The Students Behind SoBe's Wine & Food Festival

It’s one of the hottest tickets in South Florida. What started 11 years ago as a small festival on a college campus has become one of the most prestigious gatherings of gourmet chefs in the country.

But what many people don’t know about Food Network’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival is that its 900, mostly Latino students from Florida International University, that help make it happen – at least behind the scenes.

Sizzling Latino Chefs: Aaron Sanchez 

The students work side-by-side with big-name chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Guy Fieri – they chop, prep and serve up delicious meals at the foodie paradise.

“Let me put it this way,” said Chef Chris Lilly, who has participated in 11 SoBe festivals. “As soon as the students from FIU stop helping with this event, I will stop coming to this event.”

The festival, which began as a one day event attended by 600 guests is now a four-day food extravaganza featuring 50 events and attracting nearly 60,000 people. Last year’s festival raised $2.2 million in proceeds to benefit the students of FIU’s prestigious Chaplin School of Hospitality, Tourism and Management.

Sizzling Latino Chef: Jose Garces

“This is an amazing experience,” said Macarena Morros, 23, an FIU hospitality student from Chile. “After working at a hotel when I was 18, I decided that I wanted a career in the hospitality industry and this event opens up so many doors for that.”

Carlos González, a 2011 FIU graduate, said the experience he gained from working the festival three years in a row helped him land a job at the exclusive Loews Hotel on South Beach.

“You deal with real chefs, recipes, inventory, equipment, entertainment,” said González, who is Colombian-Guatemalan. “This experience looks great on a resume.”

Sizzling Latino Chef: Ingrid Hoffman

Chris Hastings, an Iron Chef contestant and owner of Alabama’s Hot & Hot Fish Club, said he shipped a thousand pounds of quail, previously cured and smoked at his restaurant, then grilled it on the beach. He served it with baby carrots, beets and onions, then topped it off with chives and his signature white BBQ Sauce.

“Impossible! There's no way I could cook and prepare 1,500 plates of food by myself,” he said.

Some of this year’s new events include “Salsa at Sea” on an afternoon party boat hosted by Food Network chefs Aaron Sanchez and Douglas Rodríguez.

Miami’s top food carts and trucks will officially close the festival with “Trucks on the Beach “ hosted by Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern.

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Cristina Puig is a freelance writer based in Miami.

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