Four Cs of Cayman Cookout

Every January, culinary elites descend upon the Cayman Island’s fanciest, five diamond hotel, The Ritz Carlton, to attend the Cayman Cookout.  This year, I was honored to be invited to cover the event.

 

088January 15th couldn’t come soon enough. As my plane descended at Grand Cayman Airport, my heart pounded with excitement, in anticipation of treasures to be uncovered on this long-awaited trip.

 

The three Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory. Its major island, Grand Cayman, is a twenty-mile stretch of pure paradise. The Island is famous for its stunning Seven Mile Beach, Sting Ray City, Starfish Point, Turtle Farm conservation facility and a curious place appropriately named “Hell,” a formation of acidic rock which looks as eerie as any Halloween movie set.

 

The Cayman Cookout, now in its sixth year, was launched by Chef Eric Ripert, best known for his Michelin star adorned New York restaurant, Le Bernardin, and a television personality, Anthony Bourdain. After vacationing in the Cayman Islands seven years ago, they decided that, if they are going to showcase their respective talents at a food and wine event, why not hold it in the best spot ever?

 

Marcus Samuelson

Marcus Samuelson

Thirty-plus chefs arrived for a three-day food and wine extravaganza, filled with demos, beach cookouts, formal lunches and dinners. The event offered an opportunity to rub elbows with the likes of Eric Ripert, José Andrés, Marcus Samuelson, and other culinary celebrities. For fine dining enthusiasts, it was surely the place to be.

 

Anyone who has ever shopped for a diamond knows about the “4 Cs”: cut, color, clarity and carat weight. The 4 Cs certainly apply to this rare gem of event.

 

The cut refers to the precision with which every single morsel of food I consumed was executed. No stranger to ceviche, guacamole and other finely diced creations, I was stunned at the knife work exhibited by the chefs and their loyal teams. Texture is often an overlooked piece in a dish’s puzzle that is crucial to the experience. If the dish excels in the textural department you will likely not notice why you loved it. If it doesn’t, it’s brutally evident and likely unsuccessful.

 

The first thing that struck me about this Caribbean island was the vibrant colors, whether it was the saturated red hues of a giant lobster, pink overtones of a freshly caught conch, or translucent glow of coconut water poured from a freshly harvested fruit from a tree just outside, an indescribable symphony and synergy of gifts from sea and land, brightly and brilliantly illuminating every plate of food.

 

The clarity occurred when the impact of a three-day event began to sink in. Whether it was sipping Veuve Clicquot, sampling a 1953 Chateau Margaux, or enjoying the ocean-to-table cuisine that caused even this seasoned foodie to burst into happy tears, for me, there have been few experiences clearer than this abundance of pure bliss.

 

Rum Point "Burgers In Paradise"

Rum Point “Burgers In Paradise”

One of my most memorable experiences occurred during the catamaran ride to Rum Point, where the “Burgers in Paradise” event was held. The trip included a stopover at “Stingray City Sandbar,” a shallow section of the warm Caribbean Sea. A while back, local fishermen noticed that feeding stingrays allowed them to acclimate to humans and to become pet-like, friendly and docile. While wading in waist-deep water, dozens of stingrays show up to play with our group. Regal and curious, they are easily persuaded to lay on your chest and stare at you with those wise, haunting eyes. The females were much larger and friendlier, while the smaller males shyly lurked underneath. The feeling of holding this mammal is indescribable; it takes your breath away. I met “Dottie,” a twenty year old female whose smooth, salty cuddles won’t be soon forgotten.

 

One of the most enjoyable events was the “Barefoot BBQ,” held  at the Royal Palms restaurant on Grand Cayman’s stunning Seven Mile Beach. Chefs Bourdain, Ripert, Samuelson, and Andrés showed off their culinary prowess on grill stations set up literally at the water’s edge. The flavors of extraordinary food, cheese buffet and an array of locally inspired desserts were amplified by the murmur of the ocean.

 

Especially memorable was a formal luncheon hosted and prepared by Michael White, of Manresa fame. There was also a signature Gala dinner. Amazingly, tickets for this multi-course, $700 per person meal sold out in less than 24 hours of going on sale.  It was a meal of a lifetime, with each chef preparing a course, paired with world-class wines, that told a compelling story.

 

Bon Vivant Veuve Clicquot Brunch

Bon Vivant Veuve Clicquot Brunch

I have attended hundreds of culinary demos and wine seminars. I can unequivocally say that the seminars offered at this event were some of the best that I have ever experienced. From Ritz Carlton’s head chef’s spectacular four course demo, to Anthony Giglio‘s humorous, upbeat food and wine pairing at Bon Vivant (a teaching kitchen in the heart of Grand Cayman’s business district), to a reserve tasting of none other than famed Veuve Clicquot, there was ample entertainment paired with fascinating insights.

 

One event particularly stood out. José Andrés’ paella demo had the audience in stitches as the renowned chef openly roasted Daniel Boulud and his French colleagues for overpriced and over-engineered food. I haven’t laughed or eaten this good in…forever.

 

Anthony Bourdain delivered the biggest surprise of the visit. I was anticipating a hugely irreverent, chain-smoking, cursing, sardonic character. Instead, I met a loving family man who was humble, self-deprecating, and unexpectedly shy.

 

During the “Eric and Tony” beach demo, Eric Ripert complained about Anthony not opening up about his private life, while Bourdain humorously scolded Ripert for never cooking fish for him when he has dinner at Eric’s house. They harassed each other with hilarity and abandon. It was a show to end all shows. All the while, Bourdain threw together a tasty bouillabaisse that we sampled while laughing our heads off.

 

The three-day extravaganza culminated in a Sunday Veuve Clicquot Champagne Brunch & Cook-Off where local chefs competed for the title of Grand Cayman’s “Top Chef,” with this year’s winner Adam Handling taking top honors. The event featured every conceivable food group, from seven types of caviar, exquisitely fresh sushi, to every conceivable protein, and every possible form of dessert. Each of the twelve stations served indulgent, complex, and multidimensional dishes.

 

Carats sprung to mind when one thinks of the quality and rarity of the Hope Diamond. There are many wine events, just like there are many diamonds, but there are some that are way out of the ordinary. They are unusually large, flaw-free and exceedingly rare—often one of a kind. With multitude of facets, stunning purity and soul-piercing beauty, Cayman Cookout is a gem of an event.

 

This diamond came in a multitude of shapes. There was the rectangular cut of a table overflowing with a bounty of local flavor, a marquis shaped stingray that glided through crystal clear waters, and the perfect round shape of a magical Caribbean sunset. The event truly represented a wealth of riches to behold.

 

The Cayman Cookout provided a treasure chest of food, wine and indulgence. It was a transformational experience. Somewhere between Dottie’s seamless water glide and a cup of coconut milk conch ceviche, I discovered and fell head over heels in love with the riches of the Caribbean.

 

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Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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