Attending a star-studded, multi-day culinary bonanza like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival is the stuff of foodie fantasies. Here are the essential strategies for tasting, sipping, and partying your way through a delicious event.
You can always spot the ringers at a destination food event like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival (known as SBWFF) in Miami. While noshing newbies in fancy footwear are literally sinking in the sand as they queue up to crowded booths, pro festival-goers are lapping the floor in flip-flops and sinking their teeth into the tastiest morsels before sidling up to celeb chefs for requisite selfies.
While there's no "right" way to experience your first food festival (or your 50th) there are specific strategies you can use to get the biggest bang for your buck (tickets at SBWFF and similar festivals run from $20 for a kids event to $500 for an exclusive dinner). Put these expert tips into action, and you may get even more than you bargained for: a coveted invitation to one of the legendary SBWFF after-parties.
Begin with a mission
Most food festivals span several days and feature several dozen events, from intimate dinners to walk-around tastings to late night parties. "You can't hit every event—you'd be tired, woozy, and overstuffed," says Robert Irvine, author of Cook like a Chef and host of Restaurant: Impossible. Decide which experiences are most important to you, and then purchase tickets to those specific events.
Don't dress for a red carpet
You've paid handsomely for tickets and you're in a glamorous location, so it's tempting to wear your finest duds to the festival. Resist the urge. "Remember that most SoBe events are on the beach, on sand, and exposed to the elements," says Franklin Becker, executive chef of The Little Beet in New York City. "Check the weather report, and dress for comfort." If you absolutely can't bear the idea of skipping out on your high heels, get creative and wear them as an accessory, as this festival-goer did (pictured above).
Be an early bird
Show up at least 15 minutes before your scheduled event begins, recommends Irvine. "Otherwise you could be standing outside in a big crowd, waiting to get inside when the food is already being served."
Flow against traffic
"When walking into an event, it's human nature to gravitate to our right and move around the room counterclockwise," says Mark Gregory, former Food Network executive. "That's everyone else's instinct too—which is why there's often a logjam by the front door." He recommends escaping the early crowds at any event by walking directly to the far back corner of the space, then moving clockwise to hit as many booths as possible before the crowd catches up.
Check the menu before you wait
No matter how early you arrive, or how strategic you are about your sampling, you're eventually going to wait—and wait—to grab some grub. "Before you step into an epic line, read the menu to see what's being served," says Ani Meinhold, Partner at The Federal in Miami. "So often people get to the front and realize that they can't or won't eat what's being served."
On the flip side—if you're really a fan of a particular chef, don't be deterred by a mob of people queued up to see them. "In that case, be patient and wait," recommends Meinhold. "It'll be worth it for the opportunity to be served by someone whose food you're really excited about."
Sample beyond your comfort zone
While events like Best of the Munchies and Burger Bash are loaded with comfort food nibbles you know and love, don't be afraid to try something that feels a little "out there" for you—like tripe or barbequed pigs ear. "If a top chef offers you a bite of food he or she has just cooked up, don't turn it down. Try a small bite!" says Guy Fieri, host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Guy's Grocery Games. "You might just discover something new that you love—and you'll show your respect for the chef."
Go light on the libations
Tickets to many food festival events also come with special extras like unlimited refills of wine, beer, or mixed drinks. "Whatever you do, don't drink too much on the first night," says Iron Chef Marc Forgione, chef proprietor of American Cut steakhouse in New York City. "Otherwise, you'll be limping around for the next two days. Remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint."
Use the buddy system
Unless you're the next Kobayashi [a world-famous competitive eating champion], you can't eat a full plate of everything served at the larger festival events, like Best of the Best and Meatopia: The Q Revolution. That's why Becker recommends grabbing a friend or two and sampling your way around the room or tents together. "Not only can you divide and conquer, waiting on different lines and picking up bites that appeal to everyone," he says, "but you'll reduce how much food you end up throwing out."
Work up an appetite
With so many tasty morsels to choose from at each food festival event, it's pretty easy to overdo it. Work up an appetite for the next eating orgy by going for a walk, jog, or bike ride along the boardwalk between events, suggests Paul Wilson, General Manager at the Biscayne Tavern in Miami Beach. This part-wood, part-paved stretch of sidewalk runs 40 blocks along the coast between Indian Beach Park at 46th Street and 5th Street in South Beach, a span of about 4 miles.
Make a memorable approach
Not only is it okay to chat up the headliners at the festival—it's actually encouraged. "Stand out from the crowd of fans and admirers by having a smart question or two to ask your favorite chef or food personality," suggests Irvine. "We want to help answer those questions and give you a behind-the-scenes look at what it is that we do in real life."
Want to take a photo with your favorite food crush? That's fine, too. All you have to do is ask—respectfully. "Fans have helped put us where we are, so we're almost always happy to snap a picture," says Anne Burrell, host of Secrets of a Restaurant Chef and co-host of Worst Cooks in America. "Just wait until there's a break in the action or conversation, and make the request."
Couldn't make it to the South Beach Wine & Food Festival this year? You don't have to wait 'til 2016 to experience an eating and drinking bonanza. Here's a lineup of a few more top food festivals happening across the U.S. this year:
Austin Food & Wine Festival
April 24–26, 2015
New Orleans Wine & Food Experience
May 20–23, 2015
Food & Wine Classic in Aspen
June 19–21, 2015
New York Wine & Food Festival
October 15–18, 2015