Paradise Found: The Cayman Island Cook-out by Ron Kapon

Is it my imagination or are there wine and food festivals every weekend? There are wine auctions that raise money for local charities: Napa, (attended) Naples, Sonoma, (attended), and High Museum of Atlanta, etc. Then there are the biggies that make money for their organizers: South Beach (attended), Aspen, Boston (attended), New York (attended), Wine Spectator (attended), New Orleans (attended), and Epcot, etc. There are many local events, most of which are efforts to fill hotels during the slow season or raise money for a local charity: Albany (attended), Wentworth by the Sea, Atlantic City, Taste of Pennsylvania, etc. Just Google wine & food festivals to see what I mean. They are big business. Some show off local chefs and wineries, and some the super-star TV chefs who spend their time traveling to their world-wide restaurant empire and rarely make it into the kitchen, except for TV appearances.

Christopher Columbus is credited with discovering the Cayman Islands in 1503, although he never stopped there. Cayman is a word of Carib-Indian origin meaning crocodile. In 1655 Admiral William Penn was sent from Britain by Oliver Cromwell to take Hispaniola from the Spanish. That failed but they did manage to seize Jamaica. Shortly thereafter, Cayman became a possession of the United Kingdom. The islands were renowned for the vast herds of turtles that served as sources of protein for visiting ships. Columbus thus named these islands “Las Tortugas” after the abundant sea turtles. It is fitting then, that today a sea turtle in pirate garb, dubbed “Sir Turtle,” is the official logo of the Cayman Islands.

I wanted to write about a festival (for 2 magazines and 6 on-line outlets) as well as tape interviews for an upcoming project for a major US newspaper (co-writing their online wine course). I was turned down by the South Beach folks for “assistance” (i.e- hotel and entrance tickets). I never asked for airfare. They did me a favor because it led me to the Second Annual Cayman Cookout, “The Caribbean’s Premier Epicurean Event” held January 14th- 18th and hosted by Eric Ripert, co-owner/chef at Le Bernardin Restaurant in NYC and headquartered at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. Eric’s restaurant, Blue at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman is the finest on the island and the region’s only AAA 5 Diamond award winner. Le Bernardin is one of only five restaurants in New York awarded three Michelin stars, plus four stars from the New York Times.
What a lineup he brought with him: Anthony Bourdain, raconteur and star of No Reservations, his TV show on the Travel Channel; David Chang, five Monmofuku NYC restaurants & Food & Wine Best New Chef 2007; Grant Achatz, owner of Chicago’s Alinea & James Beard Best Chef in the US 2008; Jose Andres, Spain’s Culinary Ambassador & owner of six restaurants in Washington DC & La; Gail Simmons, Special Projects Manager of Food & Wine Magazine & Bravo TV Top Chef judge; Dean Fearing, chef at Fearing’s in the Ritz-Carlton Dallas, the father of southwest cuisine, Frederic Morineau, Executive Chef the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Caymans; George McNeill, Corporate Chef all 73 Ritz-Carlton’s worldwide. On the wine side: Laurent Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin- Oregon & Burgundy; Ray Isle, Wine Editor Food & Wine Magazine (he had to leave early due to his father’s passing); Anthony Giglio, author of the Food & Wine Magazine Wine Guide 2010; John Lermayer, Travel & Leisure’s “one of the world’s greatest bartenders 2009″; Joy Spence, Appleton Rum Master Blender; Violet Grgich of Grgich California Winery; Aldo Sohm, Best Sommelier in the World 2008 & Sommelier Le Bernardin.

The pricing for events was on the high end with two at $600 (1982 Bordeaux tasting & the Gala Final Dinner). The rest ranged from $300 with $75 being the least expensive (except the pizza making for kids that was $40). There were packages at $750, $1,200 & $1,650. The crowd did not seem to complain, as most events were full. I was surprised to see so many 30-40 year olds and fewer senior citizens. This was a perfectly run event with fabulous food and drink and the perfect Ritz-Carlton service. After two days many of the staff knew my name, my occupation, and my allergy to all nuts. I also met Mike Ryan, the developer and owner of this RC, and McKeever Bush, the Premier of the Cayman Islands.
I paid my own airfare and did not stay at the Ritz-Carlton but at a friends place- Ramada’s Grand Caymanian Resort, about two miles from the Ritz-Carlton. It is the only resort on the island’s very quiet North Sound Lagoon. This Vacation Ownership Club comprises 40 two-bedroom units and 4 Grand Villas, all with ocean views. The second phase of 40 units is almost complete. They are located adjacent to the Link North Sound Golf Course. There is scuba diving, personal watercraft, pools, hot tubs, beachfront sun terraces, restaurant, bar and concierge services. Fractional and whole ownership investment opportunities are available. Owners can also participate in a managed rental program.

I am often sent items to test (and write about) that relate to wine and/or travel. Many months ago I was sent the SPIbelt and finally got to test it on this trip. It replaced my bulky fanny pack and held my passport, iPhone, boarding pass and wallet. An acronym for small personal item belt, the SPIbelt fit snug against my body, and was barely noticeable. The version I wore retails for $19.99.
The opening event was the Cayman Cultural Showcase held on Seven Mile Beach next to the hotel. There were food & drink stations (sponsored by locally produced Tortuga Rum) and the string of perfect weather began that night. Warm, sunny days and cool nights. The next day I attended the Laurent Drouhin wine tasting with burgundy and Oregon Drouhin wines served. There were usually two events; demo, tasting, luncheon or dinner scheduled at the same time. When it was a cooking demonstration vs. a wine tasting, the cooking demo was always filled. I watched the master Eric Ripert perform his magic while others attended the 1982 Bordeaux tasting. Since I had 10 interviews to conduct I often ran late for the next event, as I had to wait for my interviewee to finish their picture taking with guests. I had never met Jose Andres who turned out to be one of my favorite people- outgoing, funny and talented. I chose to attend an Austrian wine tasting with Aldo Sohm, which was pitted against a cooking demo conducted by Dean Fearing. Anthony Bourdain entertains like no other foodie. His talk drew an overflow crowd and they were not disappointed. I needed a break and started to write this story by the pool. I skipped the Sunset Rum tasting and choice of three dinners to eat at a local Caymanian restaurant- Champion House II. I could have chosen better local cuisine (I listened to a cab driver).

