“ALL MEN ARE HUNGRY. THEY always have been. They must eat, and when they deny themselves the pleasure of carrying out that need, they are cutting off part of their possible fullness, their natural realization of life, whether they are poor or rich.” — M.F.K. Fisher, “How to Cook a Wolf”
Key West will be heeding M.F.K. Fisher’s warning this weekend at the 11th annual Key West Food & Wine Festival, where food will be plentiful, wine glasses overflowing and friendly, satisfied faces abundant. And Mark Certonio, event director of the festival, may very well be Key West’s modern-day Fisher, preaching the gospel of gastronomic pleasures — best enjoyed poolside in swim trunks and flip-flops, of course. The festival, which runs from Sunday, Jan. 26, through Sunday, Feb. 2, is composed of over 30 wine and dining events, ranging from the lavish (a kick-off on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham) to the unconventional (the Turtles and Sharks and Mermaids “Oh My” Grand Tasting at the Key West Aquarium). With a theme highlighting culinary decadence and environmental preservation, the festival aims to relish in the ocean’s culinary delights while collaborating with organizations (like Mote Marine, Surf Rider of the Florida Keys and Reef Relief) dedicated to protecting our planet. This collaboration allows the Key West Food & Wine Festival to celebrate Key West’s rich culinary culture while raising awareness of the importance of marine wildlife preservation.
“We at the Key West Food & Wine Festival believe that it’s imperative to preserve not only our culinary history, but our environment as well,” Certonio explains, “and that’s why we chose this year’s theme.” Surrounded by the cerulean waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the tropical location allows the Key West Food & Wine Festival to simultaneously indulge in the savory bounties of the local environs and still honor the importance of maintaining the ecosystem that provides us with delicious and healthy food and wine.
Considered the premier culinary festival of the Florida Keys, the annual Key West Food & Wine Festival, has grown dramatically each year. Recent press coverage of the event has included national outlets like Travel Channel and Forbes magazine, the latter of which recently dubbed Key West “a paradise for serious foodies.” Certonio has certainly embraced this designation.
A longtime believer in Key West’s potential as a top destination for food and wine lovers, he’s adamant that a town once synonymous with booze in the blender and fried conch fritters is fast undergoing a culinary metamorphosis. “I believe we are turning the corner to be a premier food destination,” he says. And the numbers do seem to add up: most of the festival’s intimate dinners, laid-back brunches, neighborhood wine strolls and oenophile-friendly seminars are already close to being sold out completely, while sponsorship from global heavyweights like Ocean Sotheby’s International Realty prove the festival is making waves worldwide.
Certonio estimates that a large number of this year’s festival attendees will arrive in Key West by way of far-away and often frigid places, pairing their discerning palates with a desire to defrost, glass of Sancerre in hand, in sunny Key West. And with dozens of multi-course dinners spread across the island, casual beach parties and plenty of boozy brunches, festivalgoers will have plenty of options to choose from. The festival can be attended a la carte, with tickets for individual events available through the official website, but if money’s not an issue, go buck wild and opt for the truly indulgent VIP Connoisseur Experience, which includes multiple private receptions, on-call concierge and transportation services, dedicated lounge areas and a goodie bag.
The festival technically kicks off bright and early on Sunday, Jan. 26, with the Key West Artisan Market: Food & Wine Edition. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., anyone can shop a curated outdoor market at Clarence H. Higgs Memorial Beach while sampling wines and spirits. Entry is free and parking is plentiful, but please BYOB (bring your own bags). Later that afternoon, book a spot at the 26th Annual Master Chef’s Classic, a tented oceanfront affair held from 4-7 p.m. at the Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina (245 Front St.).
This spectacular competition is one of Key West’s most successful annual fundraisers whose proceeds benefit Monroe County Association for ReMARCable Citizens, a nonprofit that serves adults with developmental disabilities. Perched above Key West harbor, the event offers 450 ticket holders the opportunity to sample small plates by a variety of high-end restaurants who compete across appetizer, entrée and dessert categories for prizes awarded by both panel judges and ticket holders. It’s always a gut-busting amount of food and fun for an incredible cause. Tickets begin at $75 for three hours’ worth of world-class food and wine.
