Cayman Cookout: The Ultimate Food And Wine Festival For Beach-Lovers

United States 28 January 2020
Cayman Cookout 2020, even chefs take selfies: L-R, Andrew Zimmern, Jose Andres, Daniel Boulud, Emeril Lagasse. REBECCA DAVIDSON PHOTOGRAPHY
Article by Katie Kelly Bell

It is a bright sunny morning in January and a crowd has gathered in front of the Ritz-Carlton on Grand Cayman Island’s famed Seven Mile Beach. We are awaiting the arrival of Chef José Andrés, who likes to kick-off the Cayman Cookout with a surprise entrance (last year it was via submarine). Cayman Cookout, which was founded by Eric Ripert over 12 years ago, is a beachside food and wine bacchanal that takes place in the deep cold heart of winter. It’s balmy, sunny and bursting at the seams with chef talent, fine food and a daunting selection of libations. Chef Andrés has never missed a Cookout and he takes his kick-off role seriously—-this year he channels Mad Max rolling up on a tricked out dune buggy. The crowd is thrilled; it’s just this kind of playful stunt that defines the Cookout. Yes, these are serious chefs who make award-winning Michelin-starred cuisine, but food is ultimately about gathering together and having fun—two things that reflect the true DNA of this event.

Cayman is already a worthy destination for any food and wine lover; often referred to as the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean, the destination enjoys a healthy number of fine dining options, including restaurants from the likes of Eric Ripert and Dean Max. For a week in January, the Cayman Cookout takes the entire island food scene to new levelMost guests attend for the chance to sit in on cooking demos and events (this year there were roughly 74) with some of the world’s greatest chefs and winemakers (José Andrés, Dominique Crenn, Claire Smyth, Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, Emeril Lagasse to name a few) but the event doubles down on the exposure with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. You might opt to scuba dive and cull lionfish with Chef Andrés, sip fine wine on a catamaran sunset cruise with winemaker Thomas Fogarty Jr., attend a rare wine master class, or a Pappy Van Winkle tasting dinner.

Yet, it’s the unplanned moments that make this event so compelling. You’ll most likely find yourself at Bar Jack (the Ritz-Carlton’s beachside bar) sipping a cocktail and chatting with Chef Andrés or sitting next to a chef during morning session of yoga and Krug (because, why not?) Maybe later you bump into Daniel Boulud in the hallway on the way to an event and quiz him on his favorite vacation spot. The intimacy of the experience is its greatest appeal. Flip flops and bathing suits are couture here; chefs do cooking demos (in one of the two beachside pavilions) and then wander out into the ocean for a quick dip. “It’s just such a joyous event,” says Claire Smyth, executive chef of Core in London. “Everything is so lovely, the chefs, the line-up. I love Cayman.”

The Stay:

The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman is the setting for the annual Cayman Cookout. The hotel is a sprawling affair with endless corridors and places to tuck into and get lost in sea breezes and margaritas—and then there are the no-nonsense roosters, the island’s version of pigeons or squirrels. The Ritz rooster chimed in around 5:40PM on my first night. In fact, happy hour was when he lit the place up. He was clearly a Cayman rooster—who understood the role of happy hour and that all must be reminded, even on vacation, to stop, sip, and savor the view. Everyone bunks here, chefs, sommeliers, winemakers and guests, and there are swarms of Ritz-Carlton staff on hand everywhere to lend a hand, give directions or just help you find a beach chair and put a frozen cocktail in your hand. You will want for nothing, and the rooster will help keep your priorities straight.
If every food and wine event has a word, the word for Cayman Cookout would have to be playful. Where else will an esteemed chef like José Andrés dress up in costume and roll in on a dune buggy to kick things off? Where else are you encouraged to remove your shoes (at the beachside pavilions footwear is optional). And, where else will you find a coterie of the world’s finest culinary minds in flip flops doing yoga on the beach. Chef Dominique Crenn, one of America’s greatest chefs (she is the first female to be awarded three Michelin stars in the USA) sums it up best, “Cayman inspires you—it inspires me because I love what Eric [Ripert] has done through the years. Tomeet the people and mingle with the culture of Cayman is also wonderful; this island gives so much. There is a lot of kindness here.” The next one is January 13-18, take your cue from the rooster and make it a priority.
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