“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” — James Beard
Attendees from all over will hopefully be finding some culinary common ground this winter at the 12th 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, will be on hand preaching the gospel of gastronomy as society’s great unifier — best indulged poolside in swim trunks and flip flops, naturally.
The festival, which runs Wednesday, Jan. 27, through Sunday, Jan. 31, is composed of a dozen al fresco wine and dining events, ranging from the lavish (a wine and food stroll that takes place exclusively on Key West’s swankiest rooftops) to the unconventional (the “Absinthe of Ernest” absinthe tasting at the Hemingway House). With a recurring emphasis on environmental preservation, the festival aims to relish in the ocean’s culinary delights while collaborating with organizations (like Mote Marine) 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 this year we’ve created mostly new events with a limited number of guests and an emphasis on the outdoors, where we can spread out and convene safely. Because of the unique challenges presented by the pandemic, guests this year can expect more creativity, more fun, more intimate events and more new locations to discover.”
Surrounded by the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the tropical location allows the Key West Food & Wine Festival to indulge in the bounties of the local environs and still honor the importance of maintaining the ecosystem that provides us with delicious and healthy food and wine — all while keeping a safe distance.
Considered the premier culinary festival of the Florida Keys, the Key West Food & Wine Festival has grown in prestige each year. And though the quantity of events hosted during this year’s festival is scaled back from festivals of years past, the quality of those events is as high as ever. A longtime believer in Key West’s potential as a top destination for food and wine lovers, Certonio is adamant that a town once synonymous with booze in the blender and fried conch fritters is undergoing a culinary metamorphosis.
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 cabernet in hand, in sunny Key West. And with a host of multicourse dinners spread across the island, casual beach parties and plenty of boozy brunches, festivalgoers will have plenty of a la carte options to choose from.
Beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, the event’s official welcome center at Ocean Sotheby’s International Realty (1075 Duval St., Suite 15C) 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. Swing back by Ocean Sotheby’s from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday for the official welcome reception, which the festival organizers promise will be “Bacchanalia, Key West-style.”
On Thursday, Jan. 28, ditch your lunch plans for the Wine on the Roof Tour & Tasting. From 1 to 3 p.m., see Key West from above on a tour of five of Key West’s most exclusive open-air roof decks while chef Dave Fuhrman of Great Events Catering delights your taste buds with exciting small plates — all paired perfectly with fine wines, of course.
“The rooftop tour is a brand-new event and it’s going to be spectacular,” Certonio said. “We’re excited to be able to offer our guests a series of unique outdoor venues to explore, most of which the average visitor to Key West would never get to see.” To ensure maximum compliance with all COVID guidelines, attendance is limited and start times are staggered, so make sure to nab a reservation before they sell out.
Thursday evening presents two dinner choices on complete opposite ends of the ceremonial spectrum: the Indulge Grand Tasting at Southernmost Beach Resort (508 South St.) and the Grilled Cheese and Beer Tasting presented by Brown Distributing (an annual favorite) at the Sunset Green Event Lawn at 24 North Hotel (3820 N. Roosevelt Blvd.). Should you choose the former, you’ll be invited to indulge your senses as you dine on chef Kevin Lundry’s culinary sensations, savor over 50 specially selected fine wines, sink your feet into the sand and bask in the famous Key West sunset while the Fabulous Spectrelles present Motown hits and more. The ever-popular Grilled Cheese and Beer Tasting needs no explanation, though we will warn you that it’s a repeat event for good reason, so expect tickets to go fast.
From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, meet the folks of the Mote Marine Laboratory for the second annual 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, 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 at The Square Grouper Bar & Grill in Cudjoe Key.