Beginning at 10 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 27, the event’s official welcome center at Ocean Sotheby’s International Realty (420 Duval St.), hosted by Royal Furniture & Design, opens its (complimentary) doors to the public, inviting those who are curious about the event or who have yet to buy tickets to come inside, taste a few wines and make new friends. If the crowing Key West roosters have you up on the earlier side, drop in on the Colorado Cannabis Retreats Hemp-CBD Culinary Workshop, presented by Donna Shields, MS, RDN in the Garden at the Oldest House Museum (322 Duval St.).
With cannabis legalization moving across the nation and CBD products so popular your grandma probably has a pack of gummies in her purse, this workshop will get you up to speed on the health benefits of cannabis and CBD products. Designed to entertain and educate, Shields’ know-how in cannabis wellness and the culinary arts will show attendees how to use CBD tinctures in healthy recipes they can reproduce right in their own kitchen.
On Tuesday, Jan. 28, meet the folks of the Mote Marine Laboratory for the Coral Reef Wine Tour & Lunch. Departing from Ocean Sotheby’s International Realty at 10 a.m., the tour will take participants to Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration on Summerland Key. Situated in the heart of the Lower Keys and only 24 miles from Key West, the Center is a fully equipped marine science facility dedicated to marine research and education in the Florida Keys. Once at the facility, exceptional tour guide Allison will show participants the new and modern facility and explain how Mote is reproducing coral in the labs and reintroducing it into the local reef. There will be wine during the tour — it is a food and wine festival, after all — and lunch will be served after, provided by Barrel House Brews & BBQ.
That evening, join Certified Wine Expert Jackie Gwidt and Buena Vista Winery for A Liquid Journey through History at 6 p.m. at The Gardens Hotel (526 Angela St.). Taste wines from California’s first commercial winery in the garden of one of Key West’s most beautiful hotels.
On Wednesday, Jan. 29, the Sunset Kick-Off Party will celebrate the unique maritime culture of Key West starting at 5 p.m. on the historic U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Samuel D. Ingham, located at the end of Southard Street in the Truman Waterfront Park. Relax and enjoy the famous Key West sunset from the deck while you sip on fine wines, dine on a delicious meal provided by Small Chef at Large Catering and listen to Scott Marischen’s improvisational jazz harp magic. Tickets for the welcome party are $125.
If the welcome party was just the beginning of your Wednesday night, we suggest you ease into Thursday with the Bordeaux Brunch at the Rock, hosted by Hard Rock Café Key West (313 Duval St.). From 11 a.m. until 1 p.m., enjoy an $80 prix fixe paired wine brunch, featuring decadent options like the Bordeaux Burger, Hard Rock’s signature steak burger topped with Bordeaux fig jam, caramelized onions and creamy goat cheese.
After brunch, take a leisurely stroll down to the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (1316 Duval St.) to start the Tropical Garden & Historical Architecture Tour & Tasting. Board the Old Town Trolley at the Conservatory and enjoy delicious locally inspired bites and exceptional wines at five locations that are unique and important to Key West’s history — the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, the Gardens Hotel, Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden, Lighthouse Tower & Keeper’s Quarters and the Garden at the Oldest House Museum. Each stop will feature delicious snacks prepared by the creative Chef David Fuhrman of Great Events Catering. Limited to 120 passengers and priced at $125, the event is destined to sell out, so botanical-appreciating booze lovers should hurry to book while there is still availability.
Thursday evening presents Festival attendees with an impossible choice. Do you attend the Truman’s Poker Porch Preservation Benefit Paella Cook-Off at Truman’s Little Whitehouse (111 Front St.)? Or do you ditch Spain in favor the ever-popular Grilled Cheese & Beer Pairing presented by Brown Distributing at the Sunset Green Event Lawn at The Keys Collection (3820 N. Roosevelt Blvd.)? Either way, you get a belly full of delicious carbs, but we suggest you get your tickets now as both events are guaranteed to sell out.
We hope you got your beauty rest because Friday is a full day of back-to-back food and wine events. The day starts at noon with The Secrets of Ceviche! Workshop & Tasting presented by Key West Culinary Workshops at the Oldest House Museum & Garden. This ancient, traditional seafood dish has deep roots across South America with a myriad of distinct regional variations. Ceviche leaped across the Caribbean and the Key West version celebrates our Bahamian culture with the use of luscious tropical ingredients. Participants will learn to prepare their own ceviche under the expert tutelage of Donna Shields and Gary Remmert, who is a conch expert.