Saturday was another beautiful sunny day so I went back to the pool and did not make it to the talk by Food & Wine Magazine’s Special Projects Editor Gail Simmons. Jose Andres had a cooking demonstration I attended where he shared his passion for Mediterranean cuisine. I choose the Micro-Brew luncheon catered by Dean Fearing with Anthony Giglio doing the beer commentary. David Chang had a cooking demo but Joy Spence had an Appleton Jamaican Rum blending seminar at the same time. I split my time between the two events. Once again, I had a few hours of sunshine to rest by the “quiet pool” (no bar, no music, no beach). I could not spend 6 days in the sunny Cayman Island’s and not come home with a tan. The Bourdain Beach BBQ took place at Calico Jacks on 7 Mile Beach. This was the quintessential Caribbean sand beach bar that the Cayman Cookout took over for the night. Anthony Bourdain & Eric Ripert took turns working the grill while there were many other food and drink stations and music by the Barefoot Man band. Both Anthony & Eric were taping segments of their TV shows that night.
The last day started with a coffee & pastry demonstration competing with a Cayman organic produce tasting. I slept in and arrived for the Bon Vivant Moet & Chandon Champagne Brunch cook-off, my final event. Two local amateur chefs went head to head with a mystery basket of ingredients. Judges included chefs Ripert, Fearing, Bourdain & Gail Simmons from Food & Wine Magazine. The prize was an all expense paid trip to NYC and Food & Wine’s Best New Chef event. Meanwhile, the food stations included caviar, giant shrimp, oysters, paella, duck, local fish, cheese, sushi and lots of desserts. I managed to get through half the stations before I realized I could eat no more. I finished the last of my 10 interviews and rested by the quiet pool before heading back to the Grand Caymaanian Resort. The closing event was the $600- 7 course Gala Dinner, where no press were invited. This gave me a chance to look around the Grand Caymanian hotel/residence club. Owners of full or fractional shares can use their rooms, which come complete with a living room/dining room/fully furnished kitchen, or the Ramada can rent out the rooms.
My last day in the Cayman Islands I was given a private 6-hour island tour, arranged by the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism. The Cayman Islands is a British overseas territory and are located in the western Caribbean Sea. The country includes three islands- Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman, located 150 miles south of Cuba, 180 miles northwest of Jamaica and 480 miles southwest of Miami. The economy is based on two major industries–finance & tourism–with an average per-capita income of around $42,000, the highest in the Caribbean. There is also an absence of direct taxation on individuals and corporations based on income or wealth. The population is around 55,000 with 56% Caymanians and many British, American and Canadian permanent residents.

The legal system is based on English common law. Visitors from the US may be surprised to find that barristers in court wear wigs and gowns. In 1962 Jamaica chose to become independent, but the Cayman Islands remained a British colony, with local elections but a Governor appointed by Great Britain.

One of Grand Cayman’s main attractions is Seven Mile Beach on which a number of the island’s hotels and resorts are located. Historical sites include Pedro St. James Castle in BoddenTown is a restored Caymanian house. The introductory film was too long, and I wish there had been someone in the house to give guided tours. I never made it to the Sister Islands – Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.

All three of the islands offer scuba diving, and there are several snorkeling locations where tourists can swim with stingrays including: Stingray City with departures by small craft right outside the Ramada Grand Caymanian Resort. The shallow sandbar allows visitors to walk among the friendly stingrays. There are over 6,000 people who visit a day. I was not one of them. There are also two shipwrecks off the shores of Cayman Brac with many scuba dives visiting them. Other Grand Cayman tourist attractions include the Ironshore landscape of Hell, the 23-acre marine theme park Boatswain’s Beach, home of the Cayman Turtle Farm, the production of gourmet sea salt, and the Mastic Trail, a hiking trail through the forests in the centre of the island. Two cruise ships were in port at Georgetown, the capital. Let the shopping begin.

I requested a stop at the Tortuga Rum Cake office and factory where I was showed around by Monique Hamaty-Simmonds, the owner’s daughter. The famous rum cakes are produced here. Torguga Rum (means The Turtles) is a combination of Jamaican Rum and Barbados Rum specially blended for the Cayman Islands (there is no sugar cane grown in the islands). Each rum cake (less than 1% alcohol) is individually hand-glazed with the 5-year old, oak barrel aged Tortuga Gold Rum before packaging. The vacuum-sealing process ensures a shelf life of six months and will keep indefinitely if refrigerated or frozen. I have already finished (or given away) the cakes I brought home.

Queen Elizabeth Botanical Gardens consists of a 1-mile trail with no water stations or signage indicating how far one has traveled. There are also no emergency contact phones. It was 1:30 in the afternoon with a temperature of 83 degrees. I saw only two other people on the trail. What if I had fallen or needed help? Don’t go there alone.

The airport had two flights leaving the morning of my departure so arriving one hour before flight time works. The afternoon I left the island there was a brief earth tremor, but there was no damage to any building or any people. I guess that was a sign that I should return soon.