A celeb chef culinary holiday for your bucket list – first course
I am tucking into breakfast in the all-white Club room sitting next to Eric Ripert (on the next table, not mine sadly), so my groupie chef gazing has begun, but still, an hour or so later, at the hugely relaxed press conference, I am in awe, as I face ten of the world’s top chefs lounging on sofas, many sporting flip flops. What strikes me is they are all such good mates, joking around, with no evidence of the egos we sometimes see in Dubai with visiting celeb chefs.
Well this annual event is Eric Ripert’s creation, his sixth one – Cayman Cookout at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman – so he chooses who to invite after all. But every year, new chefs join the star-studded cast – this year it is Daniel Boulud’s first time. Anthony Bourdain and José Andrés are regulars. Daniel Humm is also here, as is Rick Bayless. David Chang and Grant Achatz have graced the festival in the past. And they are here with their families, without a single publicist in sight.
Spot the celeb chef
It’s not really a formal press conference, but more a chit chat and Q&A session amongst friends and media, and this really sets the super casual tone for the weekend. My question here and in the one-on-one interviews is centred around food trends – more on that and their thoughts on Middle Eastern cuisine in my story here. Slightly digressing though, what’s Cayman Cookout all about and what did I learn? Well here’s a snapshot of my weekend. Health warning - this post is slightly longer than what you may be used to, so grab yourself a cuppa or a tipple of something stronger and read on.
- José Andrés cooking act – the first cooking demo of the weekend is more a stand-up comedy act thanks to Spanish chef José Andrés’ captivating and hilarious persona. The photo on the left captures his grand entrance – the three musketeers are an inseparable act. Well apart from when José gets called back to Washington DC to cook for Michelle Obama’s birthday – you’d think she would be a tad more organised. Credited with revolutionising Spanish cuisine in America, he cooks (or rather his two chefs do) a mammoth shrimp paella but frankly that plays second fiddle to his entertaining and endearing banter. Don’t ask me what it tastes like, I am more engrossed in his one liners and story telling.
- Cayman bites with Anthony Bourdain – who doesn’t know Anthony Bourdain? Well he is a global TV star more than a chef, by his own admittance. A firm supporter of a country’s culinary traditions, he walks us through Cayman’s street food – classic conch (the meat of a large pink mollusk) chowder, Caribbean-style spiced jerk chicken, rundown (a coconut milk stew with fish marinated in fresh lime juice, spring onions and Caribbean red chilli peppers) and Tortuga rum cakes amongst many. Whilst tasting every dish, he claims each one is ‘delicious’. Yes it’s his preferred foodie word. Anthony ALWAYS has a tipple in his hand – rum punch being his favourite beachside cocktail, a Negroni for Italian summer holidays, and beer any other time. He’s also partial to arak when in the Middle East. More here in my interview.
- Daniel Boulud’s French meets Cayman cuisine - oh my, out of all the chefs I meet at Cayman Cookout, Daniel Boulud ranks top as my all-time number one. It’s that French accent that charms me every time. Talking to him he’s a listener, funny, highly interesting and interested. He even checks out my blog (his foodie wife also has one) from his i-phone and starts reading my posts…so am biased, but at least he knows how to tailor his messages. Based out of New York, he has 13 restaurants across North America, Canada, Singapore and London, one of which, Daniel, holds three Michelin stars and ranks number 29 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. At the cooking demo, he makes two dishes inspired by local ingredients – a conch ceviche with blood orange sauce – and poached caramelised shrimps with watermelon, canteloupe and charentais melons infused with lemon balm. Using a sous vide, he jokes you can still make the three melons look as pretty chez vous by sealing them in a bag and hammering them flat. Both sublime dishes, but not easy to replicate at home.
- Beach BBQ - for dinner, we’re ferried along the coast to a beach club, Royal Palms on Seven Mile beach for a barbeque where Eric, José, Tony (aka Anthony) and many other island chefs man cooking stations each serving one dish. Funnily enough Anthony just dishes out burgers (he only really cooks at home and even that’s hotly contested by his martial arts wife) – with rum punch in hand of course. José’s pulled pork with foie gras slider is my top pick. Master chocolatier, Jacques Torres serves sweet treats, but I am more intrigued by the Patron tequilas.
- Burgers on the beach avec Eric Ripert – sadly our sailing trip with Eric Ripert is cancelled due to stormy weather (most unusual for this time of year), but at least the sun peeks out for a burger bash on the beach instead – complete with candy-coloured picnic tables. Eric incidentally is a French seafood specialist chef whose restaurant Le Bernardin in New York also boasts three Michelin stars and a number 19 World’s Best Restaurants accolade. Blue at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman is also his baby. His burger is a crab cake, but my favourite from one of Ritz-Carlton’s chefs is a brioche number with shredded duck and barbequed quail’s egg.
