Founder Lee Schrager On This Year's New York City Wine & Food Festival - Exclusive Interview

Every year, when fall rolls around, it's time for foodies everywhere to get excited, not just for bountiful harvest ingredients and plenty of cold-weather baking but also for a lineup of new food TV show premieres. October also means it's time for the most exciting and premier food and wine event of the season. The New York City Wine & Food Festival, in collaboration with the Food Network, is returning to the Big Apple for the 15th year to showcase the best of the culinary industry.

The four-day festival is packed with classes, tastings, dinners, parties, and more, all "showcasing the talents of the world's most renowned chefs, wine and spirit producers, culinary personalities, lifestyle experts and America's most beloved television chefs." And best of all, the entire event serves to raise funds and awareness for a very important cause with a critical food-based mission.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, NYCWFF founder Lee Schrager shared exciting details from this year's diverse lineup of talent and eclectic mix of fun and delicious events. He also discussed the important legacy of the festival, which has raised more than $14 million to help fight hunger, and his advice on how to make the most of your tickets and taste your way through a "celebration of America's favorite foods."

NYCWFF is returning in full force to celebrate its 15th year

The New York City Wine & Food Festival is celebrating 15 years. How are you marking that milestone this year?

Most importantly, we are marking it by being back after everything we've been through. We didn't do a festival in 2020. We actually did a virtual program in 2020. Last year we were back — not full force, [but] reduced program, reduced numbers. This year we're back [at] full speed. We're excited. We're looking forward to it. It feels good to be back in the greatest food city in the world.

What can we expect from this year's lineup?

Some of the dinners are extraordinary. If you look at the lineup of dinners from [Yotam] Ottolenghi, and Michael White, Jean-Georges, and Alain Ducasse, it's a fantastic lineup, full of diversity, full of really great talent, all throughout New York City. It's great. Some of the masterclasses are extraordinary, these hands-on masterclasses. Some of the late-night parties, the cocktail parties, the Battle of the Boroughs, or the disco-theme party, or our drag brunch. I don't have a favorite. We do our best to have something for everybody.

This year's lineup of events, just like previous years, features a mix of fan-favorite events. Is there anything this year that you're really excited for people to see?

Our taco event [Tacos & Tequila After Dark] on Saturday night is hosted by the cast of "The Kitchen" with the [Z100] Morning Show and Elvis Duran. It's not a new event, but it's always been a smaller, midsize event — what we consider midsize. We grew up, and we moved it to Pier 86, and it's selling incredibly well. We think it's going to be a really big hit.

What can we expect at that event?

Lots of tacos and lots of tequilas. For years, we did lots of tacos and one tequila, meaning one sponsor. This year we opened it up to a lot of different tequilas on the Southern Glazer's portfolio. I think there'll probably be 15 different tequilas. It's going to be a great party.

Expect a unique and diverse lineup of incredible chefs

This year's event is claiming to be the most diverse lineup to date. What does that mean, and how is that going to impact the event?

Diversity is important. We always looked at having the best out there. When we select talent, we look for the best — people that are going to sell tickets, people that represent America, and people that look like everybody, like a United Colors of Benetton ad. There's a lot more focus [on], and we're a lot more careful [with], making sure that we're more inclusive and things that we probably should have done differently in the past. But right now, we're really focused on being so inclusive and including everyone.

Outside of the chefs who are going to be there, can we expect any celebrity appearances?

Whoopi Goldberg is the special guest at the Italian event [Peroni's Taste of Italy] on Friday night, with Alex Guarnaschelli and Scott Conant. Now, the last six weeks is when the celebrities will start popping up, and people that we made asks to months ago who couldn't commit will start committing. People will find themselves going to the city that weekend, and we'll reach out. I don't have anything in my back pocket, but something will come about.

How has the New York City Wine & Food Festival evolved over the last 15 years? What are the biggest changes you've seen?

I think, venues. We've changed venues many times for our large, signature Pier events, but we have a great home at Pier 86 for our grand tasting, and the Intrepid for our signature nighttime events. We try to be all over. We're doing some events in Brooklyn. We're doing something with Michael Solomonov at his new Laser Wolf restaurant. We're doing things up in Harlem. We're doing things over in Long Island City. I'd like to think that we take advantage of the best that Manhattan or New York has to offer and try to program events. Where people eat and drink, we follow.

