Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cayman Cookout - Day 1

We have now reached my postings on what will probably be the apex of our culinary adventures here in the Commissary for some time to come (unless I happen to receive an invitation to become a sous chef for Rick Bayless in the coming weeks). In lieu of your average milestone parties, Mrs. Hackknife and I decided to treat ourselves to a once-in-a-lifetime foodie trip as our 40th birthday gift to each other. The destination? Grand Cayman. The event? The 4th Annual Cayman Cookout, a lavish food and wine festival held at the Ritz-Carlton on Seven Mile Beach every January (conveniently between our birthday months of August and March, respectively). Since he runs a restaurant at the resort (the outstanding Blue), uber-chef Eric Ripert (of Le Bernardin in New York City) serves as the "host" of this gathering along with his notorious real-life friends Anthony Bourdain (who generally needs no introduction) and Jose Andres (another amazing chef and culinary personality about whom you'll likely be hearing more soon) and an all-star roster of other well-regarded chefs, sommeliers, and wine professionals. Mix in the white sand, turquoise waters, chill-free atmosphere (save for a tropical drink or two), and numerous meet-and-greet opportunities, and you've got yourself a recipe for a good time. To further up the ante, we invoked the "go big or go home" rule, reserving our tickets through American Express's By Invitation Only (BIO) program (available only to platinum members, of which Mrs. Hackknife conveniently became upon her promotion last year), which allowed us greater access to the demos/special events and the VIPs in attendance. Fortunately, we were able to cash in a vast number of hotel points and a frequent-flyer ticket to help defray some of the travel expenses (lest you think I had to deprive the progeny of their beloved chicken nuggets in order for us to afford it).

So, with tropical wear in the duffel bag and Immodium in tow, Mrs. Hackknife and I left the Commissary on Wednesday night to reach our first stop, the O'Hare Hilton (we decided that our 5:30 am flight on Thursday warranted a stay-over across the street from Terminal 3). An early morning departure turned out to be a prescient move as our flight took off for Miami just a mere hour or two ahead of the season's first major snowstorm. Once in Miami, we celebrated our escape from the clutches of Old Man Winter by lunching at La Carreta, an outpost of Cuban cuisine conveniently located in Terminal D just a few gates from our connecting flight. Saveur Magazine recently recommended La Carreta's roast pork with black beans/rice in its January-February 2012 issue; however, since it was technically still breakfast time (even on the East Coast), I had to settle for a tasty Cuban sandwich (ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles) to tide me over until later. After a brief scare during which I was separated from my passport (it had been left AWOL on an airline seat while I was loading the overhead bin) and, as a result, threatened with exile from the plane, we were cruising over the deep-blue ocean, skimming over Cuba en route to Grand Cayman.

Over the years, I've had the good fortune to visit several Caribbean islands, but never the Caymans until now. Upon arrival, our driver gave us some basic statistics regarding what was to be our home for the next 3 days (most of the full-time residents are Jamaican, it's about 20 miles long by 4 miles wide, Don King is the Prime Minister - just kidding). This was extremely helpful since we didn't get to actually see much of the island outside of the resort, such was the level of immersion into our festival experience (a nagging sinus infection thwarted what I had planned to be my only off-site excursion, a snorkel trip to Stingray City). Apparently, the Cayman Cookout is the marquis event each year for both the Ritz and Grand Cayman, as evidenced by the number of support staff and hotel guests milling about the complex. Never having stayed at a Ritz-Carlton property before, I was blown away by the level of service from the moment that you walk into the lobby until the moment you check out, making you feel like royalty instead of some schlub with a mediocre food blog. Upon checking in, we made our way to the AmEx hospitality area (located in a private area on the patio facing the beach) to receive our badges and tickets for the various seminars we would be attending. Despite the early wake-up call and lack of shower, the smooth glass of Champagne (sponsored by Moet) and rich rum cake went down mighty easy. Eventually snapping back to reality, we headed up to our room to unpack and freshen up for the evening's festivities.

Our first item on the agenda was a cocktail hour (located back at the AmEx hospitality area) to hobnob with some celebrities of the food world, namely Richard Blais, Chris Hanmer, and Dana Cowin. As there were only about 30 people that had registered for the Cayman Cookout package under the AmEx BIO program, this gathering was fairly small and allowed for ample conversation with both the guests of honor and other foodie attendees. I was enthralled to be able to briefly talk soccer with fellow Arsenal fan (oh, and also Top Chef All-Star winner and burgeoning restaurant impresario) Richard Blais (see Photo #1 above) and hear stories about how Food & Wine Editor Dana Cowin was able to work some back channels to get into Next (although even she couldn't get Grant Achatz to stop by the restaurant to say hi). We also got to hear a little bit from Chris Hanmer (recent winner of Top Chef: Just Desserts) about his school of pastry design in Las Vegas.

After the cocktail hour concluded, the group made our way up to the Grand Ballroom for a silent auction preceding the evening's dinner, a "Tour de France" prepared by executive chefs from throughout the Ritz-Carlton empire. The auction was pretty crowded, yet we still managed to meet both Tim Duncan (an Executive VP at Silver Oak Winery in Napa, not the former All-Star center for the San Antonio Spurs) and, unexpectedly, Jose Andres, who apparently had sidled in to bid on some lots and possibly to snag a couple of appetizers. The doors to the ballroom opened late, but we were treated to an excellent meal courtesy of Jacques Scott (the largest liquor distributor in the Caymans) and the Maitres Cuisiners de France (an association of chefs dedicated to the preservation of traditional French cuisine, which sounds a little elitist until you're eating some of their wares). Our first course consisted of Iberico ham (you know, the good stuff that comes from acorn-fed pigs) paired with quince jam, goat cheese, lingonberries (who knew that someone other than the Swedes use these?), marcona almonds, and rocket (aka arugula) salad, washed down with a nice Trimbach Pinot Blanc. Course #2 was a duo of walleye yellow pike quenelles (sort of like a dumpling) in a nantua (crayfish) sauce (not seen in my world since the ethereal fish course at the Next Paris 1906 menu), paired with a Latour Meursault white Burgundy. Next up (see Photo #2 above) was a piece of black cod glazed with tangerine and soy, plus vanilla leek, kabocha squash, cashew dukkah (a nut/spice blend), and hibiscus lobster jus, downed with a Bouchard Pere and Fils Gevrey Chambertin (a red Burgundy, my personal favorite). This was followed by a slab of Certified Angus beef tenderloin (the Certified Angus people were another sponsor) served with winter veggies, a walnut panisse, and juniper berry sauce, paired with a Chateau Cantemerle red Bordeaux. Unfortunately, this was the one course that was underwhelming, even just plain bad as my beef was overcooked and the vegetables were somewhat perplexing in both presentation and flavor. Last up was a dessert of Valrhona chocolate gateau with pastis and raspberry cremeux and a bit of champagne sorbet, with a sweet wine (Chateau Coutet) from Sauternes. The dessert was great, although our new pastry chef friend Santiago (one of our fellow foodies) agreed with me that the sorbet was a little superfluous. All of the courses were prepped and plated at stations placed next to the stage (with an overhead camera to give diners a view of the proceedings (very Top Chef-like); in my opinion, this may have led to a slight deterioration in the quality of the meal (which, admittedly, was very good nonetheless considering I had been expecting banquet-level cuisine for this first dinner up until a day or two beforehand). Feeling plenty full of good nosh and drink (and doped up on cold medication), I escorted Mrs. Hackknife upstairs to our chambers so we could rest up for Day #2 of festival fun.....

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