Neither leonine nor lupine will you be at this weekend’s ninth annual Key West Food & Wine Festival, where food will be plentiful, wine glasses overflowing, and friends — new and old — abundant. Mark Certonio, event director of the festival, is Key West’s modern-day Epicurus, preaching the gospel of gastronomic pleasures — best enjoyed poolside in flip-flops, naturally.
The festival, which runs through Jan. 28, is comprised of close to 30 wine and dining events ranging from the lavish (tropical garden tours and the Cirque du Champagne at the Perry Hotel) to the unconventional (such as the grilled cheese and beer pairing at the 24º North Hotel).
Considered the premier culinary festival of the Florida Keys, the annual Key West Food & Wine Festival, which Mark has chosen to market via the enticing tag line, “78 Degrees, 30 Events, One Tiny Island – Flip Flops Required,” has grown dramatically each year. Recent press coverage of the event has included national outlets such as the Travel Channel and Forbes magazine, the latter of which recently dubbed Key West “a paradise for serious foodies.” Mark 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 frozen daiquiris 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. 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 BB&T Bank and Celebrity Cruises prove the festival is making waves worldwide.
Mark estimates that a large number of this year’s festival attendees will arrive in Key West by way of far-flung and often freezing places, pairing their discerning palates with a desire to thaw out, glass of pinot noir in hand, in sunny Key West. The festival’s winemaker dinners in particular are usually a big hit with ticket holders, he says, during which master sommeliers and winery owners host events like Friday’s “Cirque du Champagne” and Saturday’s “Sunset on the Green Vintners’ Dinner,” as well as exclusive, multi-course dinners spread across the island, casual beach parties and plenty of boozy brunches.
The festival can be attended ala carte, with tickets for individual events available through the official website. If money is 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 kicked off Wednesday and continues today (Jan. 25) with “Bad Ass Brunch: MANGO TANGO” at Mangoes Island Cuisine at 11 a.m. Brunchgoers will enjoy native, natural local cuisine that blends the culinary traditions of the Bahamas, Cuba, the West Indies and Key West. The slow roasted mojo pork tacos should be incentive enough to get your boozed butt out of bed and down to Mangoes. Jan. 25 also offers ticket holders the chance to attend “Cooking with Francesca” at The Reach Resort from 12-2 p.m., the first of a three-part lesson series with Italian food expert Francesca De Franchis. Thursday’s menu features trofie al pesto, a classic dish from northern Italy that will make you feel like you’re cooking cliffside in Cinque Terre. Beginning at 4 p.m., attendees must choose between two neighborhood strolls: Mallory Square or Bahama Village. Both two-hour tours begin at the Casa Marina, cost $90 and are guaranteed to be as informative as they are delicious.
Friday’s schedule is jam-packed with events ranging in prices from $50-$150, beginning with the second in the aforementioned and adorably named Bad Ass Brunch Series, “Bloody Mary” hosted by Hot Tin Roof. For $65, diners can indulge in the best of Key West’s waterfront dining, complete with Hot Tin Roof’s famous Bloody Mary Bar. Particularly ambitious drinkers might want to roll directly from brunch to the nearby Conch Republic Seafood Company, which will present “Fresh Fish & Oysters at the Seaport,” a sampling of fresh local delicacies like smoked fish dip served dockside at the historic Key West waterfront. If you’re feeling adventurous, 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.
Back at the Casa Marina, a 1 p.m. trolley will depart for the first ever Tropical Garden Tour & Tasting. Presented by Hahn Family Wines and Old Town Trolley tours, riders will be ferried between the most impressive and well-tended gardens in Old Town, with snacks by chef David Fuhrman and wine parings available at every stop. Limited to 120 passengers and priced at $90, the event is destined to sell out, so botanical-appreciating booze lovers should hurry to book while there is still availability. If you’d rather enjoy your wine in a stationary position, the Grand Tasting at the Reach Resort will seat diners beachside for an evening of sophisticated small plates and a spectrum of unique wines, all served against a backdrop of one of Key West’s legendary sunsets.
If you’re feeling like some comfort food might do your body good (there’s no such thing as dieting during a food and wine festival, so let’s not kid ourselves here), 24º North Hotel and Brown Distributing will host a Grilled Cheese & Beer Pairing. Yes, you read that right – from 6-8 p.m. on Jan. 26, you can sample divine, cheesy, carby, beery duos like poached pear and goat cheese with Funky Buddha Floridian while lounging poolside at the über swanky 24º North Hotel. Friends, this is what heaven looks like. Suggested itinerary? Grab a couple sandwiches to go and scoot over to The Perry Hotel on Stock Island for Cirque du Champagne, an adults-only champagne-fueled circus featuring a bevy of bubbles, bites, buxom babes and even a bearded lady. Tickets run $100, which sounds like a bargain for an evening of entertainment and all the champagne you care to consume (for reference, the proper amount of champagne is “all of it.” No bottle left undrunk!).
And we haven’t even hit Saturday yet. Put on those stretchy pants and flowing dresses, people, we’ve got some serious work to do.
The ninth annual Stock Island Shrimp Boil presented by BB&T kicks off at noon at the Perry Hotel Dockside. 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 Salty Oyster Dockside Bar & Grill at The Perry Hotel Dockside for a traditional shrimp boil with the most authentic Key West shrimp available: Key West Pinks and Royal Red shrimp. Accoutrements for those succulent crustaceans will include black bean fritters, fresh corn on the cob, coleslaw and iconic Key West dessert key lime pie.
Across the Cow Key Channel Bridge at the Sunset Green Event Lawn at 24º North Hotel, the Vintners’ Dinner will pair award-winning Great Events Catering chef David Furhman with winemakers and representatives from vineyards from California to Italy and Argentina and beyond for an unforgettable night of breaking bread, drinking wine and laughing with the finest craftsmen in the food and drink industry. Tickets aren’t cheap at $150, but with limited seating, a bucolic setting, and a drool-inducing menu, it’s one dinner that is sure to sell out long before it begins.
Those who’ve made it through to Jan. 28 deserve a victory parade as they make their way to the Sunday Rosé Brunch at the Key West Harbour Yacht Club. The buffet will include a variety of sparkling rosés along with an extravagant omelet station, carving station and more traditional brunch options. You still have time to book a spot at that afternoon’s Master Chef’s Classic, a tented oceanfront affair held from 4-7 p.m. on the Margaritaville Resort Pier. 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 gut-busting amount of food and fun. Tickets begin at $75 for three hours’ worth of world-class food and wine.
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 those who casually drop the word “gastrique” into everyday conversation and those who limit their current culinary worldview to grilled cheese and French fries. And with Key West busier than ever — attendance at the island’s most recent Fantasy Fest is estimated to have surpassed 100,000 people —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).
And to return to Epicurus, I’d like to close out this ode to gastronomic pleasure with the sentiment that “we should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.” Luckily, the Key West Food & Wine Festival will ensure that you won’t face a shortage of either. Buon appetito! ¦
— Key West Food and Wine Festival: www.keywestfoodandwinefestival.com.