Cayman Cookout

WHERE INTERNATIONAL CELEBRITY CHEFS GO TO PLAY
By: Jacob Richler

When you picture José Andrés, the one-time elBulli apprentice who built an American culinary empire more than 20 restaurants strong, he is more than likely sporting a pristine white chef ’s jacket. Or possibly black tie, like in that photo from Time magazine in 2012, when he was named one of its 100 Most Influential People in the World. Or maybe you see him in his civvies, sharing a Harvard podium with his friend Ferran Adrià, lecturing on culinary physics.

But chances are that you have never imagined him quite like this: dripping wet, stuffed into a wetsuit and flippers, oxygen tank strapped to his back, standing over his seated teenager daughter and bellowing full tilt.

“Oh come on! Don’t be a cool teenager with me!” The diving boat we shared was crowded, but chef was oblivious. And why not? The sky was cloudless azure, the temperature in the high 20s, minimum. We were just 10 minutes out to sea from where we’d been scooped off the white sands of Seven Mile Beach, alongside the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. The waters were just as the Cayman reputation has them: balmy, pristine and clear blue. And as it happened, the younger Andrés had just emerged from them dive-certified—albeit not excited enough about this development for her father’s liking. Her ears were hurting.

“It’s because you don’t blow! You have to blow! BLOW! BLOW!” The excitable chef was attempting to convey what you are supposed to do when you drop into the depths; each half-metre or so of descent requires that you stop and pinch your nose shut while simultaneously attempting to blow out through its sealed passage, as hard as you can. Do it right and your ears will pop; do it wrong and you won’t be hearing from them again, ever. Simple as that sounds, it is a challenge. And it was particularly so for me.

The Andrés family show coincided with my first dive lesson; right there, on the deck, my wife, Lisa, and I were getting a crash course in novice dive essentials, such as the hand signal for “PANIC STATIONS! Can’t breathe!” Thankfully, our instructor had a calmness that was at least the equal of Andrés’ overexuberance. And next thing I knew I was 40 feet down, kneeling on the sandy bottom passing a conch back and forth with him. When I looked up I saw a sea turtle paddle past. And then a reef shark slipped by with a leisurely elegance, while Lisa swam off in another direction for a closer look at a huge green parrotfish that was feeding on the coral.

The sea creatures were all remarkably good-natured about us crashing their living room, uninvited. Afterwards, up on deck again, I learned that Lisa had been keeping calm by loudly humming a tune by REM into her regulator. “I am, I am, I am Superman, and I can do anything!” Andrés, meanwhile, was excitedly showing off the fresh footage from his new GoPro. “LOOK! Look! I was filming the turtle. Then the shark came into the picture. Then my wife!” he explained, of the disembodied legs that suddenly dropped into the top of the frame. And so I learned that the ocean is an Andrés family passion. And it was from the ocean that Andrés rode in the following morning, making his now-traditional surprise entrance to his ALL beachfront cooking demonstration.

The sea creatures were all remarkably good-natured about us crashing their living room, uninvited. Afterwards, up on deck again, I learned that Lisa had been keeping calm by loudly humming a tune by REM into her regulator. “I am, I am, I am Superman, and I can do anything!” Andrés, meanwhile, was excitedly showing off the fresh footage from his new GoPro. “LOOK! Look! I was filming the turtle. Then the shark came into the picture. Then my wife!” he explained, of the disembodied legs that suddenly dropped into the top of the frame. And so I learned that the ocean is an Andrés family passion. And it was from the ocean that Andrés rode in the following morning, making his now-traditional surprise entrance to his ALL beachfront cooking demonstration.

Last year, he was on a white horse. This time, he arrived by boat, pulling up on the beach in a smoky flurry of musket fire, then getting frogmarched across the sand by faux-pirates in 19th-century costume. Finally, arriving at the tent, he segued seamlessly to his paella demonstration. Not quite seamlessly. First, he attempted to persuade his former captors to instead take for a hostage his presenter, Cayman Cookout host chef Eric Ripert.

