Photography by Vanessa Rodgers | Shot by Palm Beach Illustrated at The Colony Hotel, Palm Beach
What do today’s food industry celebrities have in common with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.? When viewed in the context of a new-age Rat Pack, a lot more than one might think.
Like entertainers, restaurant professionals exist in a space where food, drinks, and good times flow until 2 a.m. Mischievousness is as endemic as culinary prowess. Accomplished chefs who possess the right personality—and drive—can rise in the ranks from foodie cult favorite to international stardom.
The hustle, however, is very real. Cooks are rarely able to break out of the kitchen and blow off steam, with the exception of special occasions. One such excuse is the annual Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival.
Having celebrated its tenth year in 2016, the festival has evolved into a four-day fête for fine food and libations, drawing top local talent, James Beard Award winners, and the biggest names in culinary television (including stars from the Food Network, Bravo, and Travel Channel). Though the festival is a sprawling, high-energy affair, its intimate events ensure time for the who’s who to mingle with each other and their fans. For one long weekend, Palm Beach becomes their playground.
Last December, following a series of small, chef-run gatherings, the shenanigans kicked off in decadent fashion at the Chef Welcome Party, a glamorous bash for 250 guests at The Breakers. More spectacles followed, like a street food extravaganza at the Four Seasons and an after-hours party at Clay Conley’s Imoto, complete with a sushi bar atop a nude model à la Samantha in Sex and The City. It all culminated in the Grand Tasting at The Gardens Mall and the weekend’s signature cooking competition where high-brow flavors meet democracy.
A few of the players—Lindsay Autry, Clay Conley, Johnny Iuzzini, Tim Lipman, and Adam Richman—gathered the next day at The Colony Hotel for one last hurrah. Dressed to the nines, the group took over the Palm Beach institution with rascal-like antics that evoked the spirit of the Rat Pack, another group fond of drinking whiskey and keeping late hours.
Richman encompasses much more than his TV persona. He’s a jack of all trades who adores the food industry. As the host of Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, he went on the hunt for the country’s most tempting, and sometimes dangerous, food challenges. In his current endeavor, Secret Eats, he travels to the world’s most obscure places in search of delectable dishes. The cook, author, and TV personality marked his first visit to the festival in 2016, where he served as a judge at the Grand Tasting along with Johnny Iuzzini, Robert Irvine, and Marc Murphy.
Asserting himself as the ham of the troupe, Richman (who also earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama) held an impromptu cabaret in the Royal Room, dabbling on the piano, singing, cracking jokes, and busting out impressions. The spotlight finds him, easily.
“Adam’s a sweetheart,” says Iuzzini, who became friends with Richman through their Brooklyn connection. “He’s a genuine guy who will take the time to talk to anyone who approaches him. He’ll have a conversation with them, not just thank them for watching his show but ask where they’re from and what they ate today. Adam has the ability to make people feel special because he’s attentive. That’s a quality more people should strive to have.”
Iuzzini, a famed pastry chef who served as head judge for Top Chef: Just Desserts and most recently as a judge on ABC’s The Great American Baking Show, is definitely the Sinatra of the bunch. He owns more than one metallic dinner jacket and, for the PBFWF weekend, brought countless wardrobe changes, upward of 15 fedoras, and significantly more luggage than his girlfriend.
“Johnny is a chain-wallet away from being in the movie Swingers,” Richman jokes. “I think we all appreciate the old school style, though. You didn’t see too many pictures of Frank and Dean wearing Yeezys and drop-crotch sweatpants with a hoodie. It was ties, well-fit suits, and a degree of panache.”
Iuzzini’s sweet tooth for retro fashion sets him apart, but so does his résumé. He’s a James Beard Award winner and the former executive pastry chef at Daniel (chef Daniel Boulud’s Manhattan restaurant) and Jean-Georges, which was awarded three Michelin stars during his tenure. He’s also authored two cookbooks and is working on his own line of chocolate.
Despite the friendly quips fired between him and Richman, the two can agree on one thing: They’re both fans of this festival.
“I had such great culinary conversations with chefs I’d just met,” says Richman. “The coolest thing is that festivals—when they’re done well—aren’t ego-driven lovefests; they’re about the gathering of community, minds, and talent.”
Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival organizer David Sabin has worked tirelessly to establish that sense of camaraderie through the event, making it a place for the greats—on every level—to party. The balance of work and play in the lineup is conducive to collaboration and friendship. It also showcases the county’s food scene, which has drastically evolved in recent years.
Many consider Clay Conley, a James Beard Award nominee many times over, the frontiersman of the Palm Beach dining sphere, having paved the path for other chefs to introduce their concepts. He left Miami for the island and opened Buccan in 2011. Widely regarded as the Friday night “it” spot, Buccan’s innovative, worldly cuisine and relaxed atmosphere have inspired more area restaurants to depart from fine dining and white tablecloths.
“Restaurants are more fun [now] than when I first moved here,” says Conley. “A lot of casual places have opened up with real quality food.”
To read the full article, pick up the April 2017 issue of Palm Beach Illustrated.