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Culinary Stars Power New York City Wine and Food Festival

Smorgasburg, a weekends-only food gathering in Brooklyn with 100 local vendors, intrigued Lee Schrager when he was organizing the 10th New York City Wine and Food Festival. He’d only been once, though he saw an opportunity to import the food hall concept across the East River.

His staff said it wouldn’t work.

“We’re trying to do events we’ve never done before and here my team was so adamant it wouldn’t sell, it was to the point I was nervous,” Schrager says.

Their logic? Anyone could experience it anytime. Schrager, figuring his Manhattan-centric focus wasn’t unique, booked it. His instincts won out: “It’s been one of the best sellers from the get-go. I’ll bet 60% of people buying tickets have never been there.”

The Smorgasburg event, one of 16 new events at NYCWFF, is the largest of the opening night events on Oct. 12. Held at the Northwestern Mutual Pier 92 Rooftop, a sell-out crowd of 3,000 is expected. Other rooftop events include the annual Burger Bash on Friday the 13th, an “Iron Chef Showdown” on Oct. 14 and a barbecue with Andrew Zimmern of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” on Oct. 15. Proceeds from the festival go to Food Bank for New York City and No Kid Hungry.

“Chopped” host Ted Allen, a veteran of the fest who lends star power to the Smorgasburg event, praises the set up. “You have some very rabid fans and they all want to shake hands and get a picture. They set it up in a way we could interact with the crowd as much as we wanted or retreat. That’s one reason this works so well.”

At ground level, the gatherings are smaller: Two dozen intimate dinners — 80 to 100 diners — are being prepared by the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, David Bouley and Argentine chef Francis Mallmann plus one-time-only teams such as Nancy Silverton, Gabrielle Hamilton and Dominique Crenn.

The festival will produce more than 80 events in four days, this year seeing further expansion with non-culinary talent: Naughty by Nature will perform at Smorgasburg; Whoopi Goldberg is the host of dinner at Harlem’s Sylvia’s; and Kristin Chenoweth is the new host overseeing Sunday brunch with Broadway show cast members.

“The New York audience is fickle — the expectations are higher each year,” says Schrager, senior VP of communications & corporate social responsibility at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, North America’s largest wine and spirits distributor. “We’re constantly having the conversation of what raises the bar? People are looking for more than just food and wine so we’re introducing music, introducing a Broadway event and bringing in new talent. There are 20 chefs that you have to fly to Chile or France or Buenos Aires to experience their cuisine.”

Over the decade, there are two constants: Food Network personalities and cookbook authors. Publishers are keen to expose authors with new titles; this year’s authors includes Valerie Bertinelli, Chile’s Rodolfo Guzman and “Top Chef’s” Gail Simmons.

The Food Network, a title sponsor since day one, and sister station Cooking Channel get involved during planning stages, suggesting talent to align with fall shows. Among the participants are Anne Burrell, Giada De Laurentiis and Alton Brown.

“This year’s ‘Rooftop Iron Chef Showdown’ is allowing us to bring to life a little of what our audience tunes in in to watch, giving guests the opportunity to taste and vote for their favorite bite in a truly immersive and interactive experience,” says Irika Slavin, Food Network and Cooking Channel’s VP, marketing partnerships, publicity & talent relations.

“Our digital pipeline remains a business priority, so we also try to bring a little taste of the weekend to fans via our websites and social platforms, programming a handful of Facebook Live opportunities from events with talent who can speak to the festival as well as mention current programming.” 

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