In one corner was the fifth annual Cayman Cookout. In the other corner was the Journal’s Alan Markoff. For four days, Markoff took the best the Cayman Cookout had to offer and in the end, everyone who attended was a winner.
Like an aging prize fighter who gets winded after three rounds, I don’t have the stamina I once had for marathon food and adult beverage binges. Nor do I have the metabolism for it anymore.
But the Cayman Cookout is a special event, one I look forward to every year. This year was no different and despite the weight gain, the higher cholesterol and the indulgences of the holidays, there was no way I was going to miss out on covering the Cayman Cookout.
There were 13 events on my slate between the afternoon of Thursday, 17 January, and the early evening of Sunday, 29 January, and I was ready for the challenge. When I finally dragged myself home on Sunday night I was sated and exhausted and a bit worse for the wear from the Cookout’s one-two punch of food and wine, but what a delicious battle I had.
Round 1 – Sponsor and talent reception
The Cookout started at 4.30pm Thursday with a relaxed cocktail reception for the event sponsors and the visiting and local participants, collectively referred to as “the talent”. Among those mingling over glasses of Taittinger Champagne, wine and beer were celebrity chefs, wine makers, purveyors of gourmet foods along with local chefs and business people.
The chefs, dressed in white Ritz-Carlton short-sleeved tunics with their names on them, were all in shorts and casual footwear – mostly flip flops, sandals, sneakers or, in author and television celebrity Anthony Bourdain’s case, suede slippers.
“I think I’m overdressed,” joked Chef Eric Ripert, the Cayman Cookout host, who had on a flower-print swim suit and sandals.
I got a chance to chat with Bruce Mooers, the president of the Napa Valley winery Nickel & Nickel, a sister winery to Far Niente, Dolce and EnRoute, and to Tuck Beckstoffer of Tuck Beckstoffer Wines. Both were relaxed and friendly and talked about Napa back in the early days before the whole world knew about the great wines that could be produced there.
This event was heaven for the photographers, with photo opportunities everywhere they turned and several staged group shots as well.
The event wound up as the sun was setting. Many of overseas talent were either working or attending the next event, the real start to the 2013 Cayman Cookout.
Round 2 – Wine Auction Dinner presented by Jacques Scott
Taking place in The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s ballroom, the Wine Auction Dinner offered little of everything, starting with yet another Taittinger Champagne reception.
The event featured both a silent auction and a live auction. During the live auction, I stepped away from our table for five minutes to take photographs and while I was gone, my wife fearlessly bid high on several items – none of which we really needed – and won the bid on two of them. But, as my wife was quick to point out in defence to my annoyed look, it was all for a good cause. This year, the proceeds of the auction were split between Cayman Hospice Care and The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s Culinary Arts Scholarship fund.
The meal was prepared by chefs from Ritz-Carlton in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, with each chef preparing a dish. To add to visual aspects of the event, each of the courses was plated right there in the ballroom.
The visiting celebrities were also there and guests had a chance to sit at their tables, if they paid the price premium that went to the charity.
The food was even better than the previous year, with Chef Xavier Salomon’s California trout with pumpkin gnocchi and Sherry truffle emulsion a highlight of savoury courses and Chef Raghuram Addagada’s Planet Chocolate dessert probably the best sweet course I would taste over the whole four days. Any dessert that can incorporate chocolate malted milk balls and still qualify as a fine-dinning dessert is a winner for me.
No wine auction would be complete without wine to drink and each of the six courses were paired with a different wine. By the time the auction started people were well in the spirit of things, so much so that emcee Vicki Wheaton had to interrupt the more soft-spoken auctioneer Eliza Osborne to politely ask guests to tone down their merry conversations.
It was a long night, but a successful one in terms of raising money – about $50,000 in fact – for two good causes.
Round 3 – Dean Max: Impossibly Fresh
Impossibly Fresh is a good name for an event featuring Dean Max, not only because of his penchant for using fresh, local ingredients, but also because his easy-going, friendly approach to giving a demonstration is, well, fresh.
