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Cayman Cookout:  Food, Sun And Politics

HUNGER IS NOT A PROBLEM GENERALLY ASSOCIATED WITH THE CAYMAN COOKOUT.

The exclusive culinary festival, which takes over the entire Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman resort for a week each January, is the type of event at which one can begin the day with a poolside yoga-and-Krug class, then jet off to Jamaica for lunch, and wind down over a truffle-festooned dinner paired with a vertical of Pappy Van Winkle.

Hunger, however, was very much top of mind for José Andrés when he was there 10 years ago as a celebrity chef headliner, and an earthquake hit Haiti.

“I was smoking the best cigars, eating the best chefs’ cooking, drinking the best champagne—and that’s not something we should ever feel guilty about,” he told a rapt audience at this year’s 12th edition. “But only a few miles away, hundreds of thousands of people were suffering. For me, that created a conflict.”

The larger-than-life Spanish-born chef with an empire of 20-plus restaurants across the United States has since become a master of conflict-zone management. After leaving Grand Cayman that year, he went as soon as possible to Port-au-Prince and launched what is now known as the World Central Kitchen.

The humanitarian organization swoops in on the heels of natural disasters (usually arriving before established NGOs) and works with local restaurants to provide food and clean water. It has served more than 14 million meals on four continents and, in 2018, earned Andrés a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.

From left: Normand Laprise from Toqué! serves Quebec corn mousse; catamaran cruiseNormand Laprise from Toqué! serves Quebec corn mousse; catamaran cruise

But back in January, Andrés was busy stickhandling an emergency more personal in nature. At the 11th hour, his good friend and festival founder Eric Ripert had been hospitalized with appendicitis.

“The truth is, he was afraid to cook next to me and he just came up with this excuse,” Andrés joked while Face-Timing with Ripert from what was supposed to be their paella vs. bouillabaisse cook-off. “Everyone knows you tried to poison me,” a wan Ripert shot back.

Whether by happenstance or design, this year’s Cookout, under Andrés’ de facto leadership, simmered with politics. First, there was the giant paella, made with Ibérico pork cheeks. “Because we shouldn’t eat fish anymore!” he shouted. “Shit, Eric is going to kill me. Don’t worry. The fish he serves [at Le Bernardin] is good.”

Then there was a lot of talk from Andrew Zimmern about making the most of one’s “platform” when questioned about his new show, the five-part series What’s Eating America.

The headlining chefs with a cardboard card of Eric RipertThe headlining chefs with a cardboard card of Eric Ripert

Dominique Crenn, who has recently recovered from cancer and appeared to be having the most fun of all, urged everyone to #wakeup—the hashtag for her campaign to combat climate change.

Sitting in the media room one afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice that every chef being interviewed—save Montreal’s Normand Laprise—was female. The all-star lineup included Clare Smyth, Niki Nakayama, Laetitia Rouabah and Stephanie Izard. “It’s half and half this year!” Crenn later exclaimed, when I cornered her at the Barefoot BBQ. “The way it should be.”

Even the bartenders got politicized. At Rockstars of Beverage, moderated by the Diageo Reserve Global Cocktailian (and fellow Canadian) Lauren Mote, all anybody wanted to talk about was “better drinking”—an umbrella term for reusing, recycling and giving back to the community.

A garden tasting with The Botanist Gin and Clover Club’s Julie ReinerA garden tasting with The Botanist Gin and Clover Club’s Julie Reiner

“Even tiny adjustments to a cocktail can make a big difference,” explained Kaitlyn Stewart, Vancouver’s 2017 World Class Bartender of the Year champion, as we sipped on a refreshing bitter lemon cocktail made with pulverized lemon husks.

By Saturday, when Andrés climbed onstage, barefoot and chomping a cigar, for a panel discussion that had been billed as “lighthearted kitchen banter” among friends, he sounded like he was leading a call to arms. “We are an army,” he said of the restaurant community. “We have assets in every country. Together, we are powerful as hell.”

And raise an army is exactly what he did. After leaving the Caymans this year, Andrés set up camp in San Francisco to feed passengers stranded aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship, which had been struck by the coronavirus. Since then, he has partnered with 1,600 independent restaurants in the U.S. and Spain and helped to keep them afloat by turning them into community kitchens.

No offence to Ripert, but as I watch Andrés on television these days, I can’t help but think that his temporary succession turned this year’s Cookout into a collector’s edition.

Chef Eric Ripert hosts the 13th annual Cayman Cookout at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. January 13-18, 2021.

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