If you are following me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and/or Periscope, then you know that my wife and I were just in Grand Cayman for the eighth annual Cayman Cookout. If you are into food, wine and/or celebrity chefs, then this is a festival you want to attend. We had an incredible weekend hanging out with some of the best chefs/TV personalities in the world, including Anthony Bourdain. Here’s how our trip played out:
New York to Grand Cayman
After speaking at the New York Times Travel Show, Natalie and I hopped on a plane from LaGuardia Airport (LGA) to Miami (MIA) so we could then fly to Grand Cayman (GCM). If we didn’t care about our American Airlines miles, we could have flown nonstop from EWR on United or from JFK on JetBlue or Cayman Airways. It wasn’t only a lot cheaper to make a stop but I accrued miles and got upgraded for free since I have Executive Platinum status.
Grand Cayman Airport
Flight time from Miami to Grand Cayman was just one hour and 11 minutes. The airport is small so everyone has to deplane by walking down the stairs instead of a ramp. There’s two lengthy forms to fill out for immigration (Cayman Islands are a British Territory). Immigration was a tad slow but they had a lot of friendly officers working. Good to know: There’s no taking pictures in the airport – even at baggage claim (I got scolded).
Airport to Hotel
We were met outside of baggage claim by a driver, who I later learned was also a real estate agent. On the short 10-minute drive to the hotel, I learned that he was fifth generation Caymanian, the island is the fifth largest financial center in the world (there are over 300 banks), the Caymanian dollar is 20% stronger than the U.S. dollar (not bad for a small island!) and there’s no McDonald’s. Sadly, they do have Burger King, KFC and a couple other American chains. There are some grocery stores just like you would find back home including Foster’s, which is a five-minute walk from the hotel.
Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman
We were invited to the Cayman Cookout by the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman since they are one of the event’s main sponsors and many of the events take place at their hotel. The hotel is huge. There are 365 rooms on 144 acres right on the world famous Seven Mile Beach. The hotel is pretty much a destination in itself since they have two pools, a kids playground, outdoor movie screen, a La Prairie Spa (there are only three in the world) with 16 treatment rooms and the largest art gallery on the island, featuring works of local artists. Oh, and did I mention that there are five restaurants including an Italian, Japanese, steakhouse and a seafood restaurant by acclaimed Chef Eric Ripert of the iconic Le Bernardin restaurant in New York.
Chef Eric Ripert
The Cayman Cookout concept was created by Eric Ripert in 2008. He opened up his restaurant Blue 10 years ago in the Ritz-Carlton and then shortly after, created the Cayman Cookout. Eric is a world-class French chef who specializes in modern French cuisine and is renowned for his work with seafood. His New York restaurant has held three stars from the Michelin Guide since it opened in 2005 and it’s ranked number 21 on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Not bad! On top of that, he’s friends with some of the most popular chefs ever to appear on TV and they come down each January to partake in the long weekend’s festivities.
Wednesday, January 19
Since we arrived late on Wednesday night, we decided not to eat dinner. Instead we snacked on the chips, fruit and chocolate that had been sent up to our room. Our room was beautiful, comfortable and we loved everything about it except the bathtub. It was a little dated.
Thursday, January 14
We had tons of work to do so instead of going to breakfast in SEVEN restaurant or having a coffee and pastry at the Silver Palm lounge off the lobby, we stayed in the room and ordered room service. I had the banana and blueberry pancakes. After that, we were treated to a couples massage at the hotel’s beautiful La Prairie spa. We then had lunch at Andiamo Restaurant near the other pool and kids water park. Andiamo is an outdoor Italian restaurant with traditional and local twists. I had a Caribbean pizza with jerk chicken, onions, local peppers and cilantro sauce. Parents love Andiamo since next to it, there’s an outdoor movie theatre that plays kids movies so parents can eat and kids can watch movies.
That afternoon we were going to go snorkeling or rent a standup paddle board but sadly we needed to get back to work. We did manage to get to the beach for sunset, which was incredible. It’s also where I felt the Caribbean Sea, which I’d forgotten is so warm and clear. FYI: The hotel’s pool water was even warmer. Had to be close to 90F.
Before dinner we walked five minutes to Foster’s to buy some local hot sauce (my fave). I was surprised how large the store was. It had everything that you would find back home except the prices were much higher – that’s usually the case on islands but it’s even worse here since their dollar is stronger.
Natalie and I then had a romantic dinner for two at Blue by Eric Ripert, which was unreal. Our waiter, Redo, was a young man from Romania and Canada and one of the best waiters I’ve ever had.
