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A deliciously successful gamble

If the residents who attended the Cayman Cookout at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman last month missed having internationally renowned celebrity chefs, wine and spirit experts and other culinary personalities host the events, they sure didn't show it.

The 13th edition of the Cayman Cookout, which took place 15-17 January, was smaller and more locally focused in 2021. To long-time attendees, it probably felt similar to the first years of the event — before the Cayman Cookout became known as the Caribbean's premier epicurean food and beverage festival and started attracting "foodie" visitors from all over the world. Because of the COVID-19 travel restrictions, neither the tourists nor the visiting talent could attend this year, but management of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman took the chance that residents would still come to support a trimmed-down version of the event featuring local talent.

The gamble paid off. Most of the events were sold out, including the exclusive "All about Truffle" dinner in the Blue by Eric Ripert restaurant and the three returning signature events.

Bare feet and fine food

The three signature events — the Barefoot Barbecue, Rum & Robusto and the Bon Vivant Cook-off Brunch — have always been favourites with residents.

The Barefoot Barbecue took place in its usual Friday evening time slot. However, in another throwback to the early years, the event once again took place on The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman beach instead of another site, as it has in recent years.

At stations set up in the sand, 11 of Grand Cayman's top chefs, including Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Executive Chef Frederic Morineau, Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa Executive Chef Massimo De Francesca and Carnivore Premium Meats owner/chef Dylan Benoit, prepared meat or seafood delicacies. In addition to their dishes, highlights included the coconut curry mussels with Goan poee bread created by Chef Sandy Tuason and his culinary team from The Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa; the plant-based mac & cheese topped with vegan chili made by Chef Britta Bush of Saucha Conscious Living; and the locally famous sticky toffee pudding of Calypso Grill's Chef George Fowler.

New time, great vibe

The biggest change in the line-up of signature events was moving Rum & Robusto from its normal Sunday afternoon time slot — where it served as a transition from the cook-off brunch to the gala dinner — to a Saturday afternoon time slot.

The event traditionally hosted a mix of residents and visitors, many of them coming from the decadent Champagne brunch. This year, however, the attendees were all residents and although some were coming from the wine-pairing lunch, most of the guests were there specifically for Rum & Robusto. The result was a sophisticated party around the Harbour Club Pool complete with live music, cigars and rum cocktails.

Because of its new time slot and positioning as a true stand-alone event, there was a big step-up in the food offerings at Rum & Robusto this year. Highlights included the roasted pig soft tacos by Chef Charith Heman from Abacus, the chicken cakes stuffed with Peruvian "sweety drop" peppers from Chef Thushara Siriwaradana of Grand Old House, and the sourdough bread topped with smoked baba ganoush from Chef Mario Uxa. The latter previously served as sous chef at Blue by Eric Ripert, but is now the chef at Le Soleil d'Or — the farm inn on Cayman Brac.

Cooking off for charity

The Bon Vivant Cook-off Champagne brunch has been a highlight of the final day of the Cayman Cookout since its inception, although the cook-off portion of the event has gone through several iterations. Once the culmination of an amateur chef competition, in 2020 it saw local professional chefs participate. This year, The Ritz-Carlton decided to go in a different direction to acknowledge the ongoing pandemic.

Pairing off in the competition were two local heroes in the Cayman Islands' efforts to overcome the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic: Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee and Community Kitchen’s Kathy Gardner-Nicholson.

While the two local hero chefs raced against the clock to prepare their dishes, guests enjoyed sipping on free-flowing Moët & Chandon Champagne and hearing from two old Cayman Cookout friends. In a taped video segment from a breezy and cold New York beach, Cayman Cookout's usual host, Chef Eric Ripert, welcomed guests and said he's looking forward to returning to Cayman Cookout next year.

Chef José Andrés, another Cayman Cookout regular known for dramatic entrances to his cooking demonstration, appeared live from the streets of Washington, D.C. with his daughters, saying he missed not being in Cayman this year.

During the brunch, guests indulged on a cornucopia of lavish foods, some prepared by the chefs of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and other dishes made at stations presented by eight chefs of local restaurants.

In the end, the panel of judges — which included Premier Alden McLaughlin — couldn't choose a winner between Dr. Lee's spicy Indonesian beef rendang dish and Gardner-Nicholson's conch soup, and the competition was deemed a tie.

There was a clear winner in the event, however. To help support the community, and particularly those facing food security issues because of the pandemic's economic impacts, The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman used the event to raise CI$35,000 for the Cayman Food Bank.

As guests wound down toward the end of the brunch, they enjoyed a wide array of breads, cheeses and desserts. Guests who tried the dessert creation of pastry chef Dhanapal Saminathan and Chef Sara Mair-Doak left the 2021 Cayman Cookout with an incredible taste in their mouths. The simple sugar doughnut filled with a sweet and savoury bacon cream and topped with a piece of Smokies candied bacon offered those guests something to remember as they look forward to a 2022 Cayman Cookout — one that hopefully takes place in better circumstances than this year.

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This article appears in print in the February 2021 edition of Camana Bay Times.

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