The demonstration took place in one of two pavilions right on Seven Mile Beach with the ocean just metres away. Max, who is associated with the Brasserie in Cayman, pointed to the restaurant’s two fishing boats right off shore, which had delivered two fish – a yellow-fin tuna and a wahoo – that they had just caught.
However, the fish were for the restaurant and instead he used conch for his demonstration.
“Some people call it ceviche, but we call it conch salad,” he said of what he prepared.
Through the hour-long demonstration, Max spoke about the fresh ingredients that Grand Cayman gets and he particularly raved about the conch.
“When you come here, it is something you have to try because Cayman is one of the only places you can get it fresh,” he said.
Because the conch in Cayman is fresh, Max said he doesn’t over-marinate it either in terms of the amount of citrus he uses or the length of time it marinates.
He also spoke about several other fresh ingredients that grow in Cayman like breadfruit, passion fruit and his favourite, the seasoning pepper.
“It’s what I consider Cayman’s best treasure as a chef’s ingredient,” he said. “It’s got all the flavour of the scotch bonnet without the heat.”
Max offered a number of food cooking tips, like how to tell if a fish is fresh. He said that a fish’s eyes get cloudy as they lose freshness and that a really fresh fish won’t lie flat on a table, but instead its head and tail will curl up off the table.
Round 4 – Rundown with Anthony Bourdain
Television celebrity and author Anthony Bourdain is an annual fixture at the Cayman Cookout, but there has never been an event more suited for him than this year’s Rundown with Anthony Bourdain lunch.
Taking place on the Ritz-Carlton’s Great Lawn, the event featured many of the Grand Cayman’s best local restaurants, chefs and food purveyors serving local foods such as fish tea, jerk chicken, stew beef, escovitch-style fried fish, conch and fish ceviche, Tortuga rum cake and fish and salt-beef rundown.
Bourdain was truly in his element. Much like he does on his television shows, he went, microphone in hand, from booth to booth – escorted by Cayman Cabana’s Luigi Moxam. He sampled the dishes and met the people behind the booths and commented about the ingredients and the taste of the dishes.
He admitted that he likes spicy food and was particularly impressed by the fish tea.
“Ooh, that’s good,” he said. “I would guess that would be good for a hangover.”
There were Seven Fathom Rum cocktails, DrinkFresh juices and Caybrew beers on hand to wash the food down. Bourdain proved to be a beer man this afternoon.
“I would advise everyone to drink a lot of this beer,” he said. “I plan to.”
Along his tour of the stations, he conveyed some of his food knowledge like that the head was the best part of a fish for making soup and that the cheeks of a roast pig are the best part. He predicted that pig tails would be the next big food ingredient fad.
Bourdain also brought a little humour when taking to Tortuga Rum Company General Manager Michael Tafoya.
“I saw Chef Jose Andres earlier and he was hammered on rum cake; just rum cake,” he said.
An Anthony Bourdain event wouldn’t have been complete without at least one pointed comment. George Town MLA and former Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts, whose restaurant Kurt’s Kitchen had a station at the event, told Bourdain the stew beef he was eating was made from local cattle, not USDA beef.
“Basically, if children eat this they won’t be reaching puberty by the age of seven,” Bourdain said, referring to the common use of hormones in US meats.
After sampling all of the foods, Bourdain said he really liked what he tasted and said he thought it would be a “spectacular idea” if The Ritz-Carlton incorporated more local flavours into its restaurants.
“The food here is awesome, but a little more local flavour on the grounds… I’m just saying.”
Round 5 – Napa Treasures Wine Tasting
I went from the hot sun of the Great Lawn to the cool climes of one of the small Ritz ballrooms for the only wine tasting I was to attend.
Luckily, I picked a good one: A tasting of wine from iconic California winemaker Tuck Beckstoffer.
Although his family is known for one of the biggest grape-growing operations in California, Beckstoffer has made a name for himself as a winemaker, learning part of his trade on the job from the time he was a teenager and part in college at the University of California, Davis.
