FOOD STUFF

Head­lined by celebrity chefs and wine ex­perts, Grand Cay­man’s an­nual food fest is all about bare­foot indulgence.

DestinAsian - - DEPARTMENTS - BY TODD PITOCK

A re­port from the an­nual culi­nary fes­ti­val held on Grand Cay­man.

When I ar­rived in the Cay­man Is­lands in Jan­uary, I had one thing in mind: food. The tiny Bri­tish ter­ri­tory—three dol­lops of land just south of Cuba and west of Ja­maica—may be best known to the out­side world as a haven for off­shore wealth, but to food lovers, it is the culi­nary cap­i­tal of the Caribbean. Grand Cay­man—the largest is­land, mea­sur­ing all of 197 square kilo­me­ters—has more than 250 restau­rants, many of them splen­did spa­ces. Of course, food and money aren’t en­tirely sep­a­rate things. It’s hard to make one with­out the other, and Cay­ma­ni­ans, whose liv­ing stan­dards are on par with Switzer­land, can af­ford to im­port pre­mium raw in­gre­di­ents and hire the tal­ent to trans­form them.

My week­end visit co­in­cided with the ninth an­nual Cay­man

Cook­out, a swanky four-day food fes­ti­val that brings to­gether world-fa­mous chefs, som­me­liers, and pleas­ant beach­side set­tings. Cen­tered largely around the Ritz- Carl­ton on Seven Mile Beach, it of­fered a slew of tast­ings, pre­sen­ta­tions, and din­ners, rang­ing from star-pow­ered cook­ing demos to an ex­trav­a­gant pri­vate jet trip to Cay­man Brac for a wine-paired lunch hosted by chef Eric Ripert of New York’s ac­claimed Le Bernardin restau­rant and Guam­born mil­lion­aire Terry Pe­abody, owner of New Zealand’s Craggy Range win­ery.

My first event was a Fri­day evening bar­be­cue held on a slash of sand at the Royal Palms Beach Club, where bare­footed en­thu­si­asts moved be­tween food stalls manned by some of the planet’s great­est chefs, among them Ripert, An­thony Bour­dain, and José An­drés. A fresh sea breeze fanned grill flames as kitchen teams sliced, diced, and plated. Here, a brisket-and-tongue

banh mi sand­wich; there, a surf and turf of scal­lop with strips of Ibérico ham, or a kiel­basa with Amer­i­can cheese, ba­con jam, and chichar­rón.

The celebri­ties ex­uded as much panache as the food. Bour­dain, pinch­ing a bot­tle of beer be­tween his thumb and index fin­ger, ac­ceded to re­quests for pho­tos but seemed not quite pre­pared to go so far as to pre­tend to like it. An­drés vis­ited a col­league’s mas­sive grill where great hunks of beef black­ened above rag­ing flames. It was how a pack of ma­ni­acs would cook, roast­ing whole dis­mem­bered parts rather than cuts of beef, and yet his crew sliced it into bite-size pieces that were uni­formly per­fect and exquisitely ten­der and de­li­cious. And An­drés was lov­ing it. Heavy swords, the kind of weapon pi­rates who once raided the is­land would have car­ried, were stuck in the sand, and An­drés pulled them out with the look of a good-hu­mored lu­natic, held one up, and handed the other to a woman who re­quested a pic­ture to­gether.

Ripert is partly why Cay­man is the Caribbean’s culi­nary cen­ter. The is­land had a fairly ro­bust food scene go­ing back even to the 1960s, the same pe­riod its fi­nan­cial ser­vices in­dus­try took off. But in 2005, Ripert opened Blue by Eric Ripert at the Ritz- Carl­ton, Grand Cay­man, rais­ing the bar on con­tem­po­rary haute cui­sine. And in 2008 he hosted the in­au­gu­ral Cay­man Cook­out, rop­ing in his friends Bour­dain and An­drés and ro­tat­ing in other A-list chefs. Now, the is­land has many more fine restau­rants than one could rea­son­ably visit even on a long stay. And I was there for just a short one.

The key to these things is, of course, to pace your­self, in food as in drink, and not to fill up too quickly nor so com­pletely that you wake in the mid­dle of the night ask­ing your­self what you have done. The or­ga­niz­ers should run a pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ment: Eat Re­spon­si­bly. But then again, who ever does that?

