Anthony Bourdain spoke passionately about the power of food to unite people from diverse cultures as he hosted the annual Around the World event, part of the Cayman Cookout weekend. The American chef and TV personality went well beyond a neat appraisal of the dishes on show, touching on topics such as the #metoo movement and U.S. foreign policy.
Always a highlight of the Cayman Cookout, Around the World sees a host of Cayman restaurants set up food stalls across The Ritz-Carlton’s sun-soaked Great Lawn, letting the crowd sample a range of cuisines and flavors.
Like a capsule version of his popular travel programs, Bourdain sampled each stand’s offerings and spoke with some of the island’s top chefs. Blue Cilantro’s Vidyadhara Shetty served up the typical street food of Mumbai – roti, kebabs and chutneys – while the Cracked Conch gave a taste of Marseilles (southern France) with fresh scallops in fish broth accompanied by a rich garlicky aioli.
The Westin’s culinary team once again showcased the traditional food of the Philippines, of which Bourdain is a particular fan.
“It may look sinister,” he joked about the whole roast pig dish, “but this is the most wonderful, delicious thing I’ve eaten this holiday. I’d have that for breakfast every day.”
Add to this, Argentinian empanadas by Anchor & Den, British-style fish and chips by Kaibo, and a Honduran-themed lobster stand from Kirk Market – the result was a veritable feast.
Many exhibitors opted to celebrate locally grown ingredients. For example, Saucha’s Britta Bush topped homemade sourdough bruschetta with sea purslane, a local shrub that imparts an unusual briny flavor. Cayman Cabana’s Luigi Moxam discussed the expansion of the island’s agricultural economy as he handed out portions of “spicy, delicious” marinated conch, a delicacy that is in season from December to February.
Bourdain’s overall verdict? “So far, this is the best year ever for food.”
He then joined Alan Markoff of Slow Food Cayman and Pinnacle Media’s own Vicki Wheaton on stage to talk globetrotting and gastronomy. As ever, he was not short on opinions.
The restaurant industry came under fire – “it’s really old, antiquated, toxic” – as did food trends – “it’s a completely arbitrary process what becomes hip overnight” – while highlighting the shameful statistic that some 40-50 percent of the United States’ food produce currently ends up in the garbage.
But the most emotive subject, at times drawing applause from the audience, was how sharing food becomes a microcosm for tolerance and diversity: “The ability to eat someone else’s food, to reach a hand across the table, is essential. When you give someone food, you’re doing something that your mother did; you’re nurturing another. Be polite, be a good guest, be grateful, be curious – these are qualities sadly missing in the current discourse.
“I’ve sat down with members of Hezbollah, former Viet Cong who were cheerfully killing American 30 years before … in every case, food bought us together. I just have the most ridiculously warm conversations with people who in any other circumstance might be shooting at me.”
His advice was simply to “take a bite or two, make an effort and smile” – though he admitted it is not always easy when confronted with something like Iceland’s notorious fermented shark dish.
“The smell alone is enough to stop a charging rhinoceros,” he said.
So, which underrated countries would he recommend to curious travelers? Iran, Oman, Uruguay and Senegal. He also urged people to visit the Lebanese city of Beirut: “It is the most complicated, expectation-defying place – everything right and everything wrong in the world is happening in Beirut right now, but it still functions, and they party like crazy. You learn a little bit of humility every time you go there. I guarantee you’ll have an amazing time.”
As for future shows, the intrepid chef’s wish-list comprises Afghanistan, Yemen and Kashmir – the only issue is getting the necessary insurance to take a film crew.
Switzerland, however, does not hold sway for him: “I have a weird pathological fear of alpine vistas … Lederhosen, the ski lodge, chalet architecture, hard cheese with holes in it, people yodeling. It’s all deeply frightening to me for some reason. There must have been some deeply traumatic fondue-related accident in my youth.”
Another surprise revelation of the day was that Bourdain does not like being on television.
“In a perfect world I would not be on my show,” he insisted. “I love taking cameras to places around the world [but] if I was able to, you would never see me on my show. I’d write the voice-over and take the cameras. It feels weird to me, it’s something I wrestle with.”
Given how many fans had shown up to see him in action in Grand Cayman, he may just have to carry on for a while yet.