Just as most good ideas are born, the Cayman Cookout began with a few cocktails. After a long day at Blue by Eric Ripert, the restaurant’s namesake chef started brainstorming on Seven Mile Beach when the idea for a Cayman-centric food festival sprung to his mind. When the man dreaming up the concept just so happens to be the “seafood master” and chef behind New York City’s three Michelin-star restaurant Le Bernardin, this wasn’t and idea that was put on the back burner.
“The event was originally designed to bring chefs to Cayman to enjoy everything the Islands have to offer and to create an experience that would interest both the locals and attract people from around the world to enjoy gastronomy, wines and the landscape and waters in an intimate and exclusive setting,” Ripert explains.
In 2009, the inaugural event brought together local chefs and a few aspiring ones, but after a successful first run, Ripert invited two other well-known foodie friends — TV host and chef Anthony Bourdain and chef and small plates pioneer José Andrés — to help host the party. The celeb chefs opened up the list of invitees to chefs from all across the U.S. and the world to come and cook in Cayman.
In the years since the Cookout’s debut, Ripert has grown the annual epicurean event into a global extravaganza, playing the role of host alongside The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s Executive Chef, Frederic Morineau. “Ten years ago, there weren’t many high-quality restaurants, and whilst we can’t say that the festival caused a change in the landscape, we’re thrilled by the increased number of interesting and delicious restaurants,” says Ripert.
Each January the Cayman Cookout draws food lovers to the Islands, exposing Cayman’s signature cuisine to a wider audience and enticing them to come back for more. There’s a reason the festival takes place during the Winter months, after all. Now, the event has become something like a culinary version of fashion week, with signature shows hosted by the likes of bigwig chefs such as Daniel Boulud, owner of 13 restaurants around the globe, including Michelin-starred New York City flagship, Daniel.
This year’s Cayman Cookout will take place January 10 to 14 at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, featuring five food-filled days with over 40 culinary events hosted on the same shores where the Cookout first launched: Seven Mile Beach. Expect staple events like The Adventures of Eric & Tony and Ripert and Bourdain’s popular culinary demonstration in addition to crowd favourite, Olé José with Chef José Andrés, where the chef hosts a paella-making and storytelling session over a bonfire on the sand. And whilst the event may have grown to include a guest list of high-ranking culinary names, the Cookout still pays homage to its humble start, giving amateur chefs the chance to face off at the endless Moët & Chandon Champagne-fueled Bon Vivant Cook-off Brunch, where the “three amigos,” Ripert, Bourdain and Andrés, serve as judges.
“We’ve intentionally kept the festival small and intimate. However, it has still become famous internationally and each year we’re lucky to have an outstanding group of very talented professionals participate,” says Ripert, when asked how he’s seen the event grow.
The Cookout may have joined the ranks of big-name food festivals around the globe, but it’s in a category all its own thanks to this more personal, interactive setting where chefs from all backgrounds can brush elbows and talk shop, sharing some of their own techniques whilst cooking side by side.
“I was surprised about how small and intimate the whole experience was,” says Sean Brock, the chef behind McCrady’s Restaurants and Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, in response to his first Cayman Cookout experience in 2015. “We’re able to interact really closely with the attendees throughout the whole event.”
When asked how influential he thinks the Cookout is on Cayman’s evolving culinary scene, Brock compares the event to his local Charleston Wine + Food Festival, which brings chefs together to cook in a place where they hadn’t had the opportunity to explore beforehand, giving attendees and the culinary community the chance to come along for the ride. “The Cayman Islands get put on the radars of some of the best chefs in the country, which wouldn’t happen without this event bringing everyone down there and letting us cook together,” says Brock. “This gives us the chance to cook in a totally unique place.”
In addition to the roster of returning chefs, this year’s Cookout will feature a few fresh faces, including chef Robert Irvine, host of Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible.” The English celebrity chef toured with his interactive show, “Robert Irvine LIVE,” and has recently debuted eateries like Robert Irvine’s Public House in Las Vegas. The chance to cook alongside chefs like Ripert and Andrés, however, offers up an entirely different experience.
“We were excited when they started planning this year’s 10th anniversary events and that they wanted to add to their already amazing collection of chefs and events, so we jumped at the opportunity,” says Irvine. “The founders are two of the world’s most amazing chefs, and the opportunity to participate and work with both is always inspirational.”
Guests can catch an in-person version of “The Robert Irvine Show” whilst sipping on tequila cocktails or take part in another Cookout first: a New Orleans vs. Las Vegas chef showdown, which will pin the Food Network star against legendary chef Emeril Lagasse in a cook-off that ends with a barefoot family-style dinner on the sand.
For the anniversary event, one thing guests can certainly count on is the “three amigos” continuing to bring their signature personalities to Cayman’s shores, ensuring an entertaining performance for everyone watching. “For me, one of the most successful outcomes each year is the guests’ enjoyment,” Ripert says. “We host [the festival] during the very cold Winter months and try to bring as much fun as we can.” The perfect example: At chef Brock’s first Cookout, his favourite moment was catching Ripert and Bourdain on stage, with Bourdain doing the cooking and Ripert messing with him the entire time. “It was hilarious to watch them up there together,” Says Brock.
Since the start, the goal of the event has remained the same: To make people happy, and this goes for both the spectators and culinary stars. But what will make this year’s event different than in years past are the cast of characters coming together in Cayman.
“Their personalities entirely change the dynamic of Cookout each year,” Ripert explains. As for where he sees the Cayman Cookout festival heading in the future, he says that’s still up for discussion, but that “happiness is always our basic guiding principle along with showcasing the beauty and culture of the Cayman Islands.”
With the Cookout’s rotating roster of chefs hailing everywhere from the American South to the South of France, you know you’ll be in for a culinary treat in the years ahead.
Whet your appetite for the Cayman Cookout on board Cayman Airways with a complimentary meal on flights longer than two hours.
Author: Lane Nieset