Cayman Cookout: The Caribbean’s Most Delectable Festival

Cayman Cookout sign photo credit Cayman CookoutIt’s not every day you can claim you have eaten food cooked personally by chefs the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Daniel Boulud or Eric Ripert.

At Cayman Cookout you can. As well as nab a selfie on the beach or by the pool. Cayman Cookout is arguably the Caribbean’s hottest culinary event. For four days the luxurious Ritz-Carlton on Grand Cayman brings together some of North America’s best chefs. The event is hosted by Eric Ripert of Michelin star New York restaurant, Le Bernardin. His name is also behind Blue at the Ritz-Carlton.

Given Ripert’s friendship with Bourdain and appearance in No Reservations and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Bourdain has become a regular, and much anticipated, feature of Cayman Cookout, along with other chefs and culinary experts.

Granted, Cookout is a swish affair, but make no mistake, it’s also a relaxed one. For the committed foodie, where else can you dig your toes into the warm, white sands of Seven Mile Beach while tucking into lobster bouillabaisse?

Seven Mile Beach (Courtesy of Cayman Islands Department of Tourism)

Seven Mile Beach (Courtesy of Cayman Islands Department of Tourism)

For many chefs, the intimate event is an opportunity to combine work with play. At Cookout, chefs swap their whites for board shorts. When they’re not demonstrating their culinary skills on the beach, they could be spotted relaxing on a chaise lounge avec famille. At last year’s Cookout, Bourdain was accompanied by his wife, a jiu-jitsu practitioner who could scare off any Cookout groupie looking to get too friendly with Bourdain.

This year there are 11 headlining chefs, each will host a beach-side cooking demonstration and tasting. But, if you’re going to Cayman Cookout, there are some signature events not to be missed.

One of the highlights of Cookout is Rundown with Anthony Bourdain. The event takes place on the first day of events (before your stomach tires from rich sea food and too much champagne, if there is such a thing). Borrowing from the name of the traditional one pot dish served in homes across Cayman, The Rundown with Anthony Bourdain is set up as a series of cooking stations on the green laws of the Ritz-Carlton, featuring traditional Caymanian food from all three islands.

Acting as emcee, Bourdain “runs down” from one station to the next, punctuating each visit and tasting with tales from his upcoming television series.

The first time I watched Parts Unknown, Bourdain witheringly called out a local Sicilian fisherman for throwing dead fish into the sea because it made for good television. The self-described raconteur is as every bit as brash and abrasive as his on-screen personality.

Bourdain tells the crowd he travels two hundred days a year for work, eating some of the finest food in the world. “I need to recover from that, get a little tan.”

Wandering around with refreshing rum punch cocktails to ward off the of the effects of the sun, we sample local eats, including pork tacos made by The Brasserie head chef, Dean Max, and a gazpacho from Le Soleil d’Or in Cayman Brac which carnivore Bourdain describes as, ‘Really, really tasty.”

Dean Max (Courtesy of Cayman Islands Department of Tourism)

Dean Max (Courtesy of Cayman Islands Department of Tourism)

Beach Bash with Eric Ripert is another hot ticket at Cookout. Departing early Saturday morning, we take a chartered catamaran to Rum Point by way of Stingray City. Prepared with swimsuits under a sundress, I grab a snorkel and stand on sand bar in the waters of Stingray City. Holding a piece of squid, I wait for a stingray to gracefully glide up beside me and suck it out of my hand. Stingrays began gathering in Stingray City decades ago when fishermen used to clean their fish and throw the guts overboard.

Back on the catamaran, we head to Rum Point where Cookout chefs have set up food stations along the shore. Rum Point is dotted with hammocks and colourful picnic tables. Toronto Chef Lynn Crawford was invited to participate in last year’s Cookout (past Canadian Cookout chefs have included Susur Lee and Martin Picard.) As lively and personable as her on-screen presence, Crawford was determined to have a good time at Cookout. For the Beach Bash, Crawford went about creating the world’s longest lobster roll. I don’t know if she succeeded, but the results were delicious.

Ripert was by the beach searing fish kebabs, and I learned it wouldn’t be Cookout without a midday rum punch. Mid-afternoon, we caught the catamaran back to Grand Cayman, using the time to work on tans before the beach-side chat, The Adventures of Eric & Tony. Described as “good vs. evil,” the stripped down event involves Ripert and Bourdain by the beach, swapping cooking and travel anecdotes.

Next on the list was Chef Dean Max’s “Island Style” beach demonstration. Max is Executive Chef to six restaurants and heads up The Brasserie, a farm-to-table restaurant in Grand Cayman. Max arrives at the demonstration via fishing boat, with fresh catch in hand for his Lobster Bouillabaisse.

As we wait for Max to get out of the water and set up, an assistant machetes the top off fresh coconuts and tops the coconut water off with a five year Tortuga Rum and passes them around.

Beach demonstrations feel a little like watching the taping of a cooking show, if the studio were replaced with a marque and the applause sign with white sand. Max is clearly a passionate cook. He cracks his recently caught conch with a hammer and eats the part of fish known as the island Viagra.

“I’ll tell you later,” he jokes, before trimming the conch for his stew.

The hour-long demonstration wraps up with a sampling of the fragrant bouillabaisse.

The 8th Annual Cayman Cookout Takes place January 14 – 17 at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. Word is this year Ripert plans to cook shrimp with local papaya salad at his annual Beach Bash, while undoubtedly, Bourdain will be back with more sharp tongue stories and insider tips on some of the best places in the world to eat.

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