NYCWFF to return this year — but with less drinks and food

What will the New York City Wine & Food Festival look like in the middle of the Delta variant scare? Think fewer attendees — and new Covid protocol.

Yes, signature events with A-listers are slated to happen. Those include the Burger Bash hosted by Rachael Ray and a “Backyard BBQ” hosted by Andrew Zimmern. TV chefs like Masaharu Morimoto, Duff Goldman and Scott Conant will offer “master classes.” David Burtka and his husband, Neil Patrick Harris, will host a drag brunch.

“This year, I expect a return to the free-flowing atmosphere of 2019,” said chef Robert Irvine, host of Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible,” noting that last year’s NYCWFF was virtual. “New York City is really on top of it with vaccination requirements, which allows everyone to just be present and enjoy the moment.”

But while big-name chefs will show their faces at the foodie fest slated to run Oct. 14 to Oct. 17 across dozens of events citywide — including Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller and Giada De Laurentis — all photo-ops and book signings have been cancelled.

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Sweet! This year’s attendees can see food in person instead of just ogling at it online.
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“We aren’t doing meet-and-greets and photo ops, or parading the talent around. They will be up on a stage. One-on-one interaction with chefs just isn’t happening this year,” said Lee Schrager, the founder of the festival. 

Meanwhile, he says it has been harder to lure many lesser-known chefs to participate — and not just because of health concerns. 

“Many chefs are just reopening their restaurants, and they are also dealing with a labor shortage,” Schrager said. “We have the same high-level celebrity chefs. We just had a problem with the smaller events because chefs don’t have staff.” 

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Rachael Ray — seen here, right, at a past festival — will host the Burger Bash at this year’s event.
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While around 25 percent of the chefs have been from out of state in past years, this year the number is down to around 10 to 12 percent, Schrager said. The number of events is down to 65 from around 80 when it was last staged in 2019, Schrager said.  

It has also been challenging to get some products, especially wine and spirits, Schrager said.

“It’s supply and demand,” he said. “People are drinking more, and restaurants and hotels are reopening, and there aren’t enough drivers to deliver the products.”

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Tasting stations will feature plexiglass partitions this year.
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More events will be held outdoors and social distancing will be in play. There will also be plexiglass separating the chefs and their tasting stations and tasting plates from the public. There will only be one-way foot traffic at the big events, and lots of sanitizing stations. 

One pandemic precaution that won’t be in place: the COVID-sniffing dogs that earlier this year helped make NYCWFF’s sister festival in Miami — the South Beach Wine and Food Festival — a success. 

“The dogs don’t make sense in New York in part because the events are too spread out,” said Schrager, who also founded the South Beach shindig. 

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New precautions mean no book signings for authors — like Marcus Samuelsson, seen here in 2019 — at October 2021’s event.
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Around 36,000 people attended South Beach, Schrager said. That was down from 65,000 attendees in 2019 but still “surprisingly” high, given the pandemic, he said. The NYCWFF has so far sold around $1 million worth of tickets — down from around $1.6 million a month before the 2019 festival. It has also reached its $3 million “sponsorship budget,” Schrager said. 

“New York is like the Super Bowl of culinary festivals. You just have to keep going,” said Brett Friedman, CEO of Agency 21, the agency of record for both festivals. “New York and California have been hit the hardest and as a result are more cautious to return to events, whereas inTexas, Georgia or Florida, where there are looser restrictions, people are more emboldened to attend.”