The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman
Imagine two of the greatest chefs in the world, say Eric Ripert and José Andrés, strolling along the beach smoking cigars. Then imagine them swimming beside celebrity chef Kirsten Kish, as Kwame Onwuachi sails past on a catamaran, the glistening Caribbean Sea as the backdrop.
Now, imagine you’re there, too.
This is what happens at Cayman Cookout, a star chef-filled festival that takes place at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman every January. The event just celebrated its 15th anniversary last month, marking a major milestone for the food event that has, ostensibly, come to live in a league of its own. The Cayman Cookout has a reputation for being an intimate, immersive affair in the blossoming world of food festivals.
The Ritz-Carlton hosts most of the events at the hotel, and guests can buy a ticket to a single activity, or stay onsite and inhale every last morsel of the programming. Either way, if you hang out on Seven Mile Beach over the days of the event, you’ll find yourself rubbing shoulders with your favorite chefs with your toes in the sand. This is what sets the festival apart from, say, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which requires a pass to attend any of its events, or the New York City Food & Wine Festival, which sees about 50,000 people forming long lines at demos and tastings spread throughout the city. Cayman Cookout, on the other hand, is a close-knit happening held in a contained space—albeit with some extravagant excursions across the islands.
I had heard tales of Cayman Cookout for years—first, because it was led by an impressive chef, Eric Ripert, instead of a brand. A fellow journalist had also shared stories of swimming among stingrays with food-world stars, and another foodie friend said it was the only food festival she’d been to where the quality of the cooking matched what she’d had at the chefs’ restaurants. All that in mind, I finally made the point to travel for the event this year, to learn that the rumors are, in fact, true.
“Cayman Cookout’s 15th anniversary was proof that this event has no rival,” said Michael Kennedy, founder and owner of the Vin Fraiche Wine Group, with wineries in Napa, Tuscany, and Bordeaux. “Where else can you sit down to an intimate lunch with the world's best chefs while overlooking the bright blue ocean and sipping the world’s best wines? I love walking down the hallway and running into Emeril, and actually chatting, or going sailing with other winemakers. You really feel part of something special.”
This was largely the vision when Ripert, known for his three-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City, founded the festival after he opened Blue by Eric Ripert at the posh Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman almost two decades ago.
“At the time, we wanted to create an event that was win-win: it had to be good for the chefs, it had to be good for the guests, and ultimately, for the island and the hotel,” said Ripert. The Cayman Islands have simultaneously developed alongside the festival, and many local chefs are part of events as well. “I’m not saying Cayman is on the map because of us,” said Ripert, “but we have contributed.”
Ripert’s little black book of celebrity chefs, and the mutual respect among them, has enabled the cookout to host the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Daniel Boulud, and Dominique Crenn over the past 15 years—now, it’s a coveted invite for almost any chef. That's part of why, year after year, attendees can count on a solid lineup, said E.J. Lagasse, who has been attending with his dad Emeril for nine years, and attended as a working chef this year for the first time. “Cayman Cookout always brings together an amazing community of tight-knit chefs from around the world,” he added.
The Cayman Cookout is open to anyone, with tickets sold separately for each activity. There’s range, too, with prices climbing from $95, for a wine tasting, to over $5,000 for more exclusive excursions. This year’s festival welcomed 2,200 guests and had around 90 events, which involved everything from flying on a private jet to Jamaica with Ripert for lunch at GoldenEye (that's the $5K ticket item), to deep-sea fishing with Emeril Lagasse, to multi-course caviar and truffle dinners. “The events range from very, very small, like 15 to 20 people, for scuba diving with José Andrés, to very large, like 500 people for the barbecue on the beach,” said Ripert.
My theory that the real prize is merely the access, and proximity, to greatness was confirmed shortly after I arrived, when I spotted Lagasse by the pool and Ripert and Andrés on the beach. Later, I casually chatted with Kish, the new host of Top Chef, before attending a tortilla and salsa demo by Enrique Olvera, of Pujol fame. By the time I caught myself watching a boisterous pétanque competition between Ripert, Andrew Zimmern, Andrés, Onwuachi, Angie Mar (of Le B. in New York City), James Kent (of Michelin-starred restaurants Crown Shy and Saga in New York City), and Lagasse and E.J., I concluded that the event is much like being at a very fancy, booze-filled summer camp with my foodie idols; people I had read about on Eater, seen on Bon Appétit and Food & Wine’s best chefs lists, and whose restaurants had served me some of the best meals of my life. Suddenly, we were clinking margaritas by the pool and feasting on barbecued short ribs on the beach together.
But beneath the star power, there's a reason people fly to the Caribbean for this programming. I learned why, for example, Andrés’ beachfront paella demo always sells out. Instead of a staid cooking demo, he and Ripert enjoy hamming it up in front of guests. This year, Andrés came late in his bathrobe and shower cap, claiming he lost track of time, to applause from the approximately 100-person crowd who were seated in a circle, with the four massive paella pans and ample space for Andrés to bounce around in the middle. Once he took off his robe (revealing a T-shirt that read, “With a body like this…Who needs hair?”), he proceeded to regale the crowd with one-liners, meandering stories, and a Champagne vs. Cava fight with Ripert that turned the front row into a splash zone. He also chatted with guests, clearly recognizing several repeat-attendees who were familiar with his shenanigans.
Yes, they're working, but it was easy to slip into thinking that the chefs, too, were on vacation. Suddenly, these people who were used to leading high-pressure kitchens were letting loose, shucking oysters on the beach while drinking rosé and smoking cigars (Cayman is known for high-quality cigars that rival Cubans—many of the chefs often had one hanging out of their mouths at one point or another).
Onwuachi (of Tatiana, named the best restaurant of 2023 by The New York Times), who was attending for the first time, said he was loving "getting to spend time and cook together with my friends.”
As I chatted with fellow guests at a beachfront lunch hosted by Onwuachi one afternoon, we marveled at everyone's itineraries. One couple was going to nine events, while another attended just two, but splurged on the private jet to Jamaica with Ripert as one of them. Some had attended for years, while others like me were first-timers. One thing is sure in my mind: the catamaran excursion to Rum Point for a picnic lunch made by world-class chefs was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—well, unless I go back next year. (FYI, tickets usually go on sale in July.)
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler