The moment you arrive at South Florida Taste of the Nation for No Kid Hungry, you know this isn't your average food festival. Held at Soho Studios, Miami's hub for celebrity photo shoots, fashion shows, and art openings, the gourmet food and drink extravaganza is a sought-after ticket in the Wynwood Arts District. In recent years, this neighborhood has morphed into the city's colorful epicenter of cool. Galleries, bars, cafes, and art and design businesses now dominate the landscape, where graffiti walls are commissioned as art. It's an ideal environment for a culinary event designed to entice foodies and oenophiles to kick up their heels for a good cause – in this case, No Kid Hungry, an organization dedicated to fighting childhood hunger.
It's always a well-orchestrated event that brings a great group of restaurants and people together...
From the outside, the building looks like a warehouse, but step inside and the edgy space unfolds its industrial canvas of concrete floors and soaring ceilings with exposed beams and rafters. Ample room and an airy feel make this the perfect setting to sample gourmet dishes and drinks from some of the region's top chefs and mixologists – and to spread the word about a worthy cause.
Sip, sample, repeat
A DJ and a trumpet player dominate the center of the room, where from a small stage a pulsing rhythm emanates. The well-heeled crowd flits from one tasting station to the next, sampling trendy wines aged in stainless-steel barrels, local craft beers, and tapas-sized dishes, such as a delicious summer-vegetable samosa with pomegranate molasses and coconut cream from the new HaVen kitchen and lounge in Miami Beach.
More than 50 top chefs from some of South Florida's best restaurants are on hand to meet guests and serve them their most coveted creations. A tuna conserva with capers and sprouts from Timon Balloo, Chef of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill and a James Beard Award semi-finalist, offered a light and appetizing start to the evening. And for shining the spotlight on the Latin flair Miami is famous for, FINKA Table and Tap's savory arroz con pollo fritter topped with ají amarillo sauce delivered. Fans of heartier fare huddled near the R House table, where a tender short rib had guests lining up for seconds. A neighboring restaurant, lounge, and art gallery space, R House served as the official host of the South Florida Taste of the Nation after party, open exclusively to VIP ticket holders. For dessert, Max Santiago, Executive Pastry Chef of Miami's The Salty Donut, whipped up bite-sized portions of his favorite donut recipes, which included Baked Samoa Cookie and Maple Bacon, a sweet-savory surprise that raised eyebrows while earning plenty of fans.
Heads of the class
The one-on-one interaction between chefs and guests is part of what sets South Florida Taste of the Nation for No Kid Hungry apart from other food and wine festivals. "It's nice to see what people really think [of the food]," says Executive Chef Alex Q. Becker of Kuro at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, who served a spin on a new king crab menu item he will be debuting soon. "I always like it when people admit that we have changed their perception of an ingredient. But I also love seeing the guests unknowingly wearing butter powder on their faces!"
The participating chefs donate both their time and talent to the event, and several are longtime supporters, with a fan base of guests returning each year to sample their latest delicacy. Becker has a long history with Taste of the Nation, having participated in the Los Angeles affair for several years before moving to Florida. "It's always a well-orchestrated event that brings a great group of restaurants and people together, which makes us happy to be there year after year," he says. Taste of the Nation, which raises millions of dollars to help fight childhood hunger in America, "has a meaningful purpose and is such a great cause," he adds.
Mystery in a bottle
In between bites and sips, guests perused a silent auction made up mostly of lavish dinners at the area's best restaurants. A table filled with wrapped wine bottles was the hub for Mystery Wine Grab, where, for a $30 donation to No Kid Hungry, guests could try their luck selecting from one of more than 100 anonymous wine bottles.
But wine wasn't the only drink flowing. A dozen local breweries and spirits offered guests a variety of libations. Made of white-corn whiskey, a locally made "moonshine" was one of the evening's most popular drinks, with guests frequently lining up to taste the smooth spirit that's uniquely distilled in copper kettles.
Perks and privileges
If you're going to indulge in gourmet food and drinks, you'll need a comfy place to relax and enjoy them. Enter the Citi Lounge, an exclusive seating area where bar-height tables and steel stools, a sofa and low-slung chairs surrounded a wooden bar manned by the bartenders at Blackbird Ordinary, a favorite local watering hole. There were foodie trays to help guests balance their drinks and dishes, while a photo booth invited couples and friends to snap instant pictures that were immediately emailed or available to print.
By the end of the evening, tablecloths lay barren, save for the occasional splatter of sauces – evidence that a good time was most certainly had by all.
Join in the fight to end childhood hunger by purchasing tickets to a Taste of the Nation for No Kid Hungry event near you. Citi cardmembers enjoy 10% off the ticket price and exclusive event benefits, including expedited check-in and entry, special gifts and giveaways, and access to the special Citi Lounge (at select events).