When the Cayman Cookout epicurean event was launched in 2009 at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, its host Chef Eric Ripert envisioned it to be much different than similar events held elsewhere. Five years later, Ripert couldn’t be happier with the way the event has evolved.
As he has in the past, Chef Eric Ripert visited Cayman in December, partially to attend the reopening of his restaurant Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz Carlton, Grand Cayman; partially to work on event planning for the Cayman Cookout culinary festival; and partially because he enjoys the Cayman Islands and The Ritz-Carlton.
“I love it here,” he said with a big smile. “They treat me like a king.”
Opening Blue – his first restaurant other than his famed Manhattan seafood restaurant Le Bernardin – in 2006 put the Cayman Islands on the world’s culinary map and set in motion a niche tourism trend that led to the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism marketing the country as ‘The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean’.
Transforming Grand Cayman into a true culinary hot spot – something that was aided by the efforts of several other restaurants in the Cayman Islands as well – got a big boost in 2009, when Ripert and the team at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman decided to launch the Cayman Cookout, an annual four-day culinary event in January. Going into the fifth Cayman Cookout this month, Ripert is thrilled with the way the event has evolved.
“I am very happy because we have kept the identity the way we envisioned it,” said the host of the event. “We wanted to have a food and wine festival that would be very different than any other food and wine festival in terms of the quality of events and the quality of the chefs.”
Ripert said the idea was to keep the Cayman Cookout small with limited numbers of attendees. He said that while the big festivals in places like Miami, Aspen and New York have a certain appeal, thousands of people attend those events, making it difficult to even move around.
“We wanted an intimate food and wine festival where the chefs can be playful with the audience and everyone is interacting and having fun,” he said, adding that in the big food and wine festivals, guests never have access to the chefs they way they do at the Cayman Cookout.
Even at the Cookout’s premier event, the Gala Dinner, where 160 guests annually sell out Blue, similar events in places like Miami or Aspen will cater to as many as 600 people, making the experience much different for guests and chefs alike.
“It does not even compare,” he said. “It’s impossible to compare.”
The Cayman backdrop
Another aspect of the Cayman Cookout that makes it unique is Grand Cayman itself and venues where the various events are held. Demonstrations are now held on the beach, sometimes even involving the ocean. In 2012 for example, Chef José Andrés arrived at his beach demonstration by swimming to shore underwater in SCUBA gear and walking up the beach carrying live lobsters.
“We use the beauty of the island,” he said. “It’s not like we’re using a stage and you could be anywhere in the world. You are in Cayman and you know you are in Cayman.”
The 2013 Cookout will once again use the natural beauty of the Cayman Islands in many ways beyond the beach demonstrations. The Friday evening event will be at Royal Palms this year and use the beach, the upstairs al fresco dining area and even the clear dance floor built over the pool. Weather permitting, the food stations manned by Ripert and other top chefs will be placed in the water, just off shore in a way that will require people to take a few steps into the ocean to get their food.
On Saturday, the morning and early afternoon event will be called ‘Burgers in Paradise with Eric Ripert and Spike Mendelsohn’. It will start with a boat trip to Stingray City for a snorkel or swim and head over to Rum Point, where people will relax and enjoy an assortment of gourmet burgers and cold beverages.
Ripert said he’ll be serving the fish burger he invented for in his Washington, D.C. restaurant, The Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert.
“I’m very proud of our fish burger,” he said, adding that he wanted to create a fish burger for the restaurant but couldn’t come up with a good recipe for a long time. Finally, after about three months of trying, he had success. But he wouldn’t say what kind of fish he uses.
“It’s a secret,” he said with a smile. “But I can tell you half the secret; half the fish is diced and half the fish is ground.”
The fact that the Cayman Cookout is held in the Cayman Islands in the middle of January, when most of the United States is very cold if not freezing, makes the event attractive for foodies. For the 2012 Cookout for example, there were more visiting guests from Minnesota than anywhere else.
But Cayman’s weather, coupled with a family-friendly and less-crowded event, also helps attract the top talent that puts the Cookout in a class by itself. Not only do many of the chefs who attend ask to come back, but Ripert said that many chefs are now approaching him and asking to be a part of the event, including some of the world’s best, like Daniel Boulud.
“I spoke to Daniel yesterday and he said he’s in for 2014,” said Ripert.
Although no food and wine festival would turn down Daniel Boulud if he said he wanted to come, Ripert said there’s actually a method to choosing the chefs for the next year’s Cookout, which starts immediately after the Cookout ends.
“It is very difficult; we drink a lot by the pool and after we’ve had a lot to drink, we start to throw out names,” he said with a laugh. “The next day we’ll reduce the list and start making calls.”
The recruitment calls, especially of the top talent, are often done by Ripert himself.
“Most of the time, I do it, if I know them,” he said.
The chefs are inevitably aware of the event and it doesn’t take a hard sell from Ripert to get them to agree to come.
“They already know about [the Cookout],” he said. “It’s a very special event and The Ritz-Carlton and Cayman really spoil the chefs. Everybody wants to come here because everybody knows it’s going to be fun.”
The 2013 talent line-up once again features the ‘Tres Amigos’ – Ripert, Andrés and Anthony Bourdain – along with some other big names, like Chef Daniel Humm, the 2012 James Beard Foundation award winner for Outstanding Chef and the chef at New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, ranked #10 in the S.Pellegrino list of the world’s 50 best restaurants.
“This guy is really, really amazing,” said Ripert of Humm.
Ripert said he was also very excited that Chef David Kinch was coming from California this year.
“David is a true genius,” he said. “He’s one of the best chefs in America. He has a very, very personal style of cooking, so he’s unique to himself.”
Even though many of the chefs who come here say they want to come back, including top chefs like Susur Lee who was at the 2011 Cookout, Ripert said they want to bring in new talent every year to keep the event fresh. Of course, he always makes room for his friends Andrés and Bourdain.
“Even before we’re done judging the cook-off [Andrés and Bourdain] will look at me and say, ‘we want to come back next year’.
Ripert said it’s not only the chefs that are being attracted to the Cayman Cookout; wineries and various food purveyors are as well, and they will often ask to be a part of the event. He said the Browne Trading Company, his fish purveyor at Le Bernardin that also provides the fish for most of America’s best restaurants, told him it wanted to be involved in the Cookout this year and will provide a major sponsorship for the event.
In addition, more and more foodies are hearing about the Cayman Cookout in the United States, both by word of mouth and because of the heavy advertising being done to promote the event by Cayman’s Department of Tourism.
“People stop me on the street now and say ‘I saw you on TV promoting the Cayman Cookout’.”
Having a major culinary celebrity like Ripert so closely linked to the Cookout can only help the event, and the Cayman Islands, going forward.