Monday, January 30, 2012

Cayman Cookout - Day 3

Our last full day at the fest was nearly as packed with activities as the prior one. This time, a buffet breakfast was served on the patio for us courtesy of Food & Wine, who was sponsoring a brief meet-and-greet event with Dana Cowin and Jose Andres prior to the day's main program. Dana did her best to interview the chef; however, he's the type of individual that finds it difficult to stay seated for very long (Photo #1 above shows one of those rare moments). He was quite enthusiastic to talk to our group about his experience being a guest lecturer of culinary physics at Harvard, gave a related impromptu demo on the surface tension properties of water and how it can be applied to innovative cooking techniques in the kitchen, and outlined his ever-widening charity efforts. The F&W folks also managed to keep him around long enough to sign copies of his latest cookbook (Made in Spain) for everyone (all of this activity took place, mind you, during a frenetic 25 minutes, a pace that I'm sure the chef is typically accustomed to).

Immediately after the breakfast talk ended, I was told that my morning demo of dessert wine tasting had been cancelled due to low attendance. Apparently, only me and one other guest had signed up for this event - I suppose it might have been a bit awkward if the presenters, head sommelier Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin and renowned winemaker Gerhard Kracher, had only two attendees to entertain for 90 minutes (indeed, I can envision a quite-plausible scenario where the 4 of us would have gotten really snookered on sweet vino, resulting in my premature withdrawal from the rest of the day's festivities - see Las Vegas, August 2010). In order to make up for my troubles, the Ritz had two bottles of VERY nice dessert wine delivered to our room courtesy of Messr. Kracher (they're currently chilling in our wine fridge - ask me to bust one open next time you visit the Commmissary), plus they let me sneak in to a different demo, this one featuring Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain (titled "Good vs. Evil") alternately interrogating each other (all very tongue in cheek). In real life, the two gents are best pals (see Photo #2 above), which led to some pretty hilarious dialogue between them about their various shortcomings, likes/dislikes (Paula Deen and Gordon Ramsey, among others, came up in conversation), etc. Anyway, the best part of this tete-a-tete? At the conclusion, I left the tent and was walking back towards the resort when I saw Anthony Bourdain meet up with his little daughter (I think she's around 3 or 4) and start walking with her on the beach, which, of course, made me think of my own children and feel guilty about how it's heels like me that are preventing this poor guy from spending quality time with his kid. Then I got over it and headed to lunch.

After our beef-heavy midday meal yesterday, we were excited about getting an all-seafood lunch at Blue prepared by Eric Ripert's right-hand man onsite, Chef Luis Lujan (a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, where if he had hung around long enough, he probably would have crossed paths with Rick Bayless). While we sipped some fine wines from Washington that Mrs. Hackknife had brought over from her earlier demo (and some rose Champagne from fellow attendees Ron and Santiago, who were kind enough to share with us), Chef Lujan showed us how he prepared two of our courses, then took the group on a walk-through of Blue's kitchen (where we ran into Chef Blais again, who was preparing a horseradish creme fraiche for his own demo taking place that afternoon). Lunch was served on the warm patio (leading to my only sunburn of the weekend) and consisted of seared local wahoo Nicoise with liquid olive (another El Bulli legacy) and mustard vinaigrette, baked local snapper and seafood medley in a basquaise sauce (think paprika - see Photo #3 above), and a caramel parfait with apple, ginger snaps, and eggnog ice cream.

Bellies full, we waddled back down to the beach for our early afternoon demo with Richard Blais, who had his trademark liquid nitrogen tank at the ready to help make his version of one of Thomas Keller's signature dishes, oysters and pearls (see Photo #4 above). In place of the pearl tapioca that they use at French Laundry (where Chef Blais worked for a spell), he immersed droplets of the horseradish emulsion that he was whipping up when we saw him in Blue's kitchen into a liquid nitrogen bath, thus freezing them into "pearls" for the oyster topping. Everyone in attendance got to sample an oyster on the half-shell with a bit of salty roe and the frozen, spicy horseradish dots, which was a delicious combination.

