Picture this -- blue skies, a teal sea, white sand and palm trees swaying in the cool seaside breeze. And in the middle of it all, two giant white tents full of hundreds of people boozing it up and eating until they couldn't breathe. It's the South Beach Food and Wine Festival in a nutshell. Four days of food, wine and Food Network stars.
There were too many events to hit them all, but here are the highlights from a festival binge in Miami:
The Whole Foods Grand Tasting Village and Mastercard Grand Tasting Tents: These tents acted as the main festival hub where guests could have their favorite Food Network chefs sign cookbooks, or watch a cooking demonstration by Rachael Ray, Alex Guarnaschelli, Curtis Stone and more stars. Farther into the tents you could try gelato -- and Transitions Lenses -- with spokesman Robert Irvine, sample tastes from Whole Foods market or make your way into the two food and wine tasting tents. People who need their own space, beware. These tents were packed with people with nerdy wine glass lanyards around their necks stumbling around, trying to get a taste of everything from sushi to fresh pasta and vodka, the Food Network's Entwine wine, tequila and a Dow's 20 Tawny Port. Restaurants from around the country set up booths. "I'm so full I can't breathe" was frequently overheard being uttered by festivalgoers. It was crowded and hot, but on a beautiful beach.
Fontainebleau Miami Beach presents Wine Spectator's Best of the Best sponsored by Bank of America: The Fontainebleau hotel filled an entire ballroom with wine vendors who rated 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator's scale along with food booths. Again, it was super crowded as people wearing more wine glass lanyards shoved their glasses at the vendors, trying to get a pour of anything they could reach. It was a little hard to get details from the winemakers with a line 10 people deep behind you waiting for a pour, but former South African President Nelson Mandela's daughter Makaziwe and granddaughter Tukwini discussed their House of Mandela Wines, which debuted at the festival. Good to see the boys from L.A.'s Animal, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, with a food booth, but it was a little disappointing when they served beets! The couple in front of me both asked, "Wait, isn't their name Animal?" Some of the best beets I've ever had, though. I also caught up with "Top Chef" Season 3 winner Hung Huynh, who is the executive chef at Catch restaurant in Miami and New York. I went to go check out his restaurant after the festival and found Emeril Lagasse sitting at a nearby table enjoying a late supper around midnight.
Barilla Interactive Lunch hosted by Debi Mazar & Gabriele Corcos: Actress Mazar and her Italian husband, Corcos, appear on a show together on the Cooking Channel called "Extra Virgin." The ridiculously cute couple hosted a lunch at the Biltmore Hotel and taught guests how to cook some traditional Italian dishes. The two were joined by Barilla chef Lorenzo Boni and the Biltmore Hotel's chef for a lunch full of spicy banter. After the cooking demonstrations, everyone got to eat what they made and sip on some crisp Italian wine.
Some of the best Food Network star glimpses happened while walking to and from the James Royal Palms hotel to the festival tents. At the pool area, Iron Chef Geofrey Zakarian smoked a cigar while interviewing Guy Fieri about getting started in the food business. A tired Anne Burrell and Sunny Anderson sat close by and listened. Ran into Curtis Stone walking from one event to the next and caught a glimpse of Ray, a little tipsy, coming out of the Delano hotel. In a nutshell: Food Network meets TMZ.