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in 2012. If Schrager doesn’t want his own festival going down, he needs to find a possible alternative site, soon.
So he visited Pier 57 a bit north. It’s not pretty yet, but it has a roof, meaning no tents would be needed. And it’s huge.
“Is there space here that could be used for the burger bash, hypothetically?” he asked the scouting party.
Schrager’s official job is vice president, corporate communications and national events for Southern Wine & Spirits of America, the largest distributor of wine and spirits in the country.
Shortly after joining Southern in 2000, he took over a modest wine and food tasting event run to help Florida International University School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Schrager moved the event from the campus to the beach, renamed it the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and, in his words, “put it on steroids.”
He lured the esteemed chef Alain Ducasse to the maiden festival, the start of a decade of high-profile “gets” that helped it grow to attract about 50,000 people to the beach each year. A mashup of highbrow and down-home, the annual February festival offers something for foodies of all stripes, maybe Deen on one stage and a wine seminar on the next. Fittingly, Schrager’s new cookbook, “The South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook,” features recipes from white sturgeon caviar to burgers.
Schrager pulls it off with the training of a chef and the soul of a salesman. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1979, he worked in catering and ran his own places in Miami, gravitating to event planning early on.
“I finally found something that combined my love of food, my love of wine and my love of selling,” he said.
It helps that Schrager is a textbook networker. His BlackBerry has around 6,700 contacts and he’s not shy about using them. His tour of possible New York festival sites brought him to the city’s culinary school, the Food and Finance High School. Schrager was so impressed that he quickly tapped out an e-mail mid-tour to his friend Cathie Black — the incoming New York City schools chancellor — reading “You must check out this school. It’s amazing.”
“You know, she’s a big foodie,” he told the principal.
Schrager is both energetic and persistent — he said he once slipped a note under Nigella Lawson’s door after she wouldn’t answer his e-mails. Even with his plate more than full, he’s hoping to develop a third festival. He does not want to discuss details, though it’s widely believed to be for Los Angeles.
But the secret of his success as a festival organizer might be the patience and attention he lavishes on the stars.
Festival veteran and Food Network star Guy Fieri recalled the time he asked Schrager if he could make pancakes out of organic batter and coloring and bring kids out of the stands to a buffet of toppings. Schrager responded: “OK Guy, that sounds interesting.” More recently, Fieri asked that 10 KitchenAid mixers be tricked out like hot rods for auction.
“Even when I throw out, ‘OK Lee, so I want to cook on the moon and everybody gets to fly the space shuttle.’ ‘OK Guy, that sounds interesting,'” Fieri said with a laugh.
An added incentive for celebrities is that South Beach proceeds benefit FIU’s hospitality school. New York’s event benefits the Food Bank For New York City and Share Our Strength. Meanwhile, Southern Wine brands get exposure with the best chefs in the world, according to president and chief operating officer Wayne Chaplin. Food Network and the other corporate sponsors get wide exposure, too.
And Schrager gets satisfaction.
“The thrill to me is making it happen,” he said. “I love making deals happen.”