New Yorker Spotlight: Lee Schrager Unites the Culinary World at the NYC Wine & Food Festival

Posted On Fri, October 9, 2015 By

Posted On Fri, October 9, 2015 By In Features, Interviews, New Yorker Spotlight, People

Pumpkin everything may be the hot foodie topic of the moment, but for serious gourmands and winos, it’s all about the year’s biggest culinary event. From October 15-18th, the eighth annual Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival (NYCWFF) presented by Food & Wine will bring together sommeliers with wine aficionados and chefs with foodies for four days of libation and food appreciation.

Lee Schrager, a vice president at Southern Wine & Spirits of America, is the founder, director, and visionary behind NYCWFF; he launched the event in 2008 following the success of its sister festival, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Fast forward seven years, and the NYC festival’s dinners, master classes, and wine tastings are some of the hottest tickets in town. We recently spoke with Lee to find out why he brought NYCWFF to New York, how he approaches each year’s programming, and what types of wining and dining New Yorkers can look forward to next week.

When did you realize you wanted to be part of the culinary world?

From the time I was baking in the kitchen with my mom and family. My mom’s a good cook, and I always had a desire to be in the kitchen with her rather than playing baseball with my brothers. When I was in high school, I was not a great student. The one area I not only excelled in, but that I enjoyed, was culinary arts. When the other kids were taking wood shop class, I was baking. It was very natural to me and I was very comfortable with and good at it.

After attending the Culinary Institute of America, where did your career take you?

I went to the Culinary Institute to get the background, knowing that one day it would be useful to me. I knew I may own a restaurant, but I did not want to be a chef operator. I always had a knack for putting things together, so I went into event planning. Years ago they didn’t have event management classes, but now all the schools do. I had to say catering in those days. I did my externship from the Culinary Institute at a top New York catering company called Glorious Food. I went back after I graduated, and then I spent my early years at the original Dean & Deluca on Prince Street.

New York City Wine and Food Festival, Food Network, Cooking Channel, NYC culinary events

How did you go from working in events and catering to founding the South Beach Wine & Food Festival?

Prior to my joining the team at Southern Wine & Spirits (SWS), they worked with Florida International University on a one-day wine tasting called the Florida Extravaganza. Once I experienced my first FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen and joined the SWS team, I knew we could grow the Florida Extravaganza into something much bigger to raise funds for the school. We moved the event to the beach and hosted the first South Beach Wine & Food Festival in 2002. I never could have dreamt it would be the success that it is today.

What inspired you to start the New York City Wine & Food Festival?

I didn’t want to start New York until South Beach could stand on its own and I could divert some of my attention. Seven years into South Beach, it just seemed like a natural progression, and I didn’t want to be a one trick pony. Believe it or not, there had never been a wine and food festival of this scale in the city. I was ready for the challenge, and with all the great chefs, restaurants and access to product, it seemed like a natural fit.

NYC Food & Wine Festival

Since the festival launched in 2008, how has it grown and evolved?

I think that we’ve grown by looking at what worked well in South Beach and seeing if it would translate to New York. But I think what we’ve done best is take advantage of the assets that are in the city — the great venues and chefs. New York has extraordinary venues, so rather than build our events around the venue, we build our venue around the events. If you look at the chefs who we have, what we’ve managed to do in both cities is highlight Food Network and Cooking Channel talent, let’s call them celebrity chefs, and then have the white table cloth Michelin chefs like Alain Ducasse and Virgilio Martínez. I don’t know that there’s a festival anywhere in the country that manages to have both pop culture and white tablecloth fine dining.

What is the festival’s demographic?

We have 144 events. We have tickets from $22 up to $500, so it’s hard to say who the demographic is. Our festival appeals to everybody. If you don’t want to go to a big, massive event like Blue Moon Burger Bash or our late night Tiki event, go to a small intimate dinner. If you want a hands-on experience, go to one of our master classes. If you want an opportunity to pair great wine and great food, go to one of our pairing seminars.

NYC Food & Wine Festival, Blue Moon Burger Bash, Rachael Ray
A 2011 Blue Moon Burger Bash winner with celebrity chef Rachael Ray

When planning NYCWFF 2015, how did you approach the programming?

It’s like a puzzle. You take things that work well like our Blue Moon Burger Bash, our sushi event, and our Greenmarket Brunch, and you know that you can’t get rid of those because people like them. So it’s about keeping it fresh by changing venues and adding on new chefs. You look at trends and see what’s popular. We created our Chicken Coupe event a few years ago that Whoopi Goldberg hosted because fried chicken was having its moment. If you look at events that have been successful for us like burger, barbecue, sushi, pizza, those are all things we created because I enjoy them.

