Fans relish connections with Bobby Flay, Anne Burrell, Paula Deen, Rachael Ray

Rachael, Bobby, Tyler and Paula have become personalities with first-name recognition on the Food Network. And for the net’s devoted fanbase of foodies and enthusiastic home cooks, there’s no bigger draw than getting to mingle in person with those chefs at the South Beach Food and Wine festival.

Likely the biggest food and wine fest in the country, the event was launched in Miami 12 years ago. Food Network signed on as a sponsor in 2007.

The four-day gathering, which runs Feb. 21-Feb. 24, draws more than 50,000 people from around the country to 60 events — from massive tastings to food and drink seminars to an exclusive champagne dinner with the likes of Martha Stewart and Nobu Matsuhisa.

For Food Network and the spinoff Cooking Channel, the fest offers an important opportunity for die-hard fans to connect with the cabler’s biggest stars. It also provides a sun-soaked backdrop for filming promos and shows for use year-round.

“It’s the ultimate culinary playground for our fans,” said Food Network senior VP of marketing Susie Fogelson.

“I couldn’t begin to put a pricetag on what they bring to it,” said fest founder and director Lee Schrager of Food Network’s participation. “The reach they have — it’s almost cult-like.”

At this year’s event, the cabler is focused on getting the word out on the shows “Chef Wanted” with Anne Burrell and “Worst Cooks in America” with Burrell and Bobby Flay; latter preems Feb. 17. Both Burrell and Flay will appear at multiple tastings and receptions during the festival.

Just how many people will pay upwards of $200 to chow down with a celeb chef? Schrager said 3,000 people are expected at Rachael Ray’s Burger Bash, with 35 chefs grilling up gourmet burgers to be washed down with champagne.

Food Network personalities are pleased that their participation not only raises visibility but also benefits aspiring chefs, with a large part of the proceeds going to Florida Intl. U.’s School of Hospitality.

Burrell also hosts the League of Their Own Event, which showcases female chefs including the Spotted Pig’s April Bloomfield, and will contribute to Hurricane Sandy relief.

Fogelson is looking forward to Brunch with Bobby Flay, inspired by his Cooking Channel show “Brunch @ Bobby’s” and featuring chefs from his restaurants around the country.

“It’s created a nice presence for the Cooking Channel,” Fogelson noted.

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