contributor Rebecca Flint Marx is in Miami, chronicling preparations for the massive annual Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, February 23-26. Over the next few days she’ll file dispatches from the celebrity-packed festival’s less glamorous side.

Though the South Beach Wine & Food Festival kicks off Thursday night, chefs—or more specifically, their underlings—have been hard at work since Tuesday morning, slicing ungodly amounts of onions, roasting untold pounds of animal flesh, and all but drowning in vats of salad dressing. There is, in short, a shitload of preparation that goes into feeding 2,000 people a night, which is about how many are supposed to attend The Q, the characteristically excessive barbecue party that kicks off the festival.

Among those who will be slinging their delectable wares are Doug Quint and Bryan Petroff (pictured, from left), the owners of New York’s Big Gay Ice Cream Truck and Shop. They were invited down to make ice cream for 4,000 people over the course of four nights, an undertaking that has required months of planning.

Today’s work mainly concerned making dough for the 1,000 ice cream sandwiches the guys are supposed to serve at Friday’s Burger Bash, as well as various sauces for the cones. All of this is done in the two commercial kitchens deep inside the bowels of the Miami Beach Convention Center, a vast, labyrinthine place with spectacularly ugly wall-to-wall carpeting.

The kitchens are filled almost entirely with culinary students from Florida International University. When we arrived yesterday, the air was heavy with the scent of the approximately 8 million tons of onions they were slicing. Numerous students were also engaged in making vats of dressing for Nadia G., that Cooking Channel host known for irritating people. At this point I should mention that you will not find any Food Network or Cooking Channel “chefs” or personalities actually making any food at South Beach; they send their people, or their people’s people, to boss around the students (Bobby Flay’s sous chefs are reportedly real ball-busters).

One notable exception is Marc Forgione, winner of The Next Iron Chef Season 3 and the owner of an eponymous New York restaurant. He arrived in the kitchens today and promptly started making meatballs with some of the students.

Guy Fieri actually swanned through the kitchen today, looking uncannily like a deeply sunburned chicken. Robert Irvine, Restaurant: Impossible host and noted embellisher of the truth, was with him, as was his freakishly muscular torso. The two took some photos, pressed the flesh, and disappeared into the walk-in for a few minutes. All of this distracted the students, who had been toiling all day like indentured elves in Santa’s workshop. After Guy and Robert and their entourage departed, everyone went back to working their fingers to the bone.

Tomorrow morning Doug heads to the beach to get acquainted with the ice cream truck the festival is setting him up with, while Bryan and the students bake off 2,000 cookies. In the meantime, everyone has repaired to their hotels to recuperate, which is pretty easy when you can sit by the pool and drink giant pitchers of adult lemonade and watch European tourists try to slow-roast themselves under what remains of the late-afternoon sun.

Photos by Rebecca Flint Marx

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