Sunday, February 24, 2008

Best Weekend Ever: SoBe Wine & Food Festival

The Reader's Digest version of the story can best be told in 3 pictures. They are:


If you're curious, here is the full story. For my ChristmaBirthdValentine present, Dave and I went to the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival. We have been excited about this since October. We stayed at a quirky hotel, The Penguin, which was on Ocean Drive right across from - yep - the ocean, but also right across from most of the action for the grand tasting on Saturday. The hotel had a personality all it's own - dark blue walls, "money" signs on the door, chandeliers in the rooms, and random full-wall artwork. Ours was a butterfly. There were penguins in the elevator. We definitely had fun taking pictures in the hotel.

I got out of Lexington on Thursday right before the ice storm. Right after I had changed into flip flops and shorts, and was eating lunch on the patio of the hotel, I got a voicemail from Rose telling me that class was canceled because the weather was so bad. I cannot tell you how (a) bad I felt that everyone at home was stuck in misery and (b) happy I was to be in a place where I needed sunscreen and shorts. We went for a walk and were beyond thrilled to figure out that the Grand Tasting tents were right across the street from our hotel!

Thursday night we chilled out, watched Lost, and had all the taste that we needed of the Miami club life. We made it into Cameo, thanks to an early start and my flirting with the doorman. The drinks were poured a little too strong - guess we should've expected as much at a club! - and let's just say we were both glad we "got that out of our system" early. Literally.

Once I got over the unnecessary amount of cheap gin I so hastily and stupidly consumed on Thursday, we enjoyed Friday by laying out on the beach. For my friends who have not yet ventured out of the Gulf for a beach vacation, let me warn you. Miami beaches are not for the faint of heart. It ain't Gulf Shores. There were Speedo violations a plenty. There were also many beautiful people from all over the world, so we enjoyed a day of people watching, reading, and trying not to get sunburned.

At this point, it really becomes difficult for me to put into words what Friday night's Bubble Q was like. I expected awesomeness, but what we experienced was way beyond any level of awesomeness I could have imagined. As I told Dave, I can relay to y'all that there was food, champagne, celebrities, and overall fun, but there was also another ingredient that just can't be explained. It's kind of like the sum adding up to more than the whole of its parts. It was magic! I wish I could have captured what it smelled like outside the tent. Imagine the most amazing, smokey, barbeque-y, goodness, mixed with sea air, and that comes close. It was mouth watering, to say the least. The event itself was basically a big barbecue tasting, where we walked around and ate barbecue and other yummy dishes cooked and served by renowned chefs from across the country. The event was sponsored by Moet & Chandon Champagne. So that's what we drank to accompany our barbecue. I know, barbecue and champagne sound like a strange combination, especially if you're used to cheap beer or sweet tea accompanying your barbecue. Take it from me, though, your typical, hardcore, tea & barbecue kinda girl - bubbly with your bratwurst is stellar.

In addition to the unbelievable amount and quality of food, I was excited about the chance to meet my favorite celebrity chefs. Y'all know I am obsessed with Food Network, and really feel like I've learned to cook from watching them. I couldn't wait to tell my favorites thank you for sharing their talents! We got there very early, waited in line to get in, and I put my plan of getting pictures with celebrity chefs early into action. I saw Giada's station first, basically started running over to it, and - gasp - there she was. Surrounded by body guards. Already a swarm of people around her. I thought for a second, "there is no way I'm going to be able to get a picture with her." Obviously, though, I did!

I must tell you that, after Friday night, I have a new appreciation for that woman. She is currently 6 weeks away from having a child. I can imagine that the very last place she'd want to be is surrounded by crazed fans, champagne, barbeque, and humidity. But, she held to her commitment and served as host of the event. At first I overheard her say she was tired, and really wanted to sit down. I don't blame her. But she was still signing autographs and taking pictures. So as soon as she stood up, Dave basically pushed me into her, and I found myself saying, "can we get a picture?" She looked like she was going to say no or roll her eyes - again, don't blame her, she's very pregnant and tired after all - but she put her arm out, put on a smile, and we got the picture! We even had a conversation. It went like this.
LB: "Thank you so much! You taught me how to cook. I love what you do."
Giada: a suddenly genuine smile, and a "aw, thank you!"
LB: And, your limoncello cheesecake squares are the best thing ever. Thank you so much!
Giada: a smile and confused look, and a laugh, "you're welcome. Now go eat!"

And eat, we did. For 3 hours. More on the food later.