Can you share some of this year’s delicious events?

We are doing a late night breakfast event in Harlem that Rev Run is hosting with his wife. We’re doing one in South Beach with Chrissy Teigen in February. I love breakfast, and I love midnight breakfast. We’re creating a new ramen event this year because ramen is so popular, and the Fat Jew is hosting that on Saturday night on October 17th. We think that’s going to be very exciting. Our Meatopia event last year was very well received, so that’s coming back this year. The family event we do is Jets and Chefs with Joe Namath and Mario Batali.

NYC Food & Wine Festival, Bobby Flay, Chris Santos
Food Network stars and NYC-based chefs Bobby Flay and Chris Santos

Who are some of the New York chefs participating this year?

I’d say that I couldn’t name you five great New Yorkers chefs who aren’t participating. Everyone from David Bouley, Michael White, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Daniel Boulud. If you look at the Zagat guide of the top 50 rated restaurants in New York, I bet you we have 45 of them. I may be wrong, but that’s my number.

Do you have the opportunity to attend any of the events?

I go to some of the events, but I’m working. I’m focused on making sure the guests are having a good experience, that our sponsors are taken care of, and the talent’s happy.

New York City Wine and Food Festival

Will you start planning for NYCWFF 2016 during this year’s festival?

Absolutely, no doubt. During the festival people have a way of coming up to me and saying, “Hey, have you ever thought about doing this, or what about that, or have you ever used that chef?” I get a lot of good ideas during the festival.

This not only a culinary celebration, but there is a philanthropic component. Who are the festival’s partner charities?

There are two beneficiaries: Food Bank For New York City and No Kid Hungry, which is an umbrella of Share Our Strength. Two great hunger organizations, both focused on feeding people. No Kid Hungry really ensures that no kid goes to bed hungry in the U.S., and the Food Bank for New York feeds people of all socioeconomic levels in Manhattan. I’m a board member of the Food Bank and am very supportive of it and the work that they do. As important as raising money is, we’re raising awareness and that’s important.

Chef Cesare Casella, New York City Wine and Food Festival
Chef Cesare Casella at a 2014 NYCWFF event

What makes New York one of the top culinary cities?

Without a doubt, a lot of decision makers are in New York City. I think it’s a very sophisticated, upscale dining scene that offers great diversity. New York is certainly one of the top dining scenes in my mind in the country. And I think it has to do with the access. A) the access to the ingredients and B) the access to great talent; there’s just so many options. New York has a plethora of amazing talent, amazing restaurants, great wine shops. Every street corner has a good restaurant whether it’s a local mom and pop restaurant, a bodega, or a well known respected chef. There’s something for everybody.

Do you feel that New York is undergoing any culinary changes?

People are very aware of what they’re putting into their bodies. I hate to use the word fusion, but you’re still seeing a lot of fusion. But bottom line, everyone still loves red meat. I think steakhouses are more popular than ever. I think people love fine dining, but they want to get that local, neighborhood feeling as well.

Lee Schrager
Lee Schrager via Evan Sung

Where do you like to dine in New York?

You don’t have to walk far to find a good restaurant in Manhattan. I have my favorites. I love Marea. I love Porter House in the Time Warner Center. I live between New York and Miami, and I always like to try new places. This weekend, I’m going to Howard Moore’s new restaurant. When I come back the following week I’m going to Michael White’s new French restaurant Vaucluse. I’m going to a new restaurant in the East Village called Virginia’s that I’ve heard about and to a restaurant in Brooklyn called The Four Horsemen.

If you could select one dish and one wine that epitomize New York, what would they be?

I would pick White Girl Rosé from the Fat Jew, a great slice of pizza from Gargiulo’s in Brooklyn because who doesn’t love a good slice of pizza, a Gray’s Papaya hot dog, a bagel from Ess-a-Bagel, and a Levain Bakery chocolate chip cookie.

What does sharing terrific wine and food with New Yorkers mean to you?

Not everyone likes theater. Not everyone likes sports. Not everyone likes couture. But everybody eats. It’s a common denominator that we all share, and it brings everyone to the table.

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For the calendar of events and to purchase tickets, visit the New York City Wine & Food Festival

[This interview has been edited]

All images via NYCWFF unless otherwise noted

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