Cookout Madness

I love good food. I love good wine.

So for me, covering the 2011 Cayman Cookout culinary festival was right up my alley and an opportunity to immerse myself in the event in a way only few people, mostly tourists, experience.

In a marathon of calories, cooking demonstrations and wine tastings, I covered 17 events in just 77 hours and lived to tell the tasty tale.

Thursday 6:15pm

Arriving fashionably fifteen minutes late to the Sponsor and Talent Reception, I am surprised to find the terrace outside of the restaurant Blue packed with people. I guess there’s no such thing as fashionably late when free drinks with celebrities are involved.

There’s Champagne as you walk in, a bar and a wine tasting so no one is going thirsty.

The invitation to sponsors said the event would allow an opportunity to mingle with the celebrity chefs participating in the Cayman Cookout, and so it does, despite the fact that the second US East Coast blizzard in three weeks made it difficult for much of the “talent” to get to Cayman.

Eric Ripert, Charlie Trotter, José Andrés, Rachel Allen, Anthony Bourdain and more chat with each other and the guests, posing for photographs when asked.

Napa Valley’s Heidi Peterson Barrett, one of the most renowned winemakers in the world, is there too, but I only recognise her in the photographs later.

7:10pm

Over at 7 Prime Cut & Sunsets, the Jacques Scott Charity Wine Dinner Auction gets started. It features a five-course menu prepared by five different Ritz-Carlton chefs from different hotels.

The first three courses all feature seafood – all delicious – but the butter poached lobster, especially so.

The course is paired with Layer Cake Virgin Chardonnay from California’s central coast.

The “virgin” part means the wine has never been in contact with oak.

Although New World Chardonnay – especially from California – has been defined by its buttery texture and full flavour, that style of wine has fallen out of fashion with many wine drinkers.

More wineries are now producing instead a fruity, refreshing Chardonnay that is fermented in stainless steel tanks.

The Layer Cake Chardonnay does taste refreshing, but ironically the lobster sauce on the dish really called  for a heavier-bodied wine.

The “Where’s the beef?” question is answered with the fourth course, ultra tender Certified Angus Beef Tenderloin with a braised short rib crisp.

The crisp part comes from being breaded and fried, making the short rib a little strange for a high class wine dinner, but still tasty.

The event’s auction raises about $65,000 to be split for the Blue Iguana Recovery Fund and The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Culinary Arts Scholarship Fund

 Hands down, this was the best meal I ever had at an auction.

Friday 10am

With the taste of my morning coffee still in my mouth, I walked into The Ritz-Carlton ballroom for the South African All-Stars wine tasting.

It’s not easy to attend a wine tasting at 10am in the morning, but hey… someone has to do it.

Ray Isle, the wine editor of Food & Wine magazine, tells everyone that the paper cups next to the six wines we are about to taste are for spitting out the wine after tasting.

He adds that he’s never seen anyone use them in an event like this one. I don’t, but I only take small tastes of the wine – it’s a long day.

Blending humour with wine education, Ray makes a number of interesting points.

– On the point system for wines: “The problem with the points system is that it’s purportedly objective, but taste is subjective.

– On why wine is a “moving target” when it comes to taste: “It’s contextual. If you taste a wine right after your cat is run over, it’s going to taste terrible. If you taste it right after you fall in love, it will taste great”.

– On the [dry] Rose tasted: “If there’s is a wine here that is made for sitting around the pool in Cayman, it’s this one. Rose doesn’t require great thought.”

11:30am

I walk over to the Periwinkle restaurant at The Ritz. Anthony Bourdain is hosting a sold out “Brasserie” family-style lunch.

Bourdain says the lunch features the kind of food you’d find in the south of France in the summer. “This is the kind of food I’d serve my family if we went to the beach,” he says.

All I can say is this guy has much more sophisticated afternoons at the beach that I do.

The dishes come rolling in, passed up and down the table: Provence-style fish soup, Basque-style mussels, pissaladiere, fish aioli, grilled shrimp, lamb chops, ratatouille, rib eye steak. And yes, there’s wine.

As if on cue from Ray Isle, Rose from Provence is one of the wines.

Then comes dessert, and lots of it. I’m full. I try Pernod – an absinthe – for the first time.

I don’t like it.

I could use a nap at this point but there are two more wine tastings to go.

2pm

Known as the “First Lady of Wine” Heidi Peterson Barrett has been responsible for some ofmost sought after wines in the world.

A six-litre bottle of Screaming Eagle, the Cabernet Sauvignon she used to make, sold for a record $500,000 at a charity auction in 2000.

