Chef Eric Ripert made his annual December trek to The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman in order to check on his restaurant Blue by Eric Ripert and to make preparations for the 2014 Cayman Cookout, the annual four-day food and wine festival he will host Jan. 16-19.
As the 2014 Cayman Cookout approaches, Chef Eric Ripert says the annual culinary festival hasn’t lost its luster for him, even as it heads into its sixth year.
“As soon as one Cookout is finished, I start to think about the next one,” says Ripert.
Unlike many other food and wine festivals, the intimate Cayman Cookout is smaller, making it a more relaxed experience for the visiting talent. It provides a perfect setting for a group of top-shelf celebrity chefs to get together, demonstrate their craft in a fashion that is not too taxing and, most importantly, spend vacation time with their families. That is one reason Ripert doesn’t have trouble bringing big names like Anthony Bourdain and José Andrés here for the Cookout year after year.
“It’s not a given [that Bourdain and Andrés will come],” Ripert says, “but they volunteer. For Tony, it’s a luxury because he doesn’t have much time to spend with his family because of his television show.”
Joining Ripert, Bourdain and Andres in 2014 will be perhaps the most star-studded lineup of celebrity chefs yet, including Culinary Hall of Fame inductee Chef Daniel Boulud; renowned Pastry Chef Jacques “Mr. Chocolate” Torres; Montreal television celebrity Chef Martin Picard; American television celebrity Chef Lidia Bastianich; Mexican cuisine guru Chef Rick Bayless; and Chef Daniel Humm, the owner/chef of the super trendy Manhattan restaurant Eleven Madison Park. Humm also appeared in the 2013 Cayman Cookout.
“I was really honored that Daniel Humm asked to come back,” Ripert says. “His restaurant has three Michelin stars, and it says a lot about the Cayman Cookout that he wanted to come back again.”
The lineup of celebrities is as daunting as it is impressive. In particular, Boulud and Picard – who is known as “The Wild Chef” – both have big personalities.
“Those guys are troublemakers; I’m very worried,” Ripert says with a hearty laugh, adding that he has been trying to get Boulud to the Cayman Cookout for several years.
“We are very good friends,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to have him down, but he’s very busy and he likes to stay busy. This time I called him nine months before and he scheduled it.”
Preparing for the Cayman Cookout isn’t the only reason Ripert comes to Grand Cayman every December; he also checks in on his restaurant, Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz–Carlton, making sure the dishes are being made to his standard.
“I always do that; I have to,” he says. “I try all the dishes. I tried 20 different dishes last night.”
This year, his visit to Blue was even more important because the restaurant has a new chef de cuisine in Austrian Thomas Seifried, who came over to Blue in the fall of 2013 after having worked most recently at the The Ritz-Carlton in Sanya, China. Former Blue chef de cuisine Luis Lujan has stayed with The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, but has been promoted to the executive sous chef role.
After becoming associated with the iconic Manhattan restaurant Le Bernardin in 1994, Ripert didn’t open another restaurant until he put his name to Blue when The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman opened in December 2005. He subsequently became involved with restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, but has since ended his relationship with both of them.
“I decided not to renew the contract,” he said, adding that with just two restaurants to look after, he has more time to spend with his family.
“So basically, it’s Le Bernardin and Blue, which is Le Bernardin on the beach.”
Ripert says he is very happy with Blue and the way it has turned out.
“Honestly, I love this place,” he says of Blue. “They’ve done an amazing job here. I’m very proud.”
Blue takes center stage for several events during the Cayman Cooking, including the sold-out Cayman Cookout Gala Dinner festival finale that features dishes created by many of the visiting chefs.
When it comes to television celebrities attending the Cayman Cookout, no one tops Anthony Bourdain, who has starred in several popular culinary shows, including most recently “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” on The Travel Channel and currently “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” on CNN.
One of the highlights of the Cayman Cookouts in past years has been the frank one-on-one discussion Ripert and Bourdain have in one of the beach pavilions. The talks, which are fashioned after Ripert and Bourdain’s popular stage show “Good vs. Evil,” cover a variety of topics, from Paula Deen and the food at McDonald’s to how to make a good steak.
The 2014 Cayman Cookout event is dubbed “The Adventures of Eric and Tony,” during which the two will discuss some of their experiences together, including a trip to the jungles of Peru to find some of the rarest and finest cacao beans for their Good & Evil Chocolate Bar.
Bourdain is known for eating all sorts of exotic cuisine during his travels, and it was on their trip to Peru together that Ripert said he ate one of the strangest things he’s ever eaten: roasted guinea pig.
“It’s pretty good; it tastes in between squab and rabbit,” he said, adding that it wasn’t really the taste that made the experience of eating them strange.
“[The guinea pigs] were running all over the place in the kitchen and every once in a while they would whack one and it would end up in the fire,” he said with a laugh.
Although Bourdain is an accomplished chef in his own right, Ripert often teases him about his cooking skills during their talks, saying things like he would never hire Bourdain to cook in Le Bernardin.
“Tony is actually a very good cook,” Ripert says. “I tease him because it’s easy, obviously, but he’s a very good cook. His food tastes very good.”
When the two get together and one of them cooks, it’s often steak and not seafood.
“I eat seafood every day of my life, so when we eat out together or we cook, it’s usually steak.”
Ripert said he does get a chance to visit other Caribbean islands from time to time – he visited St. Barts in November – and he thinks the level of cuisine is improving throughout the Caribbean region.
“But I think the island that is most developed is Cayman, not because I’m in the Cayman Islands, but because it’s a fact,” he says. “I have to give credit to Mike Ryan [developer of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman] to have the vision that people could have good food, good wine and a good experience when dining in the Caribbean.”
Ripert noted that he has eaten at all of the restaurants at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and finds them all very good.
“I even ate my lunch yesterday at the cafeteria for employees,” he said. “It’s good. Sometimes when employees complain about the food, they say to them, ‘Hey, Ripert likes it.’”
One of the events of the 2014 Cookout is called “The Rundown with Anthony Bourdain” in which Bourdain will sample and discuss a variety of local Cayman Islands dishes, including rundown, conch, rum cake and others. Ripert said he thinks it’s important to highlight the local cuisine as well during the Cayman Cookout.
“It’s soul food; it’s the soul of the island,” he said, adding that he likes the local food.
“I like conch Cayman-style the best. I can’t believe they put steak sauce in it, but it’s delicious. And the goat curry, that’s pretty good, too.”