I just flew in from Miami and boy are my arms… Cold.
It’s freezing back here in New Jersey, but I don’t need to tell you that. I’m sure you’re already well aware. I do, however, need to tell you that it was actually pretty chilly in Miami too.
Rather than spending our time lounging poolside, we were busy shopping for warmer clothes because we totally didn’t plan for it to dip into the thirties. But it was still warmer than anywhere else in the country and for that reason it was JUST FINE.
But weather aside, the week was full of friends, family, laughs, loads of celebrity chef encounters and SO MUCH FOOD. With all that going on, it was easy to forget that the sun was missing out on most of the fun.
We kicked off the festivities with a Tabasco sponsored tasting at the Federal Food Drink & Provisions with chef Cesar Zapata. All of the food and drinks were spiked with Tabasco hot sauce, and Tony Simmons, Tabasco’s CEO was on hand to sample some fiery hot aged Tabasco mash. I loved all of the food chef Zapata made, but was especially enamored with his biscuits with honey apple cider glaze. They were perfectly tender, buttery and flaky and the glaze totally put them over the top. I wish I had some right now.
Thursday night we joined SOBE & NYC Food & Wine Fest founder Lee Schrager on the roof top of the Betsey Hotel for a fun little VIP happy hour. The Botran rum and Whispering Angel rosé were flowing, and the hors d’oeuvres were fantastic.
Lots of different bites were being passed around, but the most memorable was a mini hollowed out bread bowl filled with braised short ribs and blue cheese from STK. The bread was fresh and crisp, the short ribs tender and succulent and the blue cheese tangy, funky and the perfect foil to the rich meat. The server kept coming up to us with a fresh plate and I found it incredibly difficult to turn them down. I had way more than my fair share.
A huge highlight for me was getting to attend 3 different “Industry Insiders Trade Talks” with some of the biggest and baddest names in food. These intimate Q&A sessions were chock full of candid stories, insider information and lots of laughs. On Friday I listened to Alex Guarnaschelli, Dale Talde, Josh Capon, and Laurent Tourondel discuss the ups and downs of their careers and what it took to find success.
On Saturday I sat in on back to back sessions, the first of which was moderated by the lovely Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, and focused on the topic of her new book, “Mastering your Mistakes in the Kitchen.” Anne Burrell, Dominique Ansel and Chris Cosentino gave a funny and insightful chat about their own mistakes and struggles to achieve greatness in the kitchen. It was incredibly humbling to hear these masters admit to their own faults and tribulations throughout their rise to the top. Next up was my boy Bobby Flay and his B-Team: Stephanie Banyas, Sally Jackson, Christine Sanchez, Elyse Tyrell; to talk about how it takes a village in order to be the cooking icon that Bobby is. Bobby is and has always been a huge inspiration to me, and I’m learning more and more that I simply cannot do everything I want to on my own.
Speaking of Bobby’s, during these chats I had the pleasure of meeting Bobby Parish of Flavor City, as well as his gorgeous wife Dessi! Check out his site to see their awesome recaps of the fest. These two were super sweet, and I wish we had gotten to spend some more time together. Next year, for sure!
Friday night I met up with fellow foodie and blogger, the adorable Kat Levitt of A Girl and Her Food for both the Amstel Light Burger Bash and Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best. Kat’s got some cool recaps up on her site too, so be sure to give them a peek!
We started at the Burger Bash and walked around sampling some of the best burgers from around the country. We didn’t try them all – we had to save room for the next event after all – but of all the ones I tasted, Josh Capon‘s was far and away the best. A few of the burgers I tried had over-cooked, dried out meat and hard stale buns (cough, Al Roker). But Capon’s burger was a juicy, perfect medium-rare inside, on a pillowy soft bun and topped with pickles and a decadent bacon onion jam. And I wasn’t the only one who dug it, celebrity judges Rachael Ray, Chrissy Teigen, Katie Lee, Marc Murphy, and Geoffrey Zakarian voted Capon’s burger best in show.
Before taking off for the next event, Kat and I stopped into the Amstel Light tent where we ran into fellow Food Network Star alum and winner of Season 7, the Sandwich King himself, Jeff Mauro! It was so great exchange stories and laugh about our experiences on the show. Good times!
