In recent years, the food and wine festival has become less of an industry-insider event and more of a chance for civilian epicures, inundated with endless food blogs and the popularity of the Food Network, to mingle with chefs, vinters and restaurateurs.
What Julia Child started, Rachel Ray proselytized, and most people now probably spend more time watching cooking shows than in the kitchen cooking. It's the era of the celebrity chef, and what better arena for some of that stardust to rub off than at an event where these "personalities" are giving classes, imparting kitchen wisdom and even handing out their freshly made delectables?
The South Beach Wine and Food Festival and the Aspen Food and Wine Classic (sponsored by the Food Network and Food + Wine magazine respectively) are the most publicized on the circuit, but there are countless others both in the U.S. and abroad.
In fact, the beauty of the international festivals is that they reel in famed chefs from around the world, often bumping up the collective Michelin star count to the double digits.
While chefs like Thomas Keller, Heinz Beck and Michel Roth don't get a lot of network face time, they are luminaries in the culinary world, making a trip to Singapore's World Gourmet Summit like orbiting a galaxy of the world's best kitchens.
However, many star-studded festivals, for instance Madrid Fusion, fall more into the trade show realm, with endless summits and talks, so to find one that's foodie-friendly, make sure that there is a variety of dinners, tasting events and classes that the public can buy tickets to (for a steep fee in some cases).
Recalling a class he taught at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, British chef Heston Blumenthal says, "What I liked about that ... was that there was a real mix of amateurs and professionals in the room and everyone seemed interested."
A great food and wine festival not only gives attendees a chance to spend one-on-one time with famous chefs, it also finds a way to showcase local specialties and dining scene.
One of the Caribbean's most under-the-radar islands, St. Croix, hosts a long-running festival, the Food and Wine Experience, that's both star-studded and locally supported. With a strong fine dining scene that the renowned restaurant Kendricks perhaps kicked it off, the island also has a ton of downhome eateries deeply steeped in the mixed heritage of Caribbean cuisine, from roti to "mansoup."
A resurgence of interest in locally produced goods makes St. Croix one of the only Caribbean islands to support organic farming, generally unheard-of in a region where water is scarce and most food supplies are imported.
All these factions were present at the Taste of St. Croix held at the oceanfront Divi Carina Bay Beach Resort, and the finalists reflected the island's surprisingly rich culinary landscape, from Creque Dam Farm to Zebo's Wine Bar and Restaurant to Betty's Kitchen.
In fact, during the fest's cooking competition, which pitted Iron Chef Kevin Rathbun against Top Chef Antonia Lofaso and local chef Leslie Gumbs, it was the "island" chef that won. Apparently, neither of the celebrity chefs knew how to crack a coconut.
Often, making a trip to an international food and wine festival can be a vacation in itself. Exotic location, great dining, sightseeing and culture? Done and done. Even guest chefs use it as an opportunity to travel the world.You ate what?
Canadian Chef Eric Pateman says of Cornucopia, Whistler's festival: "It was an absolute pleasure to be involved in B.C.’s premier culinary conference and with the added benefit of being in one of North America’s top ski resorts. How could you not want to attend!"
Or consider planning a getaway to Puerto Rico during the Wine and Food Fest, and building in some days to take in Old San Juan while you are sampling food from Emeril Lagasse—not from one of his many restaurants, but directly from the chef's hands.
So whether you hit up a wine and food festival to get closer to your chef crush or because your idea of heaven is to gorge on gourmet food and fine wine, there are countless opportunities around the world—from London to Hong Kong—to learn more, eat more, become a better chef and a smarter diner.