Cayman Cookout: The Caribbean’s Ultimate Culinary Event
For food and drink enthusiasts, the Cayman Cookout is one the most-anticipated gourmand festivals of the year. A combination of balmy weather, a collection of world-renowned chefs in a relaxed atmosphere and a stunning Caribbean setting at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman keeps guests coming back year after year.
This is my first time at the January weekend event, and the #RCMemories begin as soon as I check into the resort. The culinary team at SEVEN restaurant offers a warm welcome of Jerk Chicken and Callaloo Dip alongside its famous Mango Brioche — a nod to the island’s local flavors. As I quickly settle into paradise, I know this is only the beginning. I am also delighted to find Eric Ripert’s 32 Yolks book personally signed and delivered to my room that evening.
The next morning, I wake up bright-eyed and ready to conquer my first event-packed festival day, beginning with Olé José, where chef José Andrés makes a grand Seven Mile Beach entrance on a jet ski with chef Emeril Lagasse.
Though there is a plethora of top-notch events to choose from, Around the World with Anthony Bourdain is a must. This year, top restaurants around the island were given a different country as their theme. I make my rounds based on eye-catching spreads. The Brasserie reels in my attention with the island-native Lionfish, prepared fritter style and served in a savory fish tea broth. Bourdain — who visits each station and tastes each dish — chats about international food trends, telling me that Filipino food will be on the rise soon. As a result, I make my way over to a table where the crowd is going haywire over a Filipino Sigsig hash with a pig’s head on display for show.
Thinking I should take a short break from eating, I visit Essential BAM!!! with Emeril Lagasse, a fun and informative session where the celebrity chef prepares candied ribs — that are passed around to enjoy. There’s nothing quite like eating this delicious treat by one of the most-sought-after celebrity chefs while your toes are in the sand.
One thing that makes Cayman Cookout so special is that the chefs, host Eric Ripert included, are so approachable. “No one is stressed here,” says Ripert, when I manage to catch up with him for several minutes in the courtyard. While we chat about his restaurant at the resort, Blue by Eric Ripert, I’m intrigued about his thoughts on the local culinary scene. The Cayman Islands are “the capital of gastronomy,” he says. Calypso Grill and The Brasserie (Ripert calls chef Dean Max “the king” of the island) are a couple of his favorite places to eat. I also learn of his genius two-week disconnect he partakes in each year. “You just disconnect completely from everything,” he says — no cell phone, no communication (noted for my next trip).
It is this specific moment when I feel the magic of the weekend. What other festivals would allow you to approach some of the biggest chef names in the world — and actually have casual conversations about their favorite books, skiing, Cayman Island restaurants and more, all while wearing flip flops and a beach cover-up? I now realize why it sells out so fast each year and why I have already met so many guests from that keep coming back year after year.
Later that weekend, the Beach Bash at picturesque Rum Point upped the fun, while celebrating the event’s locale. With award-winning mixologist Charles Joly hand-crushing ice for his Zombie Pirate cocktail, Eric Ripert serving guests a slice of paradise (wahoo tandoori) and a Moët & Chandon penguin butler statue wading in crystal clear water, I take a step back and wonder if this is all an epic culinary dream?
My favorite chef run-in, though, comes when I finally have a chance to meet Emeril Lagasse, whom my parents first introduced me to years ago when they binge-watched his cooking shows. Both new to Cayman Cookout, we can’t stop talking about how perfect the whole weekend is. As it turns out, we have far more in common than I thought: a love for soup dumplings, fishing, and traveling, and of course, amazing food. He makes my festival experience complete with a Facebook Live video to give a special hello to my mother, his now-second-biggest fan.
The Bon Vivant Amateur Chef Competition Brunch completes a perfect weekend. It’s, no doubt, the most-elaborate, champagne-flowing rendezvous you could imagine. Ice sculptures, beef and waffles, a caviar station and endless fresh seafood options (including langoustine, of course), are a few of my favorite things. It’s really hard to describe how immaculate and over-the-top this spread is. The best part? I get to watch a cook-off with judges (my new festival friends) Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Jose Andres and Emeril Lagasse.
A little somber as brunch comes to an end, I’m ecstatic to find that my good friend and head mixologist of The Punch Room at The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte, Bob Peters, is about to serve us Cuba Bella cocktails poolside at Rum & Robusto. It is the ultimate cure for the Sunday blues, especially when you add dancing to Cuban music and watching the craft of cigar making firsthand.
While some attendees head off to get ready for a gala dinner at Blue by Eric Ripert, I sneak over to Emeril out back where he’s mastering candied bacon on a grill for the special dinner. It’s everything you’d ever expect, especially when being served by the master chef himself. I then link up with Bob Peters at Andiamo, where we dish on stories and recap the weekend’s happenings over fresh pasta.
As reflections begin to pour in and the sun slowly sets, I find myself asking, how can I just stay forever?