Although he produces what could be considered ‘rock star wines’ Beckstoffer was friendly and unassuming, dressed in blue jeans and a white short-sleeved shirt. It took a little coaxing from him, but eventually the tasting guests felt comfortable in engaging Beckstoffer in conversation, making the tasting much more like friendly chat over wine.
Of the five wines, three were extraordinary: 2009 Semper Ellenbach Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast; 2009 Mockingbird Red Cabernet Sauvignon; and 2007 Tuck Beckstoffer Cabernet Sauvignon.
The winemaker was most proud of the latter.
“This is the culmination of many years in the wine business,” he said. “This is very rare; you’ll probably never see this wine. Technically, it doesn’t really exist.”
During the discussion, Beckstoffer offered some insights into wine trends.
He said Lake County, California, would be the next big wine producing region.
“You’re going to hear lots and lots about it in the years to come.”
He also predicted the next popular wine grape varietal coming out of California would be Petit Sirah, which he said should not be confused with Syrah, a completely different grape.
He said people wanted a big, lush red California wine that was also inexpensive.
“Petite Sirah is that varietal; you just don’t know it yet,” he said. “I’m telling you Petite Sirah is coming and it’s not going to be expensive.”
Round 6 – Daniel Humm’s Beach Picnic
The late afternoon demonstration on the beach was no picnic for Swiss national Daniel Humm. Strong northerly winds that had kicked up the seas from the morning had become stronger, pushing waves right up the beach around – and into – the pavilion. Humm, whose restaurant Eleven Madison Park is one of New York City’s finest, had just months before watched his restaurant close for weeks because of the devastation caused by ‘Super Storm Sandy’. Seeing the water come up around his raised stage made him visibly nervous.
“I hope I don’t get an electric shock while I’m up here,” he said. “I’m not sure I should be here.”
Professional that he is, Humm carried on, showing how to make what he said was one of his favourite recipes: strawberry gazpacho.
“It’s really rooted in a classic dish,” he said.
So that the dish doesn’t come out sweet, Humm adds ingredients like red and green peppers, cucumbers, garlic and olive oil.
“You don’t want it to taste like dessert,” he said. “You have to balance it… so it has a savoury strawberry taste.”
The soup was wonderful and just like Humm described it: savoury and strawberry.
Humm called the recipe “simple”, and added that he believed that many of the really great dishes are simple. Of course simple for one of the best chefs in America and simple for me are two different things and frankly, I’ll leave the strawberry gazpacho making to the pros.
Round 7 – Barefoot BBQ presented by Certified Angus Beef
After three demonstrations and a lunch in the sun, I was starting to wane, but I had to find a second wind for the evening event, held on the Royal Palms beach.
Mother Nature didn’t cooperate at first, delaying the true start of the event for about 40 minutes because of rain. Although things got going in earnest after that, the weather had sapped some of the event’s mojo.
Luckily for me, I found a seat in the general vicinity of visiting chef and author Chef Bernard Guillas, who has enough mojo to carry an outdoor event in a blizzard.
Although he wasn’t putting on a flambé show with the fish as he did at the 2012 Cayman Cookout, Guillas doesn’t need flames to bring the heat; his personality is hot enough to melt even the coolest disposition. And his kumquat ginger scented whole red snapper was awesome, too.
The original concept for the event was to have Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain and Jose Andres cook and serve from stations that were in the ocean next to shore so that people would actually have to wade out to get their food, but the rough seas forced the trio on shore. Since the line-ups were longest at their stations, and I didn’t have the stamina to stand in line, I focused on the other booths. Other than Guillas’ offering, my favourites were Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Executive Chef Frederic Morineau’s Niman Ranch Lamb Saddle Chop and Chef Garry O’Connor’s trio of fantastic Schaller and Weber German-style sausages, complete with sides of spaetzle or sauerkraut and fantastic German mustards.
As one man from New Jersey with German heritage told me, “This is better than my grandmother used to make.” Cayman Cookout 1 – Old German Grandmother 0.