The legacy and impact of NYCWFF

What would you say is the purpose of this event?

The purpose of the event is to raise awareness for our charity partner, which is God's Love We Deliver. The fact that we raise money for them is the cherry on the sundae. We're here to raise money for a great charity, make people aware of it, let them know they can support it, let them know they can volunteer, and raise some funds so that they can continue delivering nutritionally balanced meals to the New York community.

Along those lines, can you talk about the philanthropic legacy of the festival and how you're carrying that on this year?

The festival's always been a not-for-profit 501(c)(3). We started, initially, as a benefit for No Kid Hungry. Then we expanded from No Kid Hungry to the Food Bank for New York City, which I was a board member of. And now, 15 years later, we're moving forward with a new partner that we can bring things to and help raise awareness and money [for]. [We're] spreading the love around.

Is this the first year that the festival is partnering with God's Love We Deliver?

Second year.

And chef Amanda Freitag is a major partner with that organization.

Absolutely. Amanda's doing a dinner over at God's Love in their beautiful dining room. We're using that venue to showcase the best of everything.

Outside of that philanthropic legacy, how would you say the New York City Food & Wine Festival impacts the culinary industry? Because it does bring together some of the biggest game changers in the industry.

That's how we impact it. We bring people to the city on a beautiful weekend in October. We raise awareness, not just for the Michelin white-glove restaurants, or the Food Network or Cooking Channel talent, but for the mom-and-pop bodega. We try to be inclusive and make sure that everyone gets promoted. Whether it's a small restaurant you've never heard of doing a taco at an event or doing an arepa, [or it's] the greatest chefs in the world serving a white-glove dinner, it's important that we showcase everyone.

Do you think that there is a lot of benefit and impact for the industry outside of New York City itself?

I do; I think so. I think anything that brings people together in a safe environment that's promoting comfortable and responsible eating and drinking is good for the industry and good to help the industry get back on its feet.

There's a lot of ways to make the most of the massive NYCWFF

No doubt that a lot of planning goes into this. How long does it take to put this event together? How many people go into putting this on?

We have a full-time team. We're already working on next year. We're starting to think about next year's programming. And we just wrapped up South Beach programming this February 23 through 26 in Miami. It's a year-round project.

We have a full-time staff of seven people working out of God's Love on the festival year-round. Then we bring in contractors, event managers, sponsor managers, consultants, PR people, marketing people, ticketing people, insurance people, and safety people. By the time the weekend gets there, it's thousands of people.

For anyone who's attended the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, how is this different?

The setting. SOBEWFF is on the most beautiful beach in the world, and New York City uses the backdrop of one of the most iconic cities. They're very different. They're like twins that are not identical twins. They're very similar, but they look very different.

For people who have already bought tickets to the event and are looking forward to it, what is your advice for making the most of this four-day event? It doesn't seem like it's possible to be everywhere for everything.

No, and you shouldn't be. I don't think you appreciate it when you go to too many events. I think you should pick one signature event a night, whether it's a dinner or late-night event. And in the daytime, either go to a masterclass or go to the grand tasting, which is, to me, the best value. Or go to one of our lunches or brunches. At nighttime, go to a dinner and maybe a late-night party, or just go to one or the other. Don't overdo it.

Is there any way for people to engage with this event if they're not able to buy a ticket and be there in person?

Follow us on social media and watch it happening live.

Food and drink possibilities are endless at NYCWFF

What are some of the top trends in food and wine that you're seeing and that we can expect to see on display at the festival this year?

I don't know [yet]. I know it when I get there myself. RTDs — ready to drink — drinks in a can, cocktails in a can, so much emphasis on new cocktails, CBD-infused cocktails.

I don't know the food of the year. Normally there's one food that you'll see at every event. It used to be pork belly; then it was sea urchin. I don't know what it will be, but it will catch my eye, and I'll say, "Wow, everyone seems to be using that food this year." I don't know what it is yet.

Maybe this is the year that there won't be, because even just looking at the lineup, it's like you're hitting every different cuisine, every part of the world. There's so much.

We hope so. We hope there's something for everyone. We hope that people are going to come out and recognize the efforts that we put into keeping it safe and making it fun and enjoyable. And we hope everyone comes out and supports God's Love We Deliver.

The Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival, presented by Capital One, takes place from October 13 to 16, 2022.

This interview has been edited for clarity.