I was sitting beneath a white tent , the Caribbean just feet to my left. The only barrier between me and those turquoise waters was a row of potted palms gently swaying in the warm air. On the stage was Eric Ripert, celebrity chef and owner of New York’s Le Bernadin, and Anthony Bourdain, star of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” and author of “Kitchen Confidential.” Just two guys, best friends, cooking Portuguese seafood stew, shootin’ the breeze.
I looked to my right and beneath a shaded oversized couch was Bourdain’s wife and daughter, chef Marcus Samuelson and his wife, Jose Andres’ kids and Daniel Boulud wearing matching swim trunks with his 6-month-old son.
I felt as though I had crashed a private party or won a lottery ticket to the best family vacation a food lover could dream of. The reality of the situation actually wasn’t far off — the ticket I had was for the Cayman Cookout, the most intimate, laidback and jovial of Food & Wine’s juggernaut of food festivals.
Taking place over four days, with the majority of events, tastings and presentations at the flawless Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman — in the hotel and on beneath beach tents — the Cayman Cookout began five years ago as the brainchild of Ripert himself. Inspired by his restaurant Blue at the Ritz-Carlton, Ripert created the concept with the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, where he envisioned spending a long, sunny weekend with his friends, celebrating Cayman cuisine and culture.
“We wanted it small,” explains Ripert. He and I were chatting next to the main pool at the Ritz, where fans intermittently stopped by to rave about their experiences at his two restaurants. “It started with the hotel and local chefs competing and having fun. Our idea was always very upscale, very intimate, where chefs can hang out with their fellow chefs, bring their families and children and have quality time with them, and interact with the public. There is this intimacy here that you cannot find any longer at the bigger festivals.” (Not even at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.)
Events start midmorning. Early mornings are reserved for attendees to run on the beach or work out in the gym alongside star chefs. Seminars are often with just handfuls of other attendees learning about seafood preparation or enjoying tastings of the best beach wines. There are no recipes provided, or slick tasting notebooks to lug around in tote bags. Most attendees are in flip-flops or barefooted, sipping on rum punch and rosé.
What separate this festival from others, aside from the remarkably small size and paradise setting, are the beach galas. With only 500 tickets sold, the nighttime Barefoot BBQ features all of the celebrity chefs serving guests their take on island-inspired cuisine, accompanied by local rum, cocktails, wine and the sounds of the ocean and local musicians. Guests are shuttled from the hotel to the event, where everyone kicks off their heels, giving it a private party feel. This is only outdone by the smaller Sunday visit to Stingray City and the Beach Bash at Rum Point.
Starting midmorning, guests are shuttled via catamarans to Stingray City — a natural sandbar, where wild stingrays gather to feed. This is the tailgating scene of the Caribbean. Dozens of boats surround the sandbar, while people wade amongst these Jurassic creatures. After swimming with, petting and even kissing these beautiful animals, guests are gathered back into the boat to be motored to the ultimate daytime party, with food stations, mixologists, French desserts made with imported Peruvian chocolate and hand-blended in Austria (yes, these were a real thing) at one of the most picturesque locations on the planet — reason enough to make the trip to Grand Cayman.
“I like this island a lot,” says Ripert. “It’s a very small island; however, it’s an island that offers a lot. You can be a scuba diver, just enjoy the beach, and go shopping. It has a true Caribbean culture that hasn’t disappeared.
“(The Ritz-Carlton) brought me here in 2000. (Blue) is the only restaurant that I have outside of Le Bernadin, because this hotel is very great in terms of quality of service. If I’m going to partner with someone, it has to be with someone who has the same passion about the quality and about creating an experience. That’s why it was a good fit.”
It’s the perfect fit, ingredients and presentation on an island that stays close to its roots and celebrates the people, the sea and the food of the region with chefs who are, like the guests, pinching themselves at their good fortune.
Amiee White Beazley writes about travel for the Aspen Times Weekly. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @awbeazley1.