Chefs may run the world these days, but there’s one man who runs the chefs — for a couple weekends out of the year, at least. That well-connected powerhouse is Lee Brian Schrager, vice president of corporate communications and national events for Southern Wine & Spirits and founder of the South Beach and New York Wine & Food Festivals.
R29 was lucky enough to sit down with him, in his apartment in the Ansonia on New York’s Upper West Side. “As I always say, not everyone likes to go to tennis, not everyone goes to the ballet, not everyone likes to go to the theater,” Schrager told us. “But everyone likes to eat.”
This is the mantra the chef-cum-event planner lives by as he puts the finishing touches on New York’s sixth annual festival, which kicks off October 17. With 130 events — ranging from tailgating with Joe Namath and Mario Batali to a pie baking class with Four & Twenty Blackbirds — Schrager is aiming for “sensory overload” by way of limitless comfort food. “It doesn’t matter how sophisticated you are,” he said. “You could be eating at Per Se or Daniel or Jean-Georges and you still want a great burger.”
Schrager may have been raised when boys did woodshop and girls stuck to home ec, but with a teacher’s encouragement, his mother’s passion for cooking, and a deathly fear of buzz saws, he eventually became one of the most powerful personalities in food. “My home ec teacher, a lady named Linda Darnell, told my mom about the Culinary Institute of America and my mom looked into it,” he recalled. "Who knew there was a career in cooking?”
These days, his black book includes the brightest stars in the culinary world, from Alex Atala to Andrew Zimmern. Even with two huge events and a forthcoming cookbook dedicated to fried chicken (“You’d think, how different can fried chicken be? But you’d be shocked."), Schrager’s busy social life is enough to keep him from staying stagnant.
For the time being, however, he's happy being at home. “I always said if we owned, this would be the building. It’s always reminded me of Paris.” Or, he mused, a French wedding cake: The Beaux-Arts space is adorned with French doors, modern and antique furniture, abundant sunlight, and — perhaps Schrager’s favorite detail — a view of the Steps ballet studio on Broadway.
Instead, Schrager and his partner eat out an estimated 350 times a year. “In New York, we always try something new,” he said, usually sourcing information from food sites like Eater. And, while the latest restaurants on his shortlist are some of the best in the city — including Carbone, The Butterfly, Salumeria Rosi, The Marrow, and Marea — for Schrager, the habit is less about the meal than the company.
“It’s just another meeting with a friend, a client, a sponsor, or a personality that I work with,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a day, or a meal, that doesn’t focus around what I do for a living. Interesting how when you love what you do, it’s really not work.”
Written by Sasha Levine