If you find yourself in a beer-and-cheese coma after Thursday night, we suggest you ease into Friday with the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Brunch, hosted by Ocean Key Resort & Spa (0 Duval St.). From 12:30 to 2 p.m., enjoy an $85 prix fixe brunch, featuring unlimited mimosas and bloody Marys, a special cocktail presented by Key West Trading Company and an unlimited a la carte menu with decadent options like the Cinnamon Toast Crunch French toast, duck confit ricotta gnocchi and Buffalo chicken and waffles.
After brunch, take a long nap and then call forth your inner bohemian for the most hotly anticipated event of the festival: Friday night’s Absinthe of Ernest presented by the Key West Absinthe Society. Key West is a town rich in history and Key West Trading Company’s absinthe, Death in the Afternoon, is inspired by one of the island’s most famous (and most inebriated) citizens, Ernest Hemingway.
On Friday evening, you can chase the elusive green fairy near the gate of the Hemingway House (907 Whitehead St.) as you sample, or “louche,” five distinctive absinthes, from the original French recipe to more modern American interpretations. (To the uninitiated, “la louche” is the traditional absinthe ritual of slowly adding water and sugar to absinthe to dilute the spirit and unlock its mind-expanding powers.) The absinthes will accompany a paired dinner catered by chef Dave Fuhrman.
If you managed to escape the absinthe tasting with your wits intact, you can start your Saturday at the 12th annual Original Shrimp Boil, which kicks off at noon at Conch Republic Seafood Company (631 Green St.). Key West has traditionally served as home port for a monster fleet of shrimp boats, those beautiful harbingers of the ocean’s culinary delights. Join the Conch Republic Seafood Company for a traditional shrimp boil with the most authentic Key West shrimp available: Key West pinks.
After you’ve had your fill of crustaceans, stroll down to The Gardens Hotel (526 Angela St.) for Screw It!, where you can browse hotel owner Kate Miano’s extensive collection of vintage and antique corkscrews while local wine expert James Braun guides you through a multitude of techniques for opening a bottle. (Fear not, those open bottles obviously will be emptied into your glasses.)
When you’ve exercised your wine opening muscles to their max, head to the harbor and hop on a Wind & Wine Sunset Sail with Danger Charters, departing from the Margaritaville Marina (255 Front St.) at 4:30 p.m. Danger’s Wind & Wine sail features an array of fine wines and upscale beers from around the world, complemented by bountiful hors d’oeuvres that will arouse your palate as you sail under a cloud of canvas aboard a historic Key West schooner.
For all you landlubbers, the festival’s culminating event, the Wet Fête en Blanc presented by JCB Wines, is set for 5 p.m. Saturday night at the Hyatt Centric Key West Resort & Spa (601 Front St.). Don your all-white ensemble and hear the call of the sea while savoring luxurious libations and tasting the most ethereal and elegant gifts from the Earth and the ocean. Delight in the breathtaking selections of fine wines and spirits as you watch the stars emerge in the night sky.
Sunday, Jan. 31, may be the last day of the Key West Food & Wine Festival, but that doesn’t mean you should pack up and skip town just yet — at least not before you’ve attended Sake Sunday at Poke in the Rear (504 Angela St.), the open-air restaurant in the bar and patio area of Key West’s Aquaplex. The name may be whimsical, but owner Grant Portier takes poke as seriously as the Hawaiian culture that has been serving and celebrating it for generations.
The event is a six-course pairing of sake and poke and the menu sounds as ambitious as it does delicious. Octopus ceviche, crispy chicken poke served over peanut soba noodles and sous vide short ribs are just a few of the dishes Portier has cooked up, each of which will be paired with a perfectly complementary sake chosen specifically to enhance the dish.
Even in its current slimmed-down form, 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 Door Dash and box wine.
The organizers of the Key West Food & Wine Festival also have taken deliberate steps to ensure that all events take place outdoors and comply with city of Key West and CDC guidelines to provide a safe and hospitable environment for all festivalgoers. Learn more and get tickets for the events at www.keywestfoodandwinefestival.com, and save us a seat at the table (preferably the one closest to the wine). Cheers! ¦