The next morn­ing, a strong wind from the north­west buf­feted the shore­line, scotch­ing my plan to snorkel with st­ingrays. It had no ef­fect, how­ever, on my de­sire to ex­plore, or on my ap­petite, so I rented a car and drove along the high­way that bends along the is­land’s perime­ter look­ing for a more home­grown eat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Half of Cay­man’s pop­u­la­tion comes from 135 other coun­tries, which is re­ally a re­mark­able statis­tic, and yet there is still a strong sense of place. And this ex­tends to food. As else­where in the Caribbean, bread­fruit, co­conut, and sour­sop are sta­ples here, while tra­di­tional Cay­ma­nian dishes in­clude cow foot, tur­tle, and iguana, whose taste can be in­ferred by its lo­cal name:

gal­li­nas de palo, or “tree chicken.” I passed fish fry stalls and bar­be­cue stands be­fore pulling into Over the Edge, a funky bar and a café with fine views over Old Man Bay. Here I con­tem­plated goat curry and jerk chicken be­fore set­tling on the conch steak, a hearty mol­lusk whose for­mer res­i­dence, a mar­velous shell large enough to hold in two hands, I’d seen for sale at a road­side ven­dor. The meat came pounded, breaded, and fried—a Caribbean schnitzel!—and man­aged to be both typ­i­cal and ex­otic, in that ev­ery­thing breaded and fried tastes sim­i­lar. Still, it was a large conch.

I ate noth­ing more in prepa­ra­tion for my week­end’s main event: a pair­ing din­ner at Avecita, the sig­na­ture restau­rant at the Kimp­ton Seafire Re­sort & Spa, which opened just two months ear­lier on Seven Mile Beach. The din­ner was a kind of joint de­but. On the one hand, it marked the global launch of Lin­gua Franca wines, a new la­bel from Bur­gun­dian wine­maker Do­minique La­fon and Ore­gonbased master som­me­lier Larry Stone. On the other, it an­nounced Avecita—whose fo­cus is pro­gres­sive, con­tem­po­rary Span­ish cui­sine— as a heavy­weight con­tender in the Cay­mans.

Chefs Mas­simo De Francesca and Remy Le­feb­vre had set up the pre­vi­ous evening’s only all-veg­e­tar­ian stall, high­light­ing lo­cally grown bounty in spec­tac­u­lar tapas-in­spired bites— charred baby egg­plant with burnt egg­plant-sago sauce, whole grilled baby zuc­chini with smoked romesco, roasted but­ter­nut squash with pump­kin-seed pesto. But we were far from the beach now, sit­ting un­der Avecita’s high ceil­ings with a view of a wood-fired oven and gleam­ing ex­hi­bi­tion kitchen. I could hardly wait to see what they’d bring to the ta­ble tonight.

Fol­low­ing a trio of amuses-bouche (a cube of lamb tartare, slow-cooked quail egg, smoked salmon with tar­ragon vinai­grette on a saf­fron cracker), the first course came in the form of Span­ish cod. Salted and re­con­sti­tuted in wa­ter, lightly blanched and poached in al­mond milk, the fish was served on a chilled black plate with an an­chovy-fla­vored red-bell pep­per in­fu­sion and a sprin­kling of de­hy­drated olives and salt flakes. Next came a hen-and-truf­fle can­nel­loni with Manchego cheese on a de­lec­ta­ble and del­i­cate broth of smoked, roasted lob­ster. The lay­er­ing of pure and clear fla­vors, which were dis­cernible and yet worked to­gether like in­stru­ments in an orches­tra, was mar­velous. And yet, the fea­tured dish, the pièce de ré­sis

tance— it seems manda­tory to in­tro­duce the mo­ment in menu French—was still to come: a ten­der, tiny squab cooked sous-vide then quickly grilled on the plan­cha to crisp up the skin. It was served over a spicy-sweet Mex­i­can

mole that teamed co­coa with a veal stock–based demi-glace and roasted chilies. The only prob­lem with the bird was that there weren’t two or three, or maybe even six or eight. Even though dessert was yet to come, my sin­gle squab left me feel­ing teased, even a lit­tle mourn­ful.

Ei­ther from lack of courage or enough good taste, I did not carry my plate to the kitchen and beg for more. In­stead, I con­soled my­self with the re­mains of a bold and lovely pinot noir, and con­sid­ered whether I’d just have to come back again next year.

Clock­wise from this pic­ture: A “bare­foot bar­be­cue” at Royal Palms Beach Club; the ca­sua­r­ina-shaded beach at Rum Point is an­other pop­u­lar Cay­man Cook­out venue; Avecita’s chef Mas­simo De Francesca.

Above: New York–based Eric Ripert helped kick-start the Cay­man Cook­out back in 2008 when he roped in fel­low celeb chefs An­thony Bour­dain and José An­drés to co-host the event. Top

left: Fish tacos at one of the fes­ti­val’s beach­side soirées.

The Ritz-Carl­ton, Grand Cay­man is home to one of the is­land’s best restau­rants—Blue by Eric Ripert—and the venue for many of the Cay­man Cook­out’s events.

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