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Behind the Fest with Vice President of Culinary, Thomas Connell

Every year the South Beach Wine & Food Festival impresses with star-studded dinners, grand tastings and evening extravaganzas overflowing with wine and food. This year’s event comprises more than 100 events around South Florida. But what really happens behind the scenes to pull off one of the biggest foodie festivals? From the revered Tribute Dinner (where 3,200 glasses are used for wine pairings throughout the night) to Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best and the long-running Burger Bash with more than 57,000 burger patties, Vice President of Culinary, Thomas Connell dishes on what it takes to make culinary magic happen—even when the food doesn’t arrive on time. Feb. 19-23, sobewff.org.

Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best

With the word “best” in the title, this coveted event showcases 60 of the nation’s top chefs creating gourmet samplings paired with more than 100 wines rated 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s scale. This year will be Connell’s 10th as host, a gig for which his day-to-day responsibilities include the coordination of chefs and all of the property’s signature restaurants including Scarpetta by Scott Conant, Hakkasan and StripSteak by Michael Mina—and, of course, when it’s time for SOBEWFF, Connell has to keep it all together (including a back-up plan for little blips, like running out of wine glasses).

What’s your most memorable moment that most attendees wouldn’t know about?

A few years ago, one of the chefs’ product was destroyed in shipping from his restaurant and he showed up less than 12 hours before the event started and had no food. It took a big team effort to procure and assemble all of his ingredients to be able to make it in time. We made it with literally minutes to spare.

What’s the most stressful aspect of Best of the Best for your team?

The most stressful thing about the event is the event itself; coordinating 50-plus chefs to be able to execute in our kitchens. There is always a high level of intensity, but we did have one year where it seemed most of the chefs were late or less organized and the panic level amongst a few got too high. My job in that situation is to fight fire with water and defuse the panic by reassuring everyone that we will make it on time, then push the support teams and the FIU hospitality students, whom I could not do this without.

How do you hold it together under all that stress?

I’ve worked in kitchens and high-stress environments for 35 years and learned how to keep my cool. If my ears get hot, I need to be quiet, take a minute and go in the cooler to settle down before I continue. The key is to control yourself to keep poise and focus.

What surprises can people expect this year?

At the Best of the Best, the level of product and refinement is always getting better and I look forward to being able to showcase this to all the guests of the Festival. We will see the use of more high-end ingredients and more complex pairings with the wines.

This article was originally published by Angela Caraway-Carlton on Aventura Magazine.