When the lines for the star chefs died down a bit, I tasted Chef Jose Andres’ remarkable sea urchin on grilled bread, which was so good, I went back for seconds.
Throughout the evening, I indulged on the tequila cocktails from the Patron stations. Toward the end of the evening, a long day that included a rum cocktail, a tasting of five wines and three tequila cocktails got the best of me. I had some dessert, but I’m not sure what it was – I think mini tiramisu. There was a bonanza of cheeses upstairs from the bar, but I was just too full and two tired.
I watched as the chefs of The Ritz-Carlton took to the dance floor over the pool en masse, much to the delight of the guests. The party carried on, but for me, Day Two had come to an end.
Round 7 – Burgers in Paradise
After two late nights, it was difficult to answer the bell for the next round of my battle with the Cayman Cookout.
The next event would include multiple elements, including a sail on the North Sound, a snorkel or swim at the Sandbar and then lunch at Rum Point. The concept recalls the North Sound day-trips of old, except that 30 years ago the boat captains would catch the food – conch, lobster and fish – that you would eat at Rum Point.
Upon arrival at Rum Point, guests were handed a glass of sparkling wine and greeted to the Caribbean sounds of the Afropan Steel Pan Group.
There were cocktails of all sorts, but Mixologist’s Adam Segar’s Barefoot Rum Punch stood out. This was not your father’s rum punch, and in fact, it was undoubtedly the best rum punch I ever tasted.
When it came to food, there were burgers – actually sliders – of all sorts. Eric Ripert had his famous fish burger there, made from a secret type of fish. He told me the secret, but only if I promised not to tell, so my lips are sealed.
Beyond that there were duck burgers; crab and corn burgers; Certified Angus Beef burgers with a slice of fried bologna; Guillas’ fantastic lemon grass shrimp and scallop burger; and my personal favourite, Spike Mendelsohn’s lamb burger with tzatziki sauce. There were also meatless cheeseburgers made of, you guessed it, cheese, along with french fried and The Ritz-Carlton’s very delicious yucca fries.
I was just settling in, still eating and ready to have another cocktail when they announced that those who had 2pm demonstrations to attend had to leave. Part of me wanted to leave, but something – maybe it was the wind softly swishing through the casuarina trees – said no. Like a Siren leading me astray, Rum Point beckoned and I was only interested in getting one more of Adam Segar’s fantastic cocktails.
Round 8 – How to enjoy your food and wine with Ray Isle
Ray Isle is a nice guy. And a knowledgeable one, too. He’s been to the Cayman Cookout every year, I think. I would have loved to have had him tell me how to enjoy my food and wine over several tasting of wine.
But I was kicked back on one of Red Sail Sport’s catamarans, which decided to take the scenic route back to the dock at SafeHaven.
Somewhere along the way, I fell asleep in the breeze. I was awakened by the sound of my own snoring. Round 8 clearly went to the Cayman Cookout, but I wasn’t complaining.
Round 9 – An afternoon with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert
Arriving at the SafeHaven dock at 3.10, I had only 20 minutes to collect myself and get over to the Ritz beach for one of the most anticipated demonstrations, that involving friends Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert.
Last year, the two “interviewed” each other in a session called Good vs. Evil.
“This year, we’re going to try and be useful,” Bourdain declared, adding that there are certain things every human being should know how to cook, including how to make an omelette, scramble an egg, roast a chicken and grill a steak.
The demonstration, which was very humorous, included some great cooking tips.
Bourdain: “Crack eggs on a flat surface and never on the lip of anything. You crack with one hand largely because it looks cool.”
Ripert: “Crack eggs into a small cup and not into the bowl you’ll be mixing in.” Only after you see the egg is fresh do you pour it from the small bowl into the mixing bowl.
Ripert said that when making an omelette, nothing should be added to the eggs except salt and pepper. “No milk. No water.”
Ripert said eggs for omelettes should be mixed with a fork, and not too much. Eggs for scrambled eggs should be beaten with a whisk.
Ripert: “Put bread in chicken [to be roasted]. It soaks up the moisture and keeps the breast moist.”
