Food + Dining Main

What to Expect at the 2016 Southwest Florida Wine & Food Festival

Meet three of the area's top culinary talents and see the dishes they're planning

BY February 23, 2016

The Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest may be many things to many people: an opportunity to rub elbows with old friends, the chance for 300 oenophiles to bid on prized wines, or a beacon of hope for a young cancer survivor whose treatments are covered by money pledged to the Golisano Children’s Hospital. But the most important fact is that it’s Lee County’s largest annual fundraiser and one of the nation’s elite wine auctions, raking in $3.35 million last year alone for area children’s charities. It couldn’t be done without the bevy of local celebrity chefs who will donate their time Feb. 26 and 27 for multi-course wine dinners in private homes followed by the “Grand Tasting” (the ultimate high-end food festival) before paddles fly up. Three chefs give us the exclusive dish here—and tell us what they plan to cook up this year.

Todd Johnson

Rumrunners, chef-partner

It’s all hands on deck for Johnson and his partners at their perennially packed canal-front eatery in Cape Coral. While he opted out of joining them on another endeavor in the Cape last year, he did so only because he has other fish to fry—he plans to open a restaurant closer to his home in Naples next year.

Culinary Wonder

“Early in my career, I got thrown into high-volume corporate restaurants. My dad kept saying, ‘You need to go to culinary school.’ At age 22, I was married and had a child. He twisted my arm and I went to Johnson & Wales the first year it opened in Miami. Wow, my eyes were opened. I didn’t know cooking could be that much fun.”

Bread Pudding, the Florida Way

“When we crack the stone crab claws, we take the meat out of the knuckle. Then we make a quiche-like custard with milk and eggs, fold in diced Italian ciabatta bread, fresh roasted corn, super-sweet basil, a little Parmigiano-Reggiano—and then fold in a 24-hour-cooked tomato and the stone crab meat. It melts in your mouth.”

At the "Coconut Grove" vintner dinner, Johnson will prepare the Stone Crab Duo made with chilled Pine Island stone crab claw atop stone crab bread pudding with mustard espuma and chive oil.

Forward Thinking

“From my upbringing, I ended up in the massive-restaurant world. We make a lot of stuff from scratch at Rumrunners that we know a lot of restaurants this size don’t and can’t, but we find a way to make it happen. I’ve worked in Lee County for almost my whole career—I’ve been a restaurant owner since 1997—but I want to open something close to my house. My vision is a smaller restaurant, but I always end up opening bigger restaurants. Ideally it’s going to be 150 seats rather than 300 seats.”

The Best-Laid Plans

“I really hate being a slave to a concept. No rules, just great food. I like that. I’m kind of all over the board. Seafood, meat. I love meat. A few of us from here did a James Beard dinner on Oct. 2. We got to design the menu, and everyone thought I was going to pick seafood, and I picked the pork. Even for this wine fest dinner, whatever the menu is going to be, I will probably change it two days beforehand. If I’m looking at a cooking magazine and something catches my eye, chances are I’ll incorporate the idea.”

Andrew Hunter

The Bay House, chef

Known by most as “Andy,” he has headed the kitchen of one of Naples’ most popular and acclaimed restaurants, The Bay House, since moving here from Nashville in 2010 for the job. He and Peter Tierney, its founder, are expanding their brand of gracious Southern hospitality to a new hotel and event space being constructed around it.

Prep Course

“This will be my fifth year of doing both a vintner dinner and the Grand Tasting. I mean, I somewhat have a system in place. Every year is different. The hosts are different, the locations are different and the wines are different, and it always presents different challenges. And it’s fun. I pair the food to the wine and not vice versa. I get three bottles of really nice wine that I get to sip and taste and pretend it’s work.”

At the “Enthusiastík Magík” vintner dinner and Grand Tasting, Hunter will serve roast duck breast with corn pudding, huckleberry jam, duck-fat cornbread, frisee and fresh thyme.

Fun Outside

“The past two years at the Grand Tasting we’ve done grilled oysters because that’s a signature dish for us at The Bay House. I like to do that because I bring a grill, and I can bring a huge stack of hamburgers. Once the auction starts and everybody goes inside, I’ll trade the vintners one or two hamburgers for a bottle of wine. Truth be told, I could never bring enough, but I certainly share what I’m able. It’s one of the few times of the year that I get to hang out with other chefs in town. It’s good to say hellos and see how everyone is. My one little thing is that I try to make sure at the Grand Tasting that I don’t have too many responsibilities so I can stand there and look pretty.”

Bidding High

“The most touching thing for me is probably the same for everybody—it’s when they bring the children in, and the families tell their stories of how much the donations have helped them. They do this part of the auction where they say, ‘This machine costs $5,000,’ and people just start raising their paddles. That’s not anybody bidding on anything—that’s just charitable giving, and that’s pretty amazing.”

Harold Balink

Harold's, chef-owner

He’s fresh on the heels of opening his eponymous farm-to-table restaurant in Fort Myers, but Balink has had a long and storied career in Lee County, including cooking for the festival since day one.

Strong Growth

“The festival actually started about 10 years ago under another name. The first year we made about $80,000 for charity. It was tiny, tiny, tiny. We did homes and then we did a tasting, but it wasn’t at Miromar Lakes—there were probably six or seven of us chefs. It was really, really, really low-key. The first few years it wasn’t the hyper-media, huge-money event it is now. I’m grateful it grew into this.”

Wine IQ

“I’ve been lucky to be around sommeliers almost my whole career. Back when I was at South Seas on Captiva in the early ’90s, our maître d’, who was an advanced sommelier, pushed me to do the sommelier certificate. I got my certificate level in 1997, and I got my advanced one in 1999. I’m a big wine collector and a big wine drinker, and I did it more for my own love of wine than to make money with it.”

At the “Bikers, Blues & Benovia” vintner dinner, Balink will serve seared king salmon with compressed potato millefeuille, dried blueberries and coffee oil.

Pairing Pinot

“Pinot is so temperamental to grow, but I think it’s ethereal. When a good pinot comes out—and Benovia makes great pinots—the acid stands up to the fattiness of salmon. I don’t know if there are coffee notes, but it certainly accentuates a great pinot. You could almost finish a dinner with some good pinots and little cookies. It would lead into a coffee thing. It just works.”

Small-Town Support

“I’ve been in Florida for 25 years now, but I don’t necessarily love Florida—the humidity, I’m not a big boater. But I have such a deep love for the people in this town. My wife and I give a little financially to charity, but we’re not wealthy by any means. This is how I feel I can do my part and give back to the community that I love. Both of my daughters were born here. It’s tough not to go into a grocery store or a restaurant where I don’t know people. To be in a growing larger community that still seems so tight-knit—and that’s doing something on this scale—it’s an honor, really.”




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