Barrett hosted two tastings during the 2011 Cookout.

Her “Favourites with Heidi Peterson Barrett including Screaming Eagle” tasting sold out quickly, even with a US$625 price tag. I attended the tasting of her La Sirena Wines.

La Sirena means the mermaid and the wines are called that partially because Barrett is an avid diver.

She’s been to Cayman twice before on diving vacations.

This time she was here on business, to promote her wines. She’s full of information, but there’s a poet there as well.

She talks about wanting her wines to offer “power and grace in the same glass” and about how they should “flow like silk across the palate”. She starts talking about her wine Pirate TreasuRed, a blend of seven varietals.

The wine uses a pirate-themed marketing ploy and comes in a squat rum-like bottle. It’s a natural for Cayman’s Pirates Week.

“The proper toast with this wine is arrrrrrrrr,” she says with a little smile.

Power, grace and a sense of humour.

3:30pm

Another tasting, this time Big Reds with journalist and wine expert Anthony Giglio.

Like Isle, Giglio is entertaining and educational, but in a typically sarcastic New York City way.

He tells good stories, too, like the one about the southerner who could get him some moonshine.

“The first sip you’ll feel as it goes down your throat and warms your insides,” Giglio said the southerner told him. “With the second sip, you’ll feel a sharp pain in your shoulder. That will be the floor.”

But it’s big red wines, not moonshine, that we’re tasting and Giglio takes us through two South African reds, a French Bordeaux, a Spanish Rioja and three wonderful Cabs from Morlet Family Vineyards in California.

Giglio throws in some bonus Champagne knowledge, noting thatbecause there are two dots over the ‘e’ in Moët & Chandon, the ‘t’ is annunciated rather than being silent as it is in other French words that end in ‘t’.

That being the case, I know a lot of people who pronounce it wrong.

7:20pm

The SURF & SANDcastles event takes place on the beach at The Ritz-Carlton.

The premise is this: A US company called Sandtastic has built a sand structure – I won’t saya castle – around a large area on the beach in which the event takes place.

There are sand sculptures – sea life, grapes, a pirate sword – along the inside of the structure.

Inside, there is a ring of food stations where many of the celebrity chefs have prepared (with some help) various “small plates” of food.

The local band Heat is playing and there are several bars serving a variety of beverages.

I’m drinking water for this event, having had my fill of wine tasting during the course of the day.

In total, there are 11 food stations along with a cheese station and a dessert station.

José Andres’ version of a Philly cheese steak, Michael Schwartz’s sweet and spicy pork belly and Rachel Allen’s lamb spinach-walnut pesto and red currant jelly are my favourites.

When I stop at Andres’ station, he’s actually the one handing out the plates. Charlie Trotter did the same, as did other celebrity chefs. Fun.

Saturday 9am

The first stop is the Brasserie restaurant, where Chef Dean Max is holding a “Garden-to-Table” cooking demonstration.

Brasserie Executive Chef Brad Phillips is actually doing the cooking on a caboose, the old-time Caymanian sand-bottom barbecue grill.

Max leads the small group on a tour of the Brasserie’s gardens, talking about what fruits, vegetables and herbs grow well in Cayman and their culinary uses.

There is no hint of celebrity in Max, just an infectious passion for food and cooking. New York City actor and aspiring chef Ron McClary tells me later that day this was his favourite event.

Unfortunately, I have to leave before I can taste the local fish tea Phillips is making, which is really too bad because I’m hungry.

10am

As strange as the 10am time for a wine tasting seemed the day before, the Royals of Champagne tasting at the same time Saturday morning seemed perfectly natural.

Perhaps because it is a staple at brunches, Champagne goes well with morning, especially if you’re drinking the likes of Champagnes poured for this tasting – Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dam; Krug Grand Cuvee to name three of the six.

Ray Isle, who hosted the tasting, asks if anyone feels worse for the wear after the night before.

“Champagne cures everything,” he says “This is the way to start the day.

I notice the Champagneis poured into white-wine glasses.

Isle said high-quality Champagnes “perform much more like wine” and are therefore better in the white wine glasses.

However, he warns attendees not toswirl the Champagne in their glasses like they might with other wines because they would “debubblise” it if they did.

“Debubblise is a technical term we wine writers like to use all the time,” he says.

Isle points out that Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France. “Anything from anywhere else is sparkling wine, even if it says Champagne on the label.”

In the end, the Vueve Clicquot La Grande Dam is the favourite of the most attendees. Isle seems to disagree, saying Krug offers “an absurdity of wonderfulness”.

