Cayman Cookout: The food fest circuit's hottest ticket

Picture the ultimate winter get-away in the Caribbean. Then throw in 30-plus celebrity chefs, including Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert and Spike Mendelsohn and you have, quite possibly, the hottest ticket in the culinary fest circuit.

Grand Cayman’s 5th annual “Cayman Cookout” (January 17-20) features four days of beachfront brunching, lunching and dining on fresh Caribbean cuisine … no shoes required.

What makes this Caribbean food and wine festival stand out from the all the others? Organizers say that’s simple: intimacy.

“This one you can literally walk up and have a beer with your culinary icon, you really can get up close and personal to your favorite celeb chef,” says Nancy Harrison, Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman, the host hotel for the event.

The idea for a more intimate gathering came from the event’s ringleader, Chef Eric Ripert, best known for his Michelin rated restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City. Chef Ripert’s loyalty to the Cayman Islands started seven years ago after vacationing there for the first time. One year later he opened “Blue” at the Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman, the only AAA Five Diamond restaurant in the Caribbean.

“It is remarkable to see Cayman Cookout evolve over the past five years. Each year, the line-up is more and more impressive. Before we would extend invitations to my colleagues and today they are reaching out to me to be a part of the fun. It is one of my favorite weeks of the year,” says Chef Ripert.

Tickets to the culinary fest aren’t cheap, but well worth the price for the more than 3,000 die-hard foodies who travel from Canada, the U.S. and South America to attend. One event not to miss is the official kickoff “Barefoot BBQ” party held at the Royal Palms restaurant on Grand Cayman’s exquisite Seven Mile Beach. Chefs Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert and Jose Andres work their culinary magic on grill stations at the waters edge then guests wade into crystal blue sea to get their food and indulge, then relax the night away. Tickets are $299.

Without question, the ultimate daytime event is “Burgers in Paradise.” Guests board red-sailed catamarans and head out over the island’s North Sound to visit one of Cayman’s top tourist destinations, Stingray City. After snorkeling and swimming with the stingrays, guests re-board the catamarans and sail to Rum Point to experience a burger-lovers well…. paradise on a private beach.

Chef Spike Mendelsohn says there couldn’t be a more perfect setting. “I grew up with a lot of locals from this island we all went to military school together... (I’m) looking forward to hanging with some of them at Rum Point and taking a fishing trip,” he said. Burgers in Paradise tickets are $329.

The four days of over-indulging wraps up on Sunday with a Champagne Brunch & Cook-Off Brunch where local chef-testants compete for the title of Grand Cayman’s own amateur "Top Chef" at the Ritz Carlton. Tickets are $195. Next year’s Cayman Cookout is set for January 16-20, 2014.

For a more cost-friendly culinary option consider the Taste of Cayman Food & Wine Festival at Camana Bay.

The casual, day-long event showcases island creations from roughly 35 local restaurants, attracting close to 5,000 people. Take a break from eating and learn about the island culture while listening to live music and sipping on rum crafted by the Cayman Islands Distillery. A chance to witness the festival’s “Heavy Cake Competition” is reason alone to attend. A taste of the Cayman’s famous heavy cake (a classic Caribbean dessert made with cassava (local plant) coconut milk and brown sugar) will likely leave you wanting more and also dreaming about your next trip to the Caribbean’s culinary capital. Taste of Cayman tickets cost approx, $50. The Taste of Cayman serves as a fundraiser for the Cayