Out of all the engagements and to-dos that fill Martha Stewart’s calendar, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival is one event she almost never misses. “I try to always get down here because I’m a foodie,” she says. “It’s an important event for everyone in the food world.”
A mainstay of the festival since the mid-aughts, the domestic queen and business empress has hosted her fair share of parties and has been honored at tribute celebrations over the annual long weekend in February. This year, in addition to Miami, she found herself in other familiar surrounds: Palm Beach.
Although she doesn’t own a home in Florida—“I think I made a mistake,” she laughs—she often visits friends who live here, including Lisbeth Barron, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and Charlotte Beers. As a result, Stewart sightings have become more common. She’s been spotted dining at Buccan, perusing the West Palm Beach GreenMarket, and shopping on Antique Row, and she’s even visited John F. Kennedy’s former bunker on Peanut Island.
So, when SOBEWFF founder and director Lee Brian Schrager was looking to grow the festival north, Stewart was a natural ask to mark the expansion. In February, she hosted SOBEWFF’s first Palm Beach County event, a dinner at The Regional with chefs Lindsay Autry and Clay Conley.
“We wanted to do something in Palm Beach, and we needed to pull out the big guns to launch,” Schrager says. “Who bigger than Martha Stewart to show you’re serious?”
The dinner sold out almost immediately, a testament to the appetite of area gourmands. But ultimately, SOBEWFF’s arrival signifies that the Palm Beach County food scene has come into its own—an entity separate from and different than its South Florida neighbors—and it has the potential to propel the culinary landscape forward.
“It’s nice that [SOBEWFF] is being extended a little bit north so that Palm Beach understands what’s happening in Miami,” says Stewart. “South Florida is a productive place for testing out new restaurants. To extend the festival northward is a big deal.”
In Miami, the festival has become more than a weekend of over-the-top parties on one of Florida’s best beaches. When Schrager took over in 2002, he developed what was once a one-day event benefiting Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management into a multiday, star-studded affair, attracting a mix of local talent, pop culture cooking personalities like Rachel Ray and Giada De Laurentiis, and James Beard–winning and Michelin-rated chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud. The annual gathering of who’s who in the food world spotlighted Miami’s unique flavor and motivated new faces to get involved.
As Schrager notes, the Miami culinary community and the festival grew together. “Twenty years ago we didn’t have the Michelle Bernsteins, and certainly not the Daniel Bouluds, Thomas Kellers, Fabio Trabocchis, and Jean-Georges,” he says. “Today Miami has amazing local talent and amazing people like these chefs.”
The trend northward began in 2016, when SOBEWFF kicked off the Crave series in Fort Lauderdale to great success, a recipe Schrager hopes to replicate in the Palm Beaches. Given that Brightline now connects all three locations, Schrager acknowledges it’s easier than ever for festival attendees to explore over the weekend.
Aside from SOBEWFF’s impact on Palm Beach County, the dinner represented a career coming full circle for Lindsay Autry, who’s participated in many past SOBEWFF events. As a budding chef growing up in North Carolina, Autry often looked to Martha Stewart for inspiration. Stewart’s cookbooks were some of the first Autry purchased, and the famed hostess even played a role in the 4-H cooking competitions Autry began entering when she was 9 years old. While reading an issue of Martha Stewart Living, Autry’s mom discovered Stewart’s herb brush for grilling and basting marinades and sauces. Prior to a competition, mother and daughter would craft Autry’s “secret weapon” by plucking the herbs growing in their home garden and tying them to the ends of wooden spoons.
“All the other kids were making barbecue sauce with Dr. Pepper, and I had my Martha Stewart herb brush,” she says. “When the judges came by, I would pull a brand new one out. It was always the touch that helped me win.”
Naturally, once Autry knew Stewart would be involved in the event, she had to incorporate the brushes into the dinner at her West Palm Beach restaurant, The Regional. The fragrant bundles became farmhouse-chic centerpieces, and they were once again a secret weapon in flavoring the evening’s standout dish, Autry’s divine grilled cobia.
For chef Clay Conley, who also cooked at the event, the dinner prompted perspective on his career, as well. Conley recalled one of his first experiences at SOBEWFF about 16 years ago, when he was tasked with putting together a tribute brunch for Stewart alongside his then boss, Todd English. “I think we stayed up all night,” he says. “I remember going from a nightclub straight to prepping at the hotel. That breakfast was brutal. Times have changed.” Indeed, they have. With Buccan, Imoto, and Grato, Conley’s created a mini-empire and left that lifestyle behind to focus on his passions and family.
As for the future of SOBEWFF in the Palm Beaches, Schrager says foodies can look forward to a few additional, more intimate dinners next year, and then possibly a large signature event the following year. But, that’s only if David Sabin, Autry’s husband and director of the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival, gives his blessing.
“You have a great festival up there. The Palm Beach Food & Wine festival is a first-class operation,” Schrager says. “We will expand SOBE, but we want to expand with their support. We don’t want to step on anyone’s feet. If I thought this would hurt [PBFWF], I wouldn’t do it.”
Sabin appears to be on board, and even points to Schrager as a role model. “We’ve recognized him in our list of special thank-yous on our program for the last 10 years,” says Sabin. “We’ve always been mutually inspired by the events that they do. It’s been special for us to see how [SOBEWFF] has grown, and it’s exciting for us to be involved.”
“I think we can definitely coexist,” says Autry, who explains that as a chef, she feels supporting both festivals is key to creating opportunities for those involved now and future participants, too. “Overall, we are just super flattered to be a part of it and to know we’re growing a friendship within this community where we can see how food and dining in general affects all of South Florida.” «