Dispatches from a Pandemic: With Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentiis among the hosts, a major NYC food festival attempts a comeback

When Lee Schrager considers the challenge of bringing back his New York City Wine & Food Festival this year, he talks about many things — the difficulties of selling tickets when many people are still hesitant to attend public events, the concerns of whether visiting international chefs will be cleared for travel.

But he especially talks about the price of rental tents.

“A tent that would have cost us $150,000 last year is costing $210,000 this year,” said Schrager, who founded the festival in 2007. This year’s affair is set for October 14-17, with events taking place at various venues throughout the city.

The tent-pricing issue is reflective of the fact so many New York events and parties are being shifted outdoors as the city comes back from the pandemic. But with such shifting, there’s more demand for tents — and hence, fees have risen.

Nevertheless, Schrager is hopeful he can keep a lid on costs. The festival, which is run by Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, a prominent distributor, in partnership with God’s Love We Deliver and Food Bank for New York City, two nonprofit organizations that provide food to people in need, has a budget of around $6 million to $7 million, according to Schrager. Whatever profit the festival makes — and Schrager isn’t sure there will be any this year — goes to benefit the nonprofit partners.

Not that Schrager writes off the other challenges he’s facing. He admits he isn’t having an easy time selling tickets. Normally, the festival draws 40,000 for its various events, which include everything from a Burger Bash where top chefs compete to see who can make the best version, to a Backyard BBQ blowout (prices start below $100 for tickets but can go as high as $500, depending on the event).

This year, Schrager has sold only 20,000 tickets to date, though he’s hoping for a late surge.

Oh, and Schrager is indeed worried about whether some foreign chefs, particularly from France, will be able to make it. “We don’t know,” he said in frustration.

Chef Paul Denamiel, a past winner of the New York City Wine & Food Festival’s Burger Bash, will be competing in the event again this year. He said the festival ‘really sets the tone’ for the fall season.

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for NYCWFF

In 2020, the festival cancelled its in-person programming because of the pandemic and hosted some events online. Schrager, who is a Southern Glazer’s senior vice president and also founded the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in South Florida, was determined to hold a live festival in the Big Apple this year, even with all the obstacles.

“I was concerned if we didn’t bring it back, it might never come back. You’d lose the continuity,” Schrager said.

The festival, whose title sponsor is the Food Network (and its related Cooking Channel), is known for its lineup of celebrity chefs. This year, the boldface names hosting events or making other appearances include Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Andrew Zimmern and “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro.

Certainly, the festival’s significance is in continuing to elevate those chefs, but it has also been a launching ground for up-and-coming names in the food world: Ingenue chefs on the Food Network of the Cooking Channel are known to use the event to build their brands. And because of the festival’s tie-in with the Southern Glazer’s distribution company, it is a place where major and emerging wine and spirits brands vie for attention as well.

The festival also has a solid track record of being ahead of the curve in celebrating food trends, be it the taco craze or the fried-chicken boom.

For the 2021 edition, the festival will adhere to New York City COVID-19 protocols, with indoor events requiring proof of vaccination. (For outdoor events, attendees who aren’t vaccinated for medical reasons will still have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.) The festival is also putting some of its own safeguards into place and creating space for a degree of social distancing.

Robert Irvine, another well-known television chef who will be in attendance, said via email that he is confident everything will be safe and welcoming. “I think those extra precautions will allow people to enjoy a festival that is as close to the carefree atmosphere of old as is possible,” he said.

The festival is coming at a time when New York is in recovery mode from the pandemic and trying to regain its buzzy vibe. Broadway theaters have reopened. Tourism is on the rise. And other major events on the fall calendar are returning, including the New York City Marathon, which is set for November.

But the return of the food-and-wine festival is key to the return of the city, says Paul Denamiel, the chef behind Le Rivage, a popular French restaurant in Manhattan’s theater district. “It really sets the tone,” he said of the event.

Denamiel, a frequent festival participant and past Burger Bash victor, is especially eager to compete in this year’s burger contest. He’s currently readying his recipe for his French onion soup-inspired burger.

“I’m giving myself a good chance of winning again,” he said.

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