South Beach comes to the South of France
Julie Mautner, one of FR2DAY's newest contributors, spent last year writing the "The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook: Recipes and Behind-the-Scenes Stories from America's Hottest Chefs" with Lee Brian Schrager. Schrager is the founder and director of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, a wildly successful Miami Beach event that has raised millions for culinary and wine education. This February, the festival will celebrate its 10th anniversary and this new book commemorates that milestone with 100 food and drink recipes from some of the world's top chefs. Here Julie gives us a bit of the backstory.
Neither Lee nor I can really remember exactly how the SoBe book project was born but we're pretty sure it started with a conversation at the festival a few years back. We think it went something like this:
Me: Hey Lee, this festival is amazing!
Lee, typing on BlackBerry: I'm sorry, what?
Me: I mean, you have all these sensational chefs here and all these great wines and it's such a glorious setting and everything is so well organized and blah blah blah. You really should do a cookbook and fill it with all the best SoBe recipes and memories and anecdotes...
Lee, typing on BlackBerry: Yes, for sure, a cookbook! I've been wanting to do a cookbook! It's a fabulous idea.
Me: I'll write it for you, ok?
Lee: Ok, great!
Me: I guess I should start with a proposal, right?
Lee: Yep, sounds good. I have to run, nice to see you again!
And now, on November 16th, the SoBe book will be published, roughly four years after Lee and I first hatched the plan. Between that day and this one, of course, many, many things transpired but unfortunately without my lawyer present I'm unable to tell you most of them.
The first agent we met with loved our idea but wanted less seabass and more sex. "Downplay the dishes in favor of dish," she said, or something to that effect. So I went home and rewrote the proposal with less steak and more sizzle ("Steamy Hot Chefs at the World's Coolest Food Festival!"). Still, she couldn't sell the idea.
So we put the book on the shelf for a while and then, after some time had passed, decided to revisit it; the festival's 10th anniversary was approaching and that seemed like the perfect "hook." Plus, we now had über-agent Jon Rosen on our team and he loved the initial concept. So I revised the proposal again and Jon sent it off and we were thrilled when Random House/Clarkson Potter made us a generous offer. We flew to New York and met with our editor and signed all our contracts and were on our way.
A week later our editor quit. I don't think it was (entirely) our fault-but that's another story.
The next year flew by in a blur. We requested and reviewed hundreds of recipes and sent thousands of emails to chefs and their "people" - their agents, assistants, publicists, spouses, sous chefs, managers and moms (true). And I heard a million great SoBe stories: the missing foie gras, the missing emcee, the missing Champagne, the missing chefs. I heard about illegal beach parties and barbecues and bonfires; about drinking, fighting, fishing, stealing, cooking, drugging, eating, cheating and more. (And you should hear what happens when the chefs actually leave the kitchen!)
Over and over again, chefs told me how they look forward all year to SoBe, to cooking and partying with their pals, to raising money for a great cause. Very early into this project I realized with horror that Lee and I, first-time authors, must have been insane to think we could produce a cookbook with not ten or 20 but 100 top chefs...and do it well, in a super rush. (The book had to be finished before the fest in February, 2011.) What on earth were we thinking?
Ultimately there were eight rounds of spreadsheets to keep it all straight and a pile of notes on my desk towering two feet tall and multiple meetings in New York and lots of laughter and plenty of tears and a couple good shoutin' matches too. But it all got done and it was tons of fun and as far as I know, no actual chefs (or recipes) were harmed. Best of all, every book that's sold will support culinary and wine education at Florida International University.
But let's go back to the chefs, for a minute. So there we were, asking some of the biggest names in the culinary world to take time from their crazy busy lives and pick out or whip up a recipe for us, for free. I needed all the recipes right away, of course, all clean and typed up pretty. With an interesting head note up top and a quote about the festival attached. And virtually every single chef said yes. Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adria, Guy Savoy, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud...they all said yes. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Charlie Trotter, David Bouley, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay...yes, yes, yes.
It may have taken ten phone calls and 20 emails to make it materialize but most everybody we wanted stepped up. Turns out, chefs rarely say no to Lee. I'm not sure what his voodoo is but if I could bottle it, I'd be rich for sure (and probably married too).
The chefs called me back from all over the world and flooded us with fantastic choices: delicious-sounding dishes do-able at home with readily available ingredients. But there were a few exceptions of course. One chef sent a "simple" dish made with lobster stock, Dungeness crab, sea urchin roe and gelatin sheets. Another recipe called for 35 different ingredients "plus salt and pepper to taste." One chef's recipe was a cross between chemistry class and home-ec: "maltodextrin, glucose powder, propylene glycol alginate, hibiscus tea, langoustines, popcorn puree." There were way too many tempting dishes and way too little space. It was really really hard to choose and we wanted to run them all.
But finding the right recipe mix was just the beginning, of course. There was also a lot of: digging through drawers and files for early festival photos and on-location photography at two festivals and food purchasing for recipe testing and recipe testing and recipe formatting and recipe styling and recipe fact-checking and more food purchasing and more cooking and prop rental and studio food photography and everything that that entails. There was interviewing and writing and cutting and copy editing and fact-checking and more cutting to make it all fit. Then came more photo editing and photo swapping and caption writing and color selection and layout re-doing and layout approval and wrangling about the cover and I don't even remember the half of it because I've been heavily medicated since about halfway through.
If you've written a cookbook, you know. If you haven't, you can't imagine. Luckily the people who worked with us and did all these things were amazing. Hillary Clinton was spot on when she said "It takes a village." Working long distance with Lee (me in Provence and Milwaukee; he in Miami, New York or wherever) turned out to be much easier than we had expected. Thanks to his trusty BlackBerry, Lee is great about staying in touch. One day I emailed him about something and laughed out loud at his reply, which appeared literally seconds later: "At Machu Pichu. Home tomorrow."
So those are the general facts, as best as I can recall them. And now that the fog is lifting, I'm thinking the SoBe story would make a great movie. I mean, right? It has all the elements of a blockbuster: colorful characters, sultry tropical setting, interesting narrative, do-gooder message. Plus steamy kitchens, sizzling pans, long sensuous meals and chefs in shorts.
Now all we need is a screenplay and how hard could that be to write?
You can order the book here...
Julie Mautner is a free-range journalist living most of the year in St. Remy de Provence, where she produces the popular blog ProvencePost.com. Her articles on food, wine and travel appear in Travel & Leisure, NYTimes.com, TheAtlantic.com, Food Arts Magazine and elsewhere. The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, November 2010) is her first book and she is currently at work on her second.