Bourdain advocates eating the whole beast when it comes to animals, so he believes in using the “Pope’s nose”, referring to a chicken’s rear end. Ripert mildly agreed but warned that the glands needed to be removed first or else the chicken would become bitter.
Ripert said chicken should be baked at 325 degrees and basted along the way. It should be finished at a higher temperatures – 450 to 500 degrees – to crisp the skin.
When it comes to steak, Bourdain said the biggest mistake is cooking it cold.
Ripert: “The steak should be at room temperature because you will be able to sear the steak on the outside and have the inside cooked the way you want it.”
Bourdain warned against doing anything to the steak while it was on the grill other than flip it over. “Don’t jab it or poke it with holes.”
Bourdain: “A steak should rest after it comes off a grill, five to seven minutes.”
Ripert: “Steak is a muscle. When it comes off the grill, it’s contracted. After 5-7 minutes, it relaxes and the blood becomes more evenly distributed in the steak.”
Bourdain: “The biggest error people make [when they cook pasta] – they rinse it.”
Bourdain: “Putting oil in the water to keep [pasta] from sticking is basically a myth. It does absolutely nothing useful.”
The most humorous line of the day came from Bourdain’s five-year-old daughter Ariane, who came up on stage to try some of the omelette Bourdain cooked.
At one point she whispered something into Bourdain’s ear.
“She wants to know why you get to put your fingers on the chicken bottom,” Bourdain said.
“Just for the fun.”
“He likes it,” Bourdain told his daughter.
As he is apt to do, Bourdain expressed his distaste for fast food, singling out the chain McDonald’s. He asked his daughter if Ronald McDonald was a nice man and she immediately said no.
“I have no problem stigmatizing the king, the clown or the colonel,” he said, referring to icons of Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC. “I don’t think we’re going to win this war against these guys fighting nice.”
He said that sometimes you have to take the battle to children on terms they can relate to.
“Ronald McDonald has cooties; that’s something we all can understand.”
Round 10 and 11 – Two Champagne receptions and the Ultimate Dinner Party
The action moved to Camana Bay for the Ultimate Dinner Party, an event that featured celebrity chefs cooking at three different restaurants.
Prior to the Champagne and canapé reception that launched that event there was a private Champagne reception for the media at Bon Vivant where The Ritz-Carlton’s corporate chef Rainer Zinngrebe, was cooking up some amazing dishes, including a ravioli filled with an edible plant fungus that grows on corn called huitlacoche. Mexican’s consider this black fungus, which is also known as corn smut, a culinary delicacy. I tried it. It was OK, but I prefer my raviolis filled with cheese.
After the regular reception, which included book signings by the visiting talent, the guests each went to the restaurant they had chosen in advance. My choice was Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, partially because David Kinch, well known for his California cuisine, was the guest chef.
Once at Michael’s, there was yet another reception, this time with sparkling rosé wine and several fantastic passed appetizers.
Between all the Champagne, sparkling wine and appetizers I had already eaten by the time I sat down, I was actually pretty full. But the Cayman Cookout pushes even veteran gluttons to new limits and there was no way I was going to miss Chef Kinch’s offerings.
Although all of his courses were good, it was the final course of the night – a cocoa-rubbed Harris Ranch Short Rib – by Chefs Michael Schwartz and Thomas Tennant that stood out the most for me.
I was so full by the end of the fourth course, that it was hard to enjoy dessert, but I managed to do so anyway.
Three days into the Cayman Cookout, however, I was wined out and dined out and I could have easily slept until noon on Sunday. But there was another big day ahead.
Round 12 – Brunch
Grand Cayman is as Sunday brunch-happy of a place as you’re likely to find and if one annual brunch of the year has to be pointed to as the one not to miss, it’s the Bon Vivant Taittinger Champagne Brunch and Cook-off.
Of course, there was more Taittinger Champagne, just like the regular Sunday brunches at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, and although those regular brunches have a large selection of great foods, it’s not nearly as elaborate as what was on display during the Cayman Cookout.