11:30

After six small glasses of fantastic Champagne, I am ready for the boat trip over to Cayman Kai for the Starfish Point Picnic.

A gloomy morning had given way to a sunny, though breezy, afternoon.

On arrival, I see Chef Eric Ripert standing knee-deep in the ocean, matter-of-factly barbecuing fresh fish on a large charcoal grill.

This immediately becomes my favourite Cookout event.

Besides Ripert serving up fresh tuna, there are other stations in the festival-like setting serving jerk chicken breast; grilled prawns; lamb, beef, desserts and drinks.

If the food stations aren’t enough, attendees are given a picnic basket of goodies like fruits, veggies, crackers, cheese, olives.

The food is all really outstanding and I am totally stuffed when someone asked me if I had tried the prawns because they were great. “No, but I guess I have to now,” I reply.

The Starfish Point picnic highlights everything Cayman has to offer as a culinary vacation spot – sun, sea, sand, great food and smiling faces, including many Caymanians.

There are men chopping the tops off coconuts for people to drink and older men and women displaying aspects of Cayman culture like thatch waving, rope making and catboats.

At one point, I see Governor Duncan Taylor using an old-time rope making device as Andreas Ugland turns the spindle.

Where I come from in the American Midwest, a cookout is just another name for what many people call a barbecue – a social gathering where you cook and eat outdoors.

This is one extraordinary cookout.

3:30pm

After the boat ride back to the Ritz, it was time for one final wine tasting, this one a three-vintage vertical tasting of three Cakebread Cellars varietals – Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The winery’s Dennis Cakebread hosts the tasting and said the fun part of winemaking wasn’t making money, but being passionate about making better wines each year.

Asked about his views on aging wines, Cakebread talked about the Big Bus Theory.

That theory, he say, suggests that at the moment right before a person gets run over by a big bus, the last thing that would go through their mind is “I should have drunk that bottle of [whatever] I’ve been keeping.” Who knows?

Cakebread fields a number of strange questions during the tasting, including whether the reason he has a female winemaker is because he liked women.

He is a good sport, however, and tries to answer all.

Since it has already been a long day and I still had a big dinner that night, I prove Isle wrong and actually spit out the Chardonnay and most of the Merlot I taste.

I don’t waste the Cab though.

7pm

Saturday night took the Cookout to five different local restaurants not at the Ritz-Carlton.

I attend the one at The Brasserie, which features the cooking of Susur Lee and Cakebread wines.

Lee is responsible for the second, third and fourth courses, while the Brasserie chefs take care of the passed hors d’oeuvres during the pre-dinner reception, the final savoury course and the dessert.

During the reception, I finally get to try the fish tea made during the early morning demo.

The dinner is outstanding from start to finish.

Dennis Cakebread moves from room to room to talk and answer questions about his wine and Lee is super friendly, taking time to talk to diners and pose for photos.

Sunday 10am

It is difficult answering the bell for the fourth and final round of the Cayman Cookout.

But like a true champion, I struggle out of bed, shower and race back to the Ritz-Carlton, getting there moments before Dean Max and the Brasserie crew start a cooking demonstration called “Sustainable Cayman” on the beach.

This is the only demo I attend.

I saw a Michael Chang demo in the Ritz ballroom in 2010, but this year’s “beach pavilion” location is much better.

While the Brasserie chefs prepared fresh Blackfin ceviche, Brasserie consultant chef Dean Max speaks about embracing the “localism” of food in Cayman as well as the culture here.

Crowned the ‘King of American Seafood’ at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off last year, Max raves about the quality of Cayman’s seafood.

He points out how the tuna that was being prepared for the ceviche was “laying up” with its head and tail off the table, supported by a firm midsection. “If this fish was caught more than 24 hours ago, it would be laying down.”

Max then hands the mic over to gardener extraordinaireJoel Walton, who speaks about the local fruits and vegetables that grow in Cayman.

“One of the things you have to do at 20 degrees north is think upside down,” he says, referring to growing patterns that are reversed in places further north.

Brasserie owner Clarence ‘King’ Flowers, an avid fisherman, then talks about what kind of fish the restaurant’s boat, the Brasserie Catch, tries to land and the skill it takes.

“If you think fishing is luck, you probably don’t catch a lot of fish.”

Flowers tells about how the Brasserie Catch makes a slurry of seawater and ice to keep newly caught fish fresh and unstressed, so they don’t release enzymes that affect their taste.

Sunday11:30am

The old ticket office room has been converted to a book signing room.

Most of the celebrity chefs are there, signing aprons if they don’t have books.

The line is long. Rachel Allen takes the time to talk to just about everyone so no one seems to mind the line.

