MIAMI, FL -- The aroma of lechón or puerco asado on a beautiful Florida day - what could be better? One of the last big events at the South Beach Food and Wine Festival was a delicious party that allowed chefs to showcase roasted pork - a signature dish for so many Latinos.
A deep roster made up of mostly local restaurants competed in the annual Goya Foods Swine and Wine hosted by acclaimed Venezuelan chef Lorena García. The terrace of the historic Biltmore Hotel in the heart of Coral Gables was filled with Caja Chinas, large roasting boxes used to prepare whole pigs, while the upstairs was lined with chefs serving small bites that showcased their personal take on pork.
It was the distinctly local crowd that set this event apart. The heady scent of perfume filled the air, as well as the tell-tale sight of starched guayaberas. When the music started - provided this year by the Grammy Award-winning Marlow Rosado & The Tucán Band - the lines started moving. They didn't get shorter but the people waiting for food started dancing, as did some of the waiters and a few of the cooks dishing out the pork.
Pork is ingrained in the Latin food culture so guests were not only comparing chefs to each other but to their favorite uncle who roasts the pig every Nochebuena or their grandmother's mojo sauce.
"Almost every Latin community is very strong in pork - in our homes, in our kitchens, in our culture," explained chef José Mendin of Pubbelly who was recently selected as a semi-finalist for the James Beard Awards. "I'm from Puerto Rico where pig is big."
The competing chefs took it in stride. "We might have been a little been intimidated but I think we brought it," said Angie Mar of New York's Beatrice Inn. Mar and her all-girl team brined a whole pig with honey and lemon which they served with a sour cherry and stout sauce.
Despite strong entries all around, the Goya People's Choice Award went to Cindy Hutson of Ortanique on the Mile who did a coffee and cocoa-crusted pig over corn polenta served with a chipotle-agave glaze. A panel of critics for the National Pork Board judging the upstairs tapas awarded Brian Nasajon of Breaker & Gray first place for his jamón Ibérico, green papaya and chicharrón (pork rind) cilantro blossom.
Timon Balloo of Sugarcane came in second with his braised pork cheeks with chickpea and harissa while Lindsey Autrey of The Regional was just behind with a smoked pork shank served with pozole verde, hominy, and cracklings.
Miami is surely the country's biggest pan-Latino city, and while the SOBEWFF has always showcased out-of-town talent, Chef Lorena García believes it has had a positive impact on Miami's food scene as well.
"In the last two years, we have opened more restaurants than in the last 10 years combined," she said. "I think that the food industry as a whole and the foodie community has grown so much in South Florida and in Miami specifically, that it's a lot of fun to see [the city] become one of the leaders in terms of restaurants, good food, and great chefs."
As visiting chefs packed up their knives and headed home, locals could rest easy knowing that there were many great chefs - many of them Latino - who weren't going anywhere.