On the outside patio, chefs from some of Cayman’s best restaurants were on hand to prepare special small plates of spectacular food, including grilled beef tenderloin with quail eggs and truffles Bernaise sauce prepared by the Cayman Culinary Society team of Chefs Vidyadhara Shetty and Keith Griffin. This take-off on steak and eggs was off-the-charts good.
Inside, visiting food purveyors were doling out samples of incredible delicacies like Browne Trading Company’s divine sturgeon caviar, Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery’s artisan cheese and La Quercia’s amazing cured meats.
There was also the Bon Vivant Cook-off portion of the event, which featured the final between Marty Tammemagi and Maureen Cubbon, aided by her 11-year-old assistant, Justin Derrick.
Co-emcee of the event, along with Bon Vivant’s Cynthia Hew, was celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn, who took on the role with more relish than his predecessors in previous years. Mendelsohn engaged in playful banter with the panel of celebrity chef judges that included Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain and Jose Andres, the latter of whom began playfully tossing pomegranates and tomatoes back and forth with Mendelsohn between the judges’ table and the stage.
The event was all good fun and in the end Cubbon finally took home the big prize after entering the competition four times and getting all the way to the final once before. People lingered over merry conversation in the Ritz ballroom long after the event ended, but I had to leave; I had one final event to attend.
Round 13 – Artisan Market
No Cayman Cookout event has evolved more in the last three years than the Artisan Market. In 2011, the event seemed almost an afterthought; an anti-climatic ending for those who attended the Champagne brunch. Last year it picked up a lot of steam and this year it picked up a unique and lively personality all of its own.
Taking place around The Ritz-Carlton’s North Sound Pool, the Artisan Market is the second-last event of the Cayman Cookout – only the Gala Dinner follows. It is also the least expensive, only US$35.
The event offers tastes of cocktails, juices, wines, beer and gourmet foods. For those attending after the brunch, it’s probably the beverages that are most appealing. For those who are attending who weren’t at brunch, the food tastings were excellent and substantial.
The guest food and wine producers had booths from which they provided samples of cheeses and meats.
Many of the celebrity chefs were also there, off to the side, to sign books for those who purchased them over the weekend.
As it happened, many of the people who attended the Artisan Market filtered down after the Champagne brunch, so spirits and were high. There was music, conversation and a lot of laughter. Some guests took of their shoes, rolled up their trousers and sat down at the tables placed on the shallow shelf in the pool.
The event was only supposed to go until 5pm, but it was around 6pm and getting dark before the Patron bar stopped serving and people made their way home, or where ever it was they were going.
Two years ago, I had attended the Gala Dinner after the brunch and Artisan market, but there was no way I could have done that after this day; maybe I’m just getting old.
The morning after
For the first time in its history, the Cayman Cookout faced some weather challenges this year, especially on the Friday afternoon and evening, somewhat dampening events at those times. Still, the 2012 Cayman Cookout soared. Two of the new events – the Rundown with Anthony Bourdain and Burgers in Paradise – were fantastic additions. The Champagne Brunch and Artisan Market events were also the best they had ever been.
Combined with another slate of top-notch cooking demonstrations and wine tasting, the 2012 Cayman Cookout added to its growing reputation as one of the best, most unique and most intimate food and wine festivals anywhere. With top-notch talent like chefs Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Jacques Torres and Martin Picard already committed to attend in 2013, the Cayman Cookout will only continue to add mystique.
As for me, Monday morning came all too quickly. People like to tell me that I have the easiest job in the world, just having to eat and drink all the time. But I can tell you that after four big days of eating, drinking, taking notes and photographs and not getting enough sleep, the experience took its toll. But I survived. I had faced the Cayman Cookout challenge and I had won and had gained several pounds to prove it.
With the ‘easy’ part of my job done, on Monday morning came the hard part: Looking through 684 photographs plus editing and captioning the best of them. And then there was several thousand words to write. No, my job isn’t as easy as people might think, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t great fun at times, especially during the Cayman Cookout.