12noon

Brunch time. Champagne – Moët with a ‘t’ – and lots, and lots of yummy food.

I have to pace myself, so I go easy on both food and drink.

What I do have is great.

The hot food is prepared at live cooking stations. Certified Angus Beef’s Corporate Chef Scott Popovic’s breakfast wrap with short ribs, scrambled eggs, caramelized onion, micro greens, charred jalapeño aioli, Manchego cheese rocks my world.

A fellow Clevelander, Popovic tells me he wanted to create something the people back home might have liked. He’s right. I guess you can take the man out of Cleveland, but you can’t take the Cleveland out of a man.

The event features a live cook-off between two local chefs – Fraser Hughes and Tessa Gall – with Ripert, Bourdain, Lee and Andrés, along with Governor Duncan Taylor serving as judges.

Ever the joker, Andrés teases Ripert, telling the audience his French accent is fake.

Later, he holds up a Cayman-grown bean that Hughes prepared and states “It looks like it’s from Jupiter, but it’s good.”

Gail Simmons serves as emcee of the cook-off and is excited to learn that Gall used some powdered Milo drink on her plantains.

“One of the benefits of being in the Commonwealth is Milo,” she proclaims. Andrés is at a loss. “Tell me and Susur Lee what Milo is.”

The cook-off ends a tie as one naughty table refuses to vote, stating on its ballot – “How can we judge without tasting?”

Both cheftestants win trips to New York. Too bad I can’t cover that, too.

3:30pm

There’s an Artisan Market and Lounge down by the pool. It features – you guessed it – more food and drink.

Even though the vendors are offering just small tastes, I’m really, really full and I have a big dinner in less than four hours.

So I pass on samples, that is until I get to bacon at the Progressive Distributors/Niman Ranch booth.

I just can’t pass up bacon, especially Niman Ranch bacon. When you’re really, really full and something still tastes good, it must be good.

Pat Panton of East End Garden & Gifts is there with a display of incredible produce he’s grown.

I’m not kidding either; this stuff is incredible.

He’s spraying it down with a mist bottle to keep it hydrated, but when he has his back turned, I just want to grab his tomatoes and run. I resist the temptation.

Then I spot Heidi Peterson Barrett standing at a wine tasting table with her daughter Remi – and no one is there.

I chat with them both for about 10 mintues.

She’s more relaxed than yesterday – her work is done.

Her wines showed well; people were interested. It was a good trip.

And she got to take a couple of dives as well.

7:15pm

The home stretch.

One last event, the Gala Dinner.

I’m not supposed to be here, but I get a couple of tickets from someone who can’t attend.

The event starts on the terrace at Blue.

This time the Champagne is Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Rose. This stuff sells for over $300 a bottle.

Ho hum… OK…. I guess I’ll have a second glass.

We move into Blue where I’m seated at the table with Rachel Allen and her husband, as well as the Progressive Distributors/Certified Angus Beef crew – included Chef Popovic from Cleveland.

I’m still rather full from brunch, but I try to get my second wind for the SEVEN-COURSE meal that’s coming from the All-Star line-up of chefs.

A television camera in kitchen feeds the scene to monitors in the dining room.

Chef Andrés is up to his usual tricks of making people laugh.

He writes “R U Ready” on a piece of paper and holds it up to the camera.

Seconds later he holds up another sign “We R not”.

All evening long he keeps the signs coming, once even taking time to tease Anthony Bourdain, who is in the Blue dining room. “Bourdain is a vegetarian” he writes.

Bourdain goes into the kitchen to say hello, and holds up a sign of his own before he leaves: “José The weed you sold me is no good.”

Although he’s a jokester there’s nothing funny about Andrés’ food.

His sea urchin and king crab, black garlic and white garlic soup is possibly the best soup I’ve ever eaten.

It’s served with Ken Forester’s FMC Chenin Blanc from South Africa.

I’m not sure what the ‘F’ stands for, but myth has it that the MC stands for “magical Chenin”.

The combination of food and wine here is indeed magical.

Eric Ripert’s poached local wahoo with wild mushroom and black truffle custard, paired with Burgundy, also soars.

By the time Susur Lee’s, Asian Marinated Certified Angus Beef Striploin with daikon and scotch bonnet ponzu sauce is served, I’m busting at the seams.

Sorry, Susur, no offense, but after about 40,000 calories in four days, I just can’t savour the dish.

But like a lame marathon runner, I bring it home, limping across the finish line with an empty plate.

On the taxi ride home, I wonder how I would feel in the morning.

Surprising, not bad at all. I wasn’t very hungry though.

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