Abandoning that idea, he decided to demo a proper gin and tonic, with lemon verbena and juniper berries—and drink it, before talking food. His extemporizations on Spanish culinary supremacy veered wildly from topic to topic. Spaniards cook pasta better than Italians, for example, and how jamón ibérico de bellota is not just the best ham, but especially when you buy the Fermín brand from the José Andrés website.

But through the entire hilarious performance he kept an eye on his fideuà (a pasta-based paella) cooking in his enormous paella pans on smoky beach bonfires. And it was wonderful. If maybe not quite as memorably wonderful as was his excited answer during the ensuing Q&A, from a guest who asked Andrés what he would choose, hypothetically, for his very last meal on earth.

“I would find myself a huge, nicely treated female sturgeon,” Andrés said, without missing a beat. “I would cut open her belly, and with my hand mix in some flaky sea salt from the Cayman Islands. Then I would get a big thick straw that can’t be blocked—and stick it in, and suck and suck until the caviar was oozing out my nose and ears and filled my lungs.

And then, when I took my last breath, I will become…CAVIAR MAN!” I carried this vivid image with me as I ambled down the beach to drop in on another demonstration, this one by the considerably more reserved but no less talented Ludo Lefebvre, of the much-revered Trois Mecs and Petits Trois in Los Angeles. Now, pause and consider for a moment the plight of a great French chef in Los Angeles and the dietary restrictions imposed on him nightly by his diet-obsessed celebrity clientele. Think if you can of the silliest demand you might make.

Yes, that’s it, a gluten-free, flourless soufflé. That’s what Lefebvre made—the hitherto impossible—in a toaster over, on the beach. And it rose, high. “You want your soufflé to rise like this,” Lefebvre said, brandishing the magnificent thing when he was done. “Then never brush the butter around the mould in circles. You must brush upwards, in little strokes…”

If you like cooking demonstrations, as I do, Cayman Cookout offers a nearly unique combination of star power and useful, eclectic, serious cooking tips. Andrés and Lefebvre aside, the 2016 lineup featured Tom Colicchio, Hubert Keller, Florian Bellanger, Dean Max and Michael Mina, to name just a few.

And despite all that talent on the loose, no other single event on the calendar was quite so captivating as the Adventures of Eric and Tony, featuring Cayman host Eric Ripert, of Le Bernardin in Manhattan, and his good friend and perennial sidekick, Parts Unknown host Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain and Ripert made bouillabaisse. Not Marseillaise exactly, actually quite far from it.

It was not even a stew, but instead à la façon d’Eric Ripert, for each piece of fish and shellfish in it was cooked separately, à la minute, in a citrus velouté, then transferred into a separate broth that combined shrimp and chicken stock, for lightness, and Pernod, for depth. He tops it with a lovely saffron aioli—usually. “If you’re really a good cook, it should just be bread, garlic and saffron; you don’t need to use eggs,” Ripert explained as he dropped a yolk in his bowl, all the same. “But this one is for you, Tony.”

As they cooked, Ripert and the former bistro-chef sidekick discussed their respective, upcoming books. It was revealed that in Ripert’s memoir, he admits to having suffered nightmares about dots. Dots on plates—dating back to when he worked at Joël Robuchon’s legendary Paris restaurant Jamin, in the 1980s. That was before the plastic squeeze bottle came into use.

“There was no eyedropper, either,” Ripert recalled. “Just an espresso spoon. And I had to dab a plate with 158 perfect dots. Always 158. Robuchon would check…he was very, very animated about the dots.” The bouillabaisse turned out beautifully. And then it was time for a swim, and a cocktail on the beach. Every chef I interviewed there affirmed that at Cookout they had more fun PHOTOS than the guests. But, you know, I managed just fine.

From Canada’s 100 Best Cooking Issue 2016

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