Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cayman Cookout - Day 2

Day 2 of our excursion started out warm and sunny, pretty much as one would expect for the Caribbean in January. Since we were still stuffed from the banquet last evening, Mrs. Hackknife and I scrounged a couple of items from the hotel coffee shop (bananas, muffins, muesli, and the like) in lieu of a sit-down breakfast. By 10 am, we were parked underneath a tent on the beach for the first cooking demo of the day, entitled "Jose Andres en la Playa". At first, Chef Andres was nowhere to be found, but as he was introduced, he and his family emerged from the surf in full scuba gear and tromped up on stage dripping wet (the chef is nothing if not a showman). Grand entrance complete, he directed the mostly-staid spectators down to the beach where two firepits were set up to hold giant paella pans, the crux of his cooking demonstration. Several attendees were pressed into service as unpaid sous-chefs (see Photo #1 above) to help prepare sangria, grilled oysters with mignonette, and, lastly, a delicious seafood paella made with (of all things) pasta instead of the more traditional rice.

After closing the demo with a group rendition of the chef's theme song (a rap number, no less), the missus and I headed over to Seven (the resort's steakhouse) for our group lunch featuring a menu conceived by Anthony Bourdain and sponsored by Certified Angus Beef (apparently, the beef people ponied up significant dollars for this festival). Messr. Bourdain (I get the urge to call him chef, although I realize that he hasn't technically been one for about 10 years now) himself was present to introduce the menu and stuck around to visit with each table for a few minutes. The first course saw us dining on a number of small bites, including salt cod brandade on crostini, assorted French crudites (vegetables), finocchiona (fennel-infused salami) and coppa (pork shoulder salami) provided by Creminelli (a Utah-based Italian meat supplier), and a duck mousse pate, all washed down with a Stonestreet Sauvignon Blanc. So substantial were the initial offerings that I made a crack to Tony (I can call him that - we're buds now) as he passed by about how this must be a conspiracy to get us to eat less at the beach bbq later that evening (he responded with a quip about how it was like when unscrupulous buffet operators fill up their patrons with cheap starches before putting out the expensive stuff). We probably could have stopped at that point (after all, we still had two more demos that afternoon and I was starting to experience some gastrointestinal distress, which I'm sure had nothing to do with all of the rich food and drink passing through the system), but no, Course #2 was beckoning, featuring grilled cote de boeuf with roasted bone marrow, Pommes Pont Neuf (basically, thick-cut fries), Green Beans Almondine, and bordelaise sauce, paired with a Tuscan red. This was followed by some cheeses and a red Bordeaux wine, at which point Mrs. Hackknife (who had just completed a spirited conversation with Tony about the differences between his new show, "Layover", and his long-running "No Reservations" series) and I ducked out before dessert (warm cherry clafoutis with Tahitian vanilla ice cream) to catch our 2 pm demo with April Bloomfield.

Bloomfield is a British chef that is currently the gastro-pub queen of New York City (the New Yorker did an in-depth article last year on her latest culinary exploits). Although her demo was titled "April Bloomfield Meets the West Indies", she opted to show everyone a most un-Caribbean recipe, a beef and Stilton pie - my suspicion is that she had originally planned to do something a little more in keeping with the island spirit, but, was forced into Plan B due to unforeseen issues. Regardless, we, the audience, were the beneficiaries as Mrs. Hackknife and I got to sample a sizable chunk of an earlier-baked pie at the conclusion of the presentation. It was quite tasty and very rich, possibly owing to the fact that she used suet (the raw, hard fat surrounding the loins/kidneys of cows or sheep, which seems like a very British thing) as the fat in making her dough (apparently, it's not just for bird feeders). After a brief respite between demos during which I had to conduct, um, further gastrointestinal management, Chef Laurent Gras took the same stage to prepare an excellent green curry tuna ceviche. I was pretty excited to see Chef Gras in action - for those of you unaware, until recently, he was the proud operator of L2O, a 3-Michelin star seafood restaurant in Chicago specializing in Alinea-like preparations of fish (he also maintained an amazing blog documenting the steps involved in making many of his dishes), until he decamped in a huff to New York City following a philosophical dispute with the restaurant's parent company. L2O has since lost 2 of its 3 stars and the chef has moved on to bigger and better projects of his own on the East Coast; sadly, it's become clear that our fair city is the poorer for his departure. Anyway, there were no crazy tricks involved in making the ceviche as he kept everything simple and straightforward, with an emphasis on the fresh ingredients at his disposal. Getting a chance to sample his great cooking only made me regret more that we hadn't been able to visit L2O before he left town.

As AmEx BIO attendees, the missus and I had a pre-dinner excursion arranged for us as the sun began to set on Day 2; that is, a catamaran ride (see Photo #2 above) with our fellow guests and some of the Food & Wine Magazine personalities, including Dana Cowin and Ray Isle, the publication's executive wine editor. The main purpose of the boat ride (other than to cruise the water during sundown) was to try several wines from the portfolio of the Incisa della Rochetta family of Tuscany, one of whom (Piero, a grandson of the founder) rode along with us to provide commentary (and eye candy for the female attendees). Wines from Argentina and Italy were passed around for everyone, with the absolute highlight being the 2008 Sassicaia, a Super Tuscan (Bordeaux-style blend, not the sangiovese-based wines that Tuscany is known for) widely considered one of the best Italian wines on the market (by the way, it's priced accordingly at about $175 a bottle). At the conclusion of the boat excursion, Eric Ripert was present to meet us beachside and walk us up as a group to the Barefoot BBQ, the evening's main dinner event held at a local beach bar. Chefs Ripert, Andres, and Bourdain each had a buffet station (see Tony in action, Photo #3 above) that they manned for almost the duration of the night (I have to give those guys credit as they've certainly earned the right not to toil away carving meat for the masses for an extended period). Bourdain served up porchetta (boneless Italian pork roast) with arugula and fennel salad, while Ripert dished out grilled beef tomahawk (there's that beef sponsor again). At the far side of the venue, Jose Andres had the most intriguing food choices at his station, including lox and bagel "cones" and slices from a big leg of Iberico ham, plus more Certified Angus Beef (prime strip steak). There was also a wide selection of ceviches, desserts, and side dishes to choose from. We certainly had no shortage of food, but given the size of the event (easily 600 or 700 people) and the buffet format, the quality was not quite as good as the prior evening's dinner or today's lunch. The circus-like atmosphere certainly made up for any deficiencies on the plate - while in line at Eric Ripert's station, we ran into Richard Blais again (this time with his wife) and got to chat a bit more. Many of the other chefs (including April Bloomfield, Laurent Gras, and Chris Hanmer) were also there with family/friends to grab some grub and mingle before resting up for Day 3. As the evening progressed, we discovered an unlimited supply of adult beverages (including CayBrew, the island's local beer) available for our consumption; however, we opted not to overimbibe and eventually headed back to the resort with some other group members as the festivities began winding down.

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