Amazingly, the wife and I actually had a break in our afternoon schedule following the Blais event. I used a good chunk of this time to wander off-resort to the nearest supermarket (one of my habits when we travel abroad), only about a 5-minute walk away. Much to my consternation, I found little in the way of exotic food offerings and decided that there was little difference between this market and your average Piggly Wiggly back home (presumably due to the large contingent of Americans vacationing on the island). The liquor store around the corner was a bit better, offering Caribe lager (made in Trinidad & Tobago) and the local Caybrew, two beers that weren't particularly distinctive tasting, but valuable to the bottle cap collection nonetheless. Rushing back to the resort, I met up with Mrs. Hackknife on the beach for our last demo of the festival, Sunset Cocktails and Ceviche with Eric Ripert. All of the attendees got to imbibe some sort of rum cocktail and try a couple of tasty ceviches that Chef Ripert and his assistant whipped up for us.

We needed to depart the demo a little early to meet up with our AmEx BIO group at the boat dock on the land side of the resort. It was here that we were loaded onto 4 different boats for the short cruise (about 15 minutes) to Camana Bay for our dinner. In the tropical twilight, the boat ride was spectacular (hard to believe that we'd be back up North in less than 24 hours), winding through the golf course, out into the bay (which was a bit choppy), and back through the canals to the marina at Camana Bay, a modern shopping complex with several restaurants and stores. Our bunch of revelers was treated to hors d'oeuvres on the green behind the complex while we awaited the arrival of Anthony Bourdain, who was slated to do a private book signing with us. Once he appeared, he was kind enough to take pictures and sign autographs for everyone, as was his pal Jose Andres, who made an impromptu visit in the middle of the signing (I came to the conclusion that Chef Andres is pretty much everywhere all the time). Mrs. Hackknife and I chose to eat our dinner at Ortanique, which was featuring a menu assembled by Chefs Richard Blais and Cindy Hutson. Andrea Immer Robinson (of the former Simply Wine tv show on the Fine Living Network, a program that we used to regularly watch) and her husband were also present, pouring wines that they chose to match the menu. Our meal began with a plate of wahoo tartare, fried Cayman chicken, pickled radish, and smoked aioli, served with an Italian rose sparkling wine. This was followed by a bisque containing creamy truffled conch, lobster, and chanterelles, with a side of micro greens and fava beans (washed down with a Chardonnay). Up next was a ravioli "cassoulet" containing toasted curry-braised duck and lentil ragout, pair with a Sonoma Pinot Noir. Last, but not least, was in my opinion the best beef dish of the weekend (yes, more Certified Angus Beef, buy some today!), a filet encrusted with cocoa and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, with an amarena cherry demi-glace, breadfruit, and a cheddar gratin (also excellent). Everyone at the table received a cookies and cream truffle as a parting gift before heading back to the green for the dessert extravaganza to conclude the evening's festivities. Dessert chefs Chris Hanmer and Francois Payard (a well-regarded pastry chef who worked at Le Bernardin prior to starting his own popular patisserie in New York) were there passing out their creations along with several others. There were so many awesome sweets around that I could hardly contain myself (should have skipped dinner - see Photo #5 above). Sadly, I have but one stomach to give for my country and my limits had been reached. The missus and I retreated to the resort at that point to do a little late evening stargazing on the beach before bed and our return flight tomorrow.

As soon as we got home, we were already scheming to see if we could somehow engineer another vacation around a future Cayman Cookout (this was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, you know). The lineup of celebrity chefs changes every year except for the core 3 (Ripert, Bourdain, and Andres, who seem to use the occasion to get together and party, and who can blame them?) - we do know that Mario Batali and Rick Bayless (local guy), among others, are slated for 2013, but I suspect there may be a few more iterations of the fest before we can make it back....

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