Tyler Florence gave me a hug. Acted like he knew me. Almost kissed me on the cheek. He was sweaty. And just as hot and charming in person as he is on television. I think I told him I loved his meatballs, meaning I love his "ultimate spaghetti and meatballs," but it totally came out wrong. Oh well. I acted interested in his calamari, and it was just so neat to hear him describe what he made, just like he does each week on tv. So cool.

I almost passed out when I saw Curtis Stone. He, too, is beautiful in person. He gets the award for "nicest overall." He leaned in, asked me where I was from, asked how long we were in Miami, and told me every ingredient in his shrimp salad when I asked him.

I told Cat Cora I was from Alabama (to which she replied, "aw, I love my southern girls!") and that she inspired me.

I told Pat Neely I sure was glad he finally got his own show on Food Network.

I chatted with Rick Bayless about his habanero-sauce-laden tacos.

The food was some of the best I'd ever had in my life. But do you know who had the very best tasting barbecue? Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson's BBQ in Decatur, Alabama. Yep. The barbecue I grew up eating takes the cake, among all other gourmet chefs. Dave agreed. It was really neat to go up to him and say "thank you for inventing the chicken potato and your white sauce."

Other food of note: Al Roker's beer-something-or-other bratwurst was seriously the best brat I'd ever tasted. I wanted to eat the whole thing, but decided not to since I wanted to eat some of everything. Al even served it to me, himself! How cool was that. It was just a perfect sausage, on a french roll with saurkraut and dijon mustard. Heaven on earth. I ate a buffalo taco prepared by Dan Fearing, and I must tell you that if I get on Food Network as a result of my attending this festival, it will be because I gave them the "money shot" right after a short interview with him. I saw a camera at his station, and I basically shoved my way in front of it. As soon as I did that, a microphone and woman were shoving me out of the way for an interview. Dan said, "nope, stay right there, you need to be in this shot." So I did. After he described the taco, the interviewer looked at me and said, "how does it taste?" I did my very best "oh-my-God-this-is-amazing-food" look while chowing down, looking at the camera, smiling, and giving a thumbs up. I went on and on about how amazingly delicious it was. And Dan offered me free dessert for being so nice. :) We enjoyed so much steak, beef, pork, shrimp, and seafood I thought I was going to explode by the end of the night.

Basically, it was one of the best nights of my life, and well worth the money. I highly recommend to any of my fellow foodies out there to go next year.

And the weekend didn't end there! Saturday, we had another full day of eating and drinking ahead of us. The Grand Tasting Village was a zoo - of people and of food and of drinks. Somehow, we managed to get out of there after 3 straight ours of eating and drinking without being drunk or so full we couldn't move. I will say, had we exercised less constraint, and I had a drank all of that amazing caprihnia, and all 4 kinds of limoncello, and the other 200 types of wine and liquor there, I'd be telling you a different story. It was basically an overload of good food, and good times.

Before the tasting began, though, we sat in on a cooking demonstration by Ellie Krieger, who I honestly make fun of for looking like an alien, but actually feel kinda sorry for her and like her more after watching her live. Why do I feel sorry for her? Well they pitted her against Bobby Flay's time spot (don't get me started on him, he's off my list), and so only, like, 20 people were there to watch her cook, under a huge tent that sat about 100. So I tried to be a really good audience member, laugh at her jokes, make eye contact, do my head nodding thing, and support her efforts. She was just a little... boring. Dave said that she is a food accountant, since she's a nutritionist and all. But she did whip up a yummy looking portabello, sun-dried tomato, and blue cheese sandwich, as well as "lamb pops" that I really wanted to try and was sad when they didn't pass them around.

To wrap up our day, we watched Emeril's demonstration - why he decided to cook more spa food, I do not know. Some obnoxious audience member who'd had a little too much to drink harassed him until he finally, angrily, yelled "BAM!" really loud. Which made the crowd go wild. I think Emeril was either tired, or just didn't feel like going on at the end of the day. He seemed very serious about the food. Or maybe that's how we're supposed to be - serious - and he just has to play it up on television to keep viewers.

Either way. I not only fell back in love with food, I have been re-inspired to cook. Cool things. Strange things. Often. And, to top it off, I got to share the whole weekend with my sweetie. Besides hanging out with celebrity chefs that I truly adore, I got to hang out with my dear boyfriend, that I adore even more. This was easily one of the best, if not the best, weekends of my life, and getting to experience it all with Dave made it even more special. (cue sappy "awws" here) Thanks Sweetie!

For all the pictures and even some random videos, check out Dave's Site.

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