Conquering The South Beach Wine & Food Fest's Grand Tasting

The 2014 South Beach Wine & Food Festival will be coming to Miami from February 20-23, and one of the major highlights (along with the Burger Bash) is the Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village, a collection of tents and demo stages featuring some of the finest food, wine, and spirits in the world.  Some of the world's most famous chefs, including Emeril Lagasse, Daniel Boulud, and Rachael Ray will be hosting cooking demonstrations, and there will be a seemingly endless array of food and wine to sample.

It can all be a little overwhelming, so we reached out to some of the most well-versed authorities on the subject —  festival founder Lee Brian Schrager, chefs Marc Murphy, Geoffrey Zakarian, and Anne Burrell; and Christine Weisenberger from Barilla, who has been part of the festival since the beginning —  to weigh in on the best ways to take advantage of the whirlwind of culinary opportunities.

The Daily Meal: Attending Grand Tasting can be an intimidating experience, especially for first-timers. What advice would you give to those planning their first visit to Grand Tasting?

Chef Marc Murphy: My advice would be to walk through the entire tent first to see all the amazing options; then, once you know what's there, you can narrow down what you want to try.
Chef Anne Burrell: Plan ahead because there is so much to look at and experience! I would check out what demos I would love to see and work my day around that. Have FUN!!!!
Chef Geoffrey Zakarian: Know your stuff. Study the selection before you go in and be disciplined. You cannot taste everything, so I recommend just specialize each day in one region.
Lee Brian Schrager, Festival Founder and Director: Look at the demo and book signing schedules in advance and then plan accordingly.  Stay hydrated between all of the tastings!
Christine Weisenberger, Barilla: Plan on attending the festival for as many hours as you can. The event is not a race to the finish, but a leisurely culinary stroll.  Familiarize yourself with the seminar schedule and take advantage of seeing your favorite Food Network star up close.  Last but not least, don't forget the book area as taking home a book is a great way to remember your experience and would also make a great gift for the foodies in your life.

What are you most looking forward to at Grand Tasting?

Chef Marc Murphy: I look forward to seeing all my friends and colleagues. It's really amazing to have everyone in one place at one time and there's always great energy.
Chef Anne Burrell: I love, love, love just looking around and seeing everyone having a good time! It is such a great place to be and such a great festival!
Chef Geoffrey Zakarian: The scope and knowledge of the participants really knocks my socks off. I learn so much.
Lee Brian Schrager: We have two great panels that we've added to the schedule this year – Food, Treme & Bourdain: a discussion about the role of food in the hit HBO series Treme; and Kung Pao America: a discussion on the evolution of Chinese food in the U.S.  Plus, the Miami Heat's Shane Battier and Chris Bosh are doing a charity cooking relay.  Appleton Rum is bringing a great island-themed activation this year, and our official merchandiser, Flavour Gallery, has a whole pop-up store structure that is new.
Christine Weisenberger, Barilla: We look forward to the wide variety of spirits and culinary treats.  We also enjoy meeting the student volunteers – they have such great energy and do a fantastic job at making the event special.

What's the best strategy to sample all the top offerings without overloading yourself?

Chef Marc Murphy: I say start with white wine, then red wine and work your way into spirits! Also, people forget that you don't have to have the whole sample. Just take a sip of each one so you can try a lot of them. The same could be said for food. Don't finish everything. 
Chef Anne Burrell: Taste everything but in bites. Don't go too hard, too fast. You must really pace yourself!! And of course always stay hydrated...
Chef Geoffrey Zakarian: It's a tough one, but really be selective. I tend to go a couple of times or days. 
Lee Brian Schrager: Make sure you have some water every few tastings and don't think you have to taste everything quickly — take your time!
Christine Weisenberger, Barilla: Take your time to view the many offerings and share each plate with a friend.  Don't forget to take a picture of each item you enjoy. For example, having an image of a wine label will make it easier to find it at the store or a recipe that you enjoyed that you want to make at home.

In your opinion, what makes Grand Tasting such a spectacular event that draws intense crowds year after year?

Chef Marc Murphy: It has all these amazing chefs and tastemakers offering some of the best dishes and drinks under one tent! What's better than that?
Chef Anne Burrell: I think all the talent and all the cool stuff it has to offer...let's not forget it is on the beach!
Chef Geoffrey Zakarian: It is so seductive to have so much quality in one area. It's like one large food and wine sandbox!
Lee Brian Schrager: It's our signature event — the huge white tents that are four football-fields long against the backdrop of the beach and Ocean Drive — it's a gourmet gathering and chance to meet everyone's favorite celebrity chefs and culinary personalities all in one spot.
Christine Weisenberger, Barilla: We love the energy of the festival and it embodies how food can bring people together.  The crowd is always in a great mood, relaxed and happy to be enjoying the day.  There is no other place that offers this unique culinary and spirit experience with an abundance of Food Network celebs on hand.