If you’d rather start the day a little less interactively, hit Brunch on the Ocean at Hot Tin Roof at Ocean Key Resort & Spa (0 Duval St.). Or take a stroll on the Promenade Française presented by Iberia Bank. Meet at La Grignote (1211 Duval St.) at noon, pick up your official Key West Food & Wine Festival Glass and enjoy two hours of French food and wine on a crawl through Key West’s French-owned establishments. From La Grignote, proceed “dans la rue” to Banana Café, where you’ll board the Old Town Trolley and be whisked to Croissants de France. After you sample those French delicacies, get back on the trolley and head to VIV Wine Bistro before you circle to La Petite Grignote.
If you’re feeling adventurous instead (and want to walk off some of Thursday’s carbs), put together a team for the Key West Food & Wine Festival Scavenger Hunt. Departing from the Conch Republic Seafood Company at 2:30 p.m., the scavenger hunt will lead you to famous landmarks, points of interest, restaurants and (of course) bars and favorite local watering holes. The first-place team will win tickets to the Duval Uncorked event on Saturday, so recruit a local or two and hunt your way to gastronomic glory.
The festival’s centerpiece event, the Turtles & Sharks & Mermaids “Oh My” Grand Tasting, sponsored by CutureOwl Magazine, is set for 5 p.m. Friday night at the Key West Aquarium (1 Whitehead St.). From the finesse of finer wines to the frivolity of fish nets, this feast for the senses could be the grandest tasting yet. Originally opened in 1935, the Key West Aquarium is home to sharks, turtles, stingrays and other tropical fish found in the beautiful waters surrounding Key West. The 2020 Grand Tasting will showcase a selection of finer wines presented by JCB Collection and Breakthru Beverage with scrumptious hors d’oeuvres created by Chef David Fuhrman of Great Events Catering.
And in keeping with the aquatic theme of this year’s festival, French mermaids (which we just assume are regular mermaids who really like macarons) will amuse, entertain and serve bubbly as they bring the sea to life.
From the Aquarium, stroll over to It’s
All About the Shrimp & Sauce at Conch Republic Seafood
Company (631 Greene St.), a benefit for Reef Relief & Old Island Restoration Foundation. At the risk of parroting one Benjamin Buford Blue (aka Bubba), there will be red shrimp, Key West pink shrimp, fried shrimp, shrimp bisque, shrimp sandwiches … you get the idea. All that eating and we haven’t even hit Saturday yet. Put on those stretchy pants and muumuus, people, we’ve got some serious work to do because Saturday’s schedule is jam-packed with events. Hop an Uber directly from brunch to the 11th annual Stock Island Shrimp Boil presented by The Perry Hotel, which kicks off at noon at the Perry Hotel Dockside (7001 Shrimp Road, Stock Island). Stock Island Marina has traditionally served as home port for Key West’s fleet of shrimp boats, those beautiful harbingers of the ocean’s culinary delights. Join Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen & Bar at The Perry Hotel for a traditional shrimp boil with the most authentic Key West shrimp available: Key West pinks. Accoutrements for those succulent crustaceans will include black bean fritters, fresh corn on the cob, coleslaw and iconic Key West dessert Key lime pie.
Back in Old Town, Duval Street will be electric as the Key West Food & Wine Festival hosts Old Town Uncorked Unleashed. Beginning at the Curry Mansion Inn (511 Caroline St.) and crawling down Duval to the Southernmost House and Seaside Café (1400 Duval St.), Old Town Uncorked will give participants the opportunity to browse Duval Street’s chic boutiques, funky shops and galleries while sipping a large selection of wines from local distributors.
If you can see straight by Saturday night (come on, you’re a pro!), you must attend Let Them Eat Cake: A French Revolution Masquerade Dance Party presented by Key West Smuggler Company and JCB Collection at the Curry Mansion Inn. Do your best Marie Antoinette or Louis XVI impression and dance to DJ Daren Cassani on the wheels of steel while you sip French bubbles and nibble on gâteaux dêlicieux like croquembouche, petit fours and napoleons.
If you couldn’t tell, the Key West Food & Wine Festival is more of a marathon than a sprint (the wisest among us have been preparing for weeks via a strict schedule of stomach-stretching sessions and liver detoxing green juices). It may seem a bit daunting to newcomers, but fear not: each event has been painstakingly put together to appeal to both those who casually drop the word “brunoise” into everyday conversation and those who limit their current culinary worldview to Grubhub and box wine. And with Key West busier than ever, the Key West Food & Wine Festival is sure to continue to grow exponentially in both size and popularity. So buy your tickets now before it’s too late, and save us a seat at the table (preferably the one closest to the wine). Santé! ¦