- Champagne tasting – no surprise I put my name down for this option pretty pronto. Here we have the executive wine editor of Food & Wine magazine, Ray Isle, teaching us a thing or two about hand-crafted, growers champagne from single estates – a theme for this year’s cookout. Or as he refers to it, farmers fizz. We taste six, four of which are chardonnay grapes, one is pinot noir and another mainly pinot meunier. Did you know of all wines, champagne ages the most gracefully? I guess that’s why it’s FooDiva’s tipple of choice.
- The adventures of Eric and Tony - after José’s stand-up act, this candid chit chat and rant between two very different personalities yet very close friends comes a close second as the most entertaining Cayman Cookout event. Having travelled and filmed in Peru together, they unveil a chocolate bar using some of the rarest cocoa beans grown today – before talking shop and poking jokes at each other, some quite harsh.
- Daniel Boulud goes Asian - tonight dinner is at neighbouring Camana Bay peppered with a myriad of restaurants. The visiting celeb chefs are each cooking in a different venue. I opt for my new god, Daniel Boulud, who is rather unusually showing off a seven-course Asian-inspired menu at Mizu, a South-East Asian restaurant. Why Asian you may ask like I do? “I have a dream to open an Asian restaurant. Growing up as a cook in France in the 70s with a lot of Japanese chefs and then coming to New York, and my first chef de cuisine in 1984 in the Plaza Athénée when I was exec chef was Cambodian. Then we moved to Le Cirque together and we were together eight years in total. Then I opened Daniel, but I couldn’t afford him any more! My chef de cuisine was Alex Lee, an American-Chinese – and we worked together another 12 years. So 20 years out of 30 with leading Asian chefs. Plus I have a nephew who is half-Japanese.” Here’s what his team cooks for us. He’s very quick to credit others for their work and is considered a mentor to many young, aspiring chefs. The standout dish is a fragrant carrot coconut soup with conch ceviche – the other courses don’t wow me despite the intriguing marriage of ingredients. Perhaps he should stick to his forte, French and Mediterranean cuisine.
- Caviar and champagne – after what has to be the world’s most soothing facial in the Ritz-Carlton’s La Prairie Silver Rain spa – well it does lather on caviar extract leaving me with skin like a baby for weeks later, it’s off to a champagne brunch (Dubai-style)…with plenty of caviar. And a cook-off where two home chefs from the Caymans battle it out on stage, whilst the three musketeers (with Daniel B replacing absconder José) judge, along with Ritz-Carlton’s VP of culinary and corporate chef, Rainier Zinngrebe.
Sadly I have to leave for the airport before the finale gala dinner. But that’s not the only thing I miss. With so many events coinciding on the itinerary, one has to pick and choose so I end up foregoing Rick Bayless’ and the adorable Daniel Humm’s cooking demos, plus a cheesaholic session, all for the sake of interviews. Oh well, an excuse to return next year .
Cayman Cookout doesn’t come cheap (details below), but where else can you interact so freely with some of the world’s top chefs all in one spot – whilst being wined and dined? Well I did ask Ritz-Carlton to bring it to the UAE . In the meantime, this is one culinary holiday worth saving up for. Will you add Cayman Cookout to your travel bucket list?
Stay tuned as more interesting soundbites from the chefs follow in another post. Some logistical info below, whilst I leave you with my favourite snap epitomising the tremendous fun-loving energy over the weekend.
- The next annual Cayman Cookout at Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman runs from January 15th to 19th, 2015 with ticket packages starting from US$1,200 (AED4,408).
- WEATHER: The optimum time to visit the Cayman Islands is December to April, however as you saw even in January we experienced rain showers. Oddly enough, the calmer seas for sailing and snorkeling are in the summer months from May to July. But who needs sea, when you have all these chefs on tap?
- FLY: There are no direct flights from the UAE or any Gulf country to Grand Cayman. I flew Etihad from Abu Dhabi to New York (13-15 hours tail-wind dependent). Thanks to business class and copious amounts of champagne, the journey was a breeze. And onwards via Cayman Airways (3 ½ hours) – delayed on both journeys so can’t say I would ever recommend this airline. That’s why Grand Cayman airport is packed with private jets.
- SLEEP: The host hotel and sponsor of Cayman Cookout is the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman – the most luxurious resort on the island and recently refurbished. Club level ocean view rooms are US$1,499 per night – pricey for sure, but you do hear crashing waves . In New York, I stayed at Ritz-Carlton Battery Park on my outbound journey with mesmerising Lady Liberty views. And Ritz-Carlton Central Park on my return, waking up to a stunning snowy New York.
Disclosure – FooDiva was invited by Ritz-Carlton to report on Cayman Cookout as it looks to attract more visitors from this region. Flights were very kindly sponsored by Etihad. Rest assured, as always, the opinions expressed here are FooDiva’s alone.
P.S – if you’ve not yet entered, dinners at the latest Mexican restaurant to hit our shores Tortuga, are up for grabs – click here for the competition.