Friday, January 15th
Lunch with Anthony Bourdain
On Friday, we skipped breakfast altogether since we had so much work to finish. I was also co-hosting the weekly #TravelSkills Twitter chat at 12pm so we ended up waiting till lunch and having some food at one of the Cayman Cookout’s first event; The Rundown with Anthony Bourdain. It was on the Great Lawn of the hotel by the fitness center and took place from 11:30 am – 1:30 PM. It was a fun event as Anthony Bourdain walked around to all of Cayman Island’s most acclaimed chefs and restaurateurs booths to tastes the local flavors. Also taking place at the same time in the restaurant Blue was a lunch with Tom Colicchio.
After Tony’s event we then went out to the Breville Beach Pavillion to attend Chef Michael Mina’s event ‘Creating Balance’. Mina and one of his chefs taught the crowd of about fifty how to make a lobster and avocado salad. I learned that female lobsters have wider tails, bigger claws and are feistier than their male counterparts. I also learned that you have to cook lobsters while they’re alive otherwise their meat turns to mush. Afterwards, Michael Mina did a Q&A and I asked him how many restaurants he has and how often he visits them. He has 26, mostly in San Francisco, Florida and New York. He visits the San Francisco restaurant every day and the others every two months. Someone else asked him his favorite restaurant outside of his group and he said Masa in New York City since he loves Japanese food.
Tiki Beach for Barefoot Barbecue
Friday night was the unofficial kick off of the 2016 Cayman Cookout. The Barefoot Barbecue took place at Tiki Beach, which was about a seven minute drive from the Ritz-Carlton. They had shuttle buses for all the guests. The event was amazing and everyone really was barefoot on the warm sand. Almost all the chefs had their own booth where they would cook and serve their dishes. It was pretty cool to see Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Jose Andres and many others working their booths and taking photos with fans. There were over a dozen food stands and my favorite was a tie between chef Tony Biggs’ Certified Angus Beef platter and Cindy Hutson’s Blue Mountain Coffee and Cocoa Crusted Certified Angus Beef flat iron steak, creamy polenta, in cherry chipotle agave glaze.
Saturday, January 16th
At 9:15am, guests boarded boats to head out across the turquoise Caribbean Sea to Stingray City to snorkel and swim with the stingrays. I’ve done this a couple times before in French Polynesia where’s it’s not as busy. But in the Cayman Islands, it’s supposedly the only place in the world where you can legally hold the cartilaginous fish. We were in a power boat going slow and it took 25 minutes to get out to Stingray City.
From there, it was a 15-minute cruise to Rum Point for the Beach Bash Presented by Progressive Distributors. Everyone was greeted by pirates. I recognized one of them as my driver from the airport, which was pretty funny! Rum Point was an amazing venue for a beach bash and they had all kinds of food stations set up. Many had Ritz-Carlton chefs but Jose Andres and Eric Ripert were working behind one of the tables. Everyone enjoyed the incredible food, tropical drinks, shaded shores, colorful picnic tables and soft-swaying hammocks. My favorite dish was Tony Biggs’ beef empanadas. And the banana corn dogs – I can’t remember whose stall those were from.
The Adventures of Eric & Tony
After a 45-minute ride back to shore in a catamaran, we boarded buses for the 5-minute transfer to the Ritz-Carlton. It was only 2pm and at 3:30pm, I called into Leo Laporte’s weekly show The Tech Guy. When that finished, I went out to the Breville Beach Pavillion for the Adventures of Eric & Tony food demonstration. It was standing room only since Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert were showing folks how to cook. It was good fun to see these guys interact and I will post a short video clip shortly.
Grand Cayman to Miami to Los Angeles
That night, we had dinner with one of our Ritz-Carlton friends at the bar at Andiamo since all the restaurants were full with reservations. In the morning, we had an early flight back home to Los Angeles via Miami. The Grand Cayman airport is small, there was no line at the American Airlines counter or security. Once through, there’s not much to do so don’t show up too early. In Miami, if you have a long layover and have an American Express Platinum card, go to the Centurion Lounge to get some good food. That’s if you can find a seat. It’s way too small. We ate standing up at the bar, then walked over to the American Airlines Admirals Club so we could sit and relax a bit. To get into that club, use your Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®.
Next year the Cayman Cookout is tentatively scheduled for January 12-15, 2017. Tickets will go on sale in October. It’s a foodie event you won’t want to miss!