We saved our appetites, hopped in a cab and headed over to the Fontainebleau Hotel for Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best, a huge event featuring, you guessed it, the best dishes from the best chefs paired with the best wines. Notable chefs included Scott Conant, Jenn Louis, Elizabeth Falkner, Stephanie Izard, Jeff McInnis, Elizabeth Falkner, Anita Lo, Daniel Boulud, and Christina Tosi just to name a few.
I have to say, this event was completely overwhelming. There were so many amazing and gorgeous dishes, crazy-talented chefs, highly rated wines, and people everywhere you turned. I didn’t know where to start and had trouble deciphering up from down. Had I known, I would have skipped the burger bash all together and spent the entire night making my way around the room. I wasn’t able to sample all of the food being offered, but I certainly gave it my best attempt!
My favorite bite of the night was Michael Voltaggio‘s Beet Tartare (yes, BEET) with puffed beef tendon. The tartare was good, but that beef tendon was INSANE. Crispy when you first bite in, and then immediately melted into buttery goodness. I need to figure out how to make these so I can snack on them all day every day.
Another highlight was the Cucumber and Basil Gimlet Sorbet with Manila Mango and Passion Fruit Caviar by Chef Yugit Pura. It was so bright and refreshing, and the passion fruit really gave it a tropical punch. A very welcome bite amongst all the steak, caviar and foie gras.
Saturday night Chaser and I moseyed to Caribbean Heat, a late-night event hosted by Bobby Flay poolside at the Raleigh Hotel. We sipped Appleton rum and more Whispering Angel rosé while tasting tons of delicious food created by Bobby and his B-team. My favorite was the grouper and stone crab curry over crusted coconut rice. The curry was super flavorful with perfectly cooked fish, but it was the rice that really knocked my socks off. Cooked with coconut milk until crispy bits formed on the bottom, it had the perfect balance of soft and crunchy textures. I have a feeling I’ll be trying to replicate this recipe in my own kitchen very soon.
The featured dessert of the night also had us swooning: Dulce de Leche and Mango Ice Creams with Aged Rum Sauce, Toasted Coconut and Macadamia Nut Brittle. This was easily the best sweet treat I had all week (and there were many).
But the best part of the night? The moment when I was standing directly next to Martha Stewart, who attended the event just for a brief moment. There was a point where I was walking directly behind her and I had the urge to do that thing where you tap someone on the shoulder and then quickly duck to the other side to fake them out. But I didn’t, because I’m chicken, and she probably would have slapped me. I couldn’t even mutter a hello. Clearly I hadn’t had enough to drink (yet). Next time, Martha. Next time.
Sunday hungover Sunday, I met up with my favorite Miamian, Reuban Ruiz, to check out the event that started it all: The Whole Foods Grand Tasting Village. I’ve been to lots of Food and Wine Festivals in my day, but this one wins the prize for being the biggest and the best. It also didn’t hurt that the sun came out and temperatures crept into the eighties for the first time all week.
We sampled the food and drinks, then sat down to see a few cooking demos as well. We caught Bobby Flay and the B-Team, Robert Irvine and Alex Guarnaschelli. After working with all three of these super stars on my season of Food Network Star, it was incredibly eye-opening to see them up there doing what they all coached me to do.
All three of them killed it, each being really informative about the food they were cooking, but more importantly they were all super entertaining. Walking around the stage, telling jokes, getting the crowd involved and just being all-out rockstars. I was in awe, and took a few mental notes to use in my own future presentations and performances.
I was fortunate enough to meet up with Shaina Wizov of the Take a Bite out of Boca food blog! Shaina and I connected through social media over the past year, but what’s so crazy is we’re actually both from the same hometown and went to the same high school (only a few years apart). We have tons of mutual friends and even more mutual interests (food!), so it was great to finally meet up in person and spend the day tasting our way through the festival.
To end our trip on the right note, we joined a few friends Sunday night to have dinner at The Bazaar, Jose Andres‘ restaurant at the SLS hotel. I had one of the best meals of my life ages ago at Jaleo in Bethesda, MD, and was so excited to see Jose walking around greeting customers Sunday night. We ordered a boatload of food, and we’re blown away by several dishes: the Colada Cubana – coffee with foie gras; smoked oysters; Empanadillas de Bacalao; Caprese with Liquid Mozzarella, and the classics: Patatas Bravas and of course Gazpacho. But nothing wowwed us all quite like the grilled Ibérico de Bellota pork chop: imagine the buttery marbling of kobe beef, only with pork. So deliciously fatty, each slice melted in your mouth and needed very little accompaniment to shine.