Chopped Aaron Sanchez
Courtesy of Variety

Most food network viewers familiar with Aaron Sanchez have never seen him cook. While he has restaurants in Baltimore and New Orleans and specializes in tacos, he is best known for judging chefs on “Chopped,” the network’s top-rated competition show.

Cooking at festivals provides an opportunity to play off his celebrity and give fans a taste of what he does in his day job.

“Festival guests get to know what we’re doing besides the TV stuff and we get a chance to spread the work about our restaurants that people might not know we have,” says the co-owner of Johnny Sanchez. “It’s great to reach different communities in different places, even if I don’t have a restaurant in that city.”

Sanchez will host a Tacos After Dark party Feb. 25 — it’s already sold out — at the 15th edition of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival that takes place Feb. 24-28 in Miami Beach.

The event brings together a litany of stars from Food Network, Cooking Channel and other culinary-oriented TV shows: Giada De Laurentiis, “The Chew’s” Michael Symon, Andrew Zimmern and Rachael Ray are among the chefs leading demonstrations. Restaurateur-author Jonathan Waxman will be saluted at a gala dinner hosted by Tom Colicchio; and a collection of brunches will be hosted by Alex Guarnaschelli, Martha Stewart and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Trisha Yearwood and others.

Daniel Boulud will cook a dinner with George Mendez during the South Beach Wine and Food Fest.

The celebrated chef Daniel Boulud — whose restaurant empire includes Gotham’s Daniel and DBGB Kitchen and Bar, plus a restaurant in Miami and eight other international cities — will cook a dinner with George Mendes on Feb. 26.

“For my dinner, I hope that people can feel and taste the careful, healthy, delicious quality of the food, and to be able to sense the real friendship that George and I have, and the fun we are having in the kitchen,” says Boulud, a frequent guest on cooking competition shows.

Set up as a charity for Florida Intl. University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, the SoBe Fest has raised more than $22 million for the institution. Besides bringing in celebrity chefs, the festival also focuses on Miami and Miami Beach chefs and restaurants, and this year has expanded to include Ft. Lauderdale.

“I hope people can feel and taste the careful, healthy, quality of the food.”
Daniel Boulud

The first three or four years the event was considerably smaller, and it was not until the fourth or fifth year that the Food Network — the event’s major sponsor — saw an opportunity to participate.

“They were a bit reluctant to form the relationship,” says Lee Schrager, founder and organizer of the festival and a Southern Wine and Spirits’ VP. “The hard part was getting the right people down here to see it, and ultimately, because we were using their talent, I think they said we should look at to see how we benefit from it. “I think they are responsible for the growth (of the festival) — they gave us a lot of credibility.”

And when it comes to why the festival is popular — their sister festival in New York in October coincides with cookbook season — Schrager likes to quote Emeril Lagasse’s take on the festival: It’s spring break for chefs.

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