Danny Meyer and Chuck Wagner, two of the most accomplished men in food and wine, took very different paths to success. But both credit much of that success to the same force — television.
Meyer heads the Union Square Hospitality Group, the company behind the Shake Shack chain and some of the biggest names on the New York restaurant scene, including Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. Wagner is owner of Napa Valley winery Caymus Vineyards, which has been diligently collecting accolades since the '70s.
And they agree they couldn't have done it without the phenomenon that is food television.
"Wine, to a degree, rode on the coattails of the Food Network industry," said Wagner. And Meyer noted that television is largely responsible for creating the culture of food celebrity, something that utterly changed the restaurant world. "We have a celebrity chef in every restaurant," he said.
The men were being jointly honored Saturday at a tribute dinner during the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, a massive annual beachside gathering of chefs and food celebrities. Previous tribute dinner honorees include Emeril Lagasse, Daniel Boulud and Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa.
Meyer said it was humbling to be honored alongside Wagner, and to have their names added to such a distinguished list.
"That helps to put some things in perspective," said Meyer, whose restaurants and chefs have garnered more than two dozen James Beard Awards over the years. "In the same way I feel I look up to all the past winners on the restaurant side, I've looked up to Caymus as a great iconic American wine. My best friend from college even named his cat Caymus."
For Wagner, the wine business is a family affair. He started working on his family's farm at age 11 and by 19 his parents had asked him to start a commercial winery on the property. Today, Caymus has become an iconic American brand. "The biggest risk was we were locals and I just didn't want to have a failure," he said of his early days in the business. "Today, we're boasting with pride and are competitive. The world has come to us."
Though the men have operated in similar circles for decades, this was to be their first meeting.
"I can't wait to tell Chuck Wagner that," Meyer said of his friend's cat being named after the Caymus vineyard. "Or send a picture with Chuck to my friend and say, 'I'm with the real Caymus.'"