This appeared in the Toronto Star’s Living section on Saturday, March 22, 2008.
MIAMI – Jamie Oliver, wearing a fitted short-sleeved shirt and jeans, emerges from behind the scenes and is greeted with a barrage of screams, whistles and applause.
His face is flushed. Hot in every sense of the word, this adorable British chef with the Mockney accent and penchant for “easy-peasy” cuisine wipes his brow with a tea towel.
It’s 5 p.m. on sweltering 30C Day Three of the 7th annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Held in late February, this is North America’s biggest gastro-fest boasting 50+ events attended by more than 35,000 people eager to pay the substantial ticket price.
Florida’s fab feast on the beach is four action-packed days and nights of glitz and glamour – a noisy, crowded, over-the-top celebration of incredible edibles.
I’m seated in the second row amid the din of the packed Kitchen Aid demo area located in one of several giant tents pitched on three blocks of beach parallel to Ocean Drive.
How did I get this prime location at a culinary wing-ding that was sold out weeks before it happened and where elbowing fellow foodies out of one’s way is the name of the game?
Wearing Press credentials around my neck, I’d managed to skip the huge line-up of those who’d arrived long before the mid-morning opening to sample wine, liquor and food at hundreds of booths. Often incidentally, they also gathered to watch demos by their favourite celebrity chefs.
The fest’s key sponsor is the U.S. Food Network so that roster is strictly crème de la crème. This explains the high-end wares dished up at lavish parties including the champagne-themed Bubble Q, a Burger Bash featuring about 20 renditions and a posh tribute dinner to stellar American chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Fanning my face with the day’s program, I’m one of the few sweaty audience members who doesn’t chatter through the unstoppable Oliver’s stellar non-stop performance.
“How are you?” asks this 32-year-old kitchen whiz, a greeting that elicits another barrage of whistles, whoops and hollers. “Okay, I get it,” he responds, “You’re drunk.” With cheerful resignation, he adds, “Just my luck – I always come on last when everybody’s pissed.”
Ever the pro, he gathers up pots, pans and ingredients, then proceeds to whip up three delicious dishes: Sausage Carbonara, an easy version of Bouillabaisse, and his famous Easiest Sexiest Salad of greens, fresh figs, buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto in a simple balsamic vinaigrette that’s a staple at his London restaurant Fifteen.
Oliver has only one helper provided by the fest who comes to his aid occasionally in response to the name “sweet pea.”
This is in contrast to the five Food Network stars (among them bigger-than-life Paula Deen and annoying Rachael Ray) who’d graced that stage before him in back-to-back, hour-long presentations.
Things kicked off with hugely popular New York chef Bobby Flay who, assisted by an entourage of four young women, plugged his new show and accompanying book, both called Grill It and both to appear soon. He also prepared a superb Shrimp Salad Nicoise while peppering his demo with witty chit-chat and tips like this: “Don’t poke and prod food when you’re grilling – just turn it once.”
Gorgeous Giada de Laurentiis, another audience favourite, is seven months pregnant and left the cooking to her sous-chefs while she offered accompanying patter.
But the high point for me happened on Day One. It was when irreverent, brilliant chef, author and TV host Anthony Bourdain served up the 1st Annual Golden Clog Awards for the best and worst of the year in food.
This tongue-in-cheek event, at which a couple of female groupies made inappropriate suggestions to their handsome hero, included The Fergus (after British chef Fergus Henderson) for “greatest achievement in pork and/or guts.” Winner: Korean-American chef David Chang of New York’s Momofuku Noodle Bar.
The Alton, named for the affable Alton Brown, was “for being on Food Network and somehow managing not to suck.” Winner: Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa.
But the key kudos made my Canadian heart swell with pride. The Supremo of Clogness for “best contribution to food and eating” went to Martin Picard, chef/owner of Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal, a wondrous eatery featuring updated Quebecois fare.
This recipe was demo’d by dashing TV chef Tyler Florence.
Pizza on the Grill with Sausage and Mozzarella
You could grill crust under the broiler or bake it at 450F for about 8 minutes, turning once. I found a substitute for buffalo mozzarella at my supermarket: Mozzarina made by Saputo. I tweaked Florence’s recipe.
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 cup warm water
8-gram package (1 tbsp) active dry yeast
1 tsp kosher salt
3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
2 tbsp cornmeal
Olive oil and kosher salt
4 mild Italian sausages
4 cups ripe cherry tomatoes, halved, crushed with hands
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch fresh basil leaves, torn
½ lb/250g buffalo mozzarella, torn
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
For dough, combine sugar and water in bowl of food processor fitted with dough hook. Stir in yeast. Let stand until mixture foams, about 10 minutes. Add salt and 2 tablespoons of olive oil; combine on low speed. With mixer running, gradually add flours and cornmeal. Mix until dough forms ball, stopping to scrape down sides and remove dough from hook if necessary. Transfer dough to lightly floured surface; knead a few times until smooth. Transfer to large bowl. Add remaining tablespoon olive oil; turn dough to cover with oil. Cover bowl. Let stand in warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 to 1½ hours. Divide in two. (Dough can be made ahead and stored in fridge in airtight container.)
Heat barbecue to medium-high. Pierce holes in sausages. Place on grill; cook, turning once, until browned and cooked through. Chop coarsely; transfer to large bowl. Add remaining ingredients.
Roll each piece of dough into large rectangle as thinly as possible. Brush with olive oil; sprinkle with salt. Place on barbecue; cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side.
While still hot, transfer to counter or wooden board. Distribute topping ingredients over crusts. If desired, return to medium-hot barbecue, close lid and cook a few minutes or until cheese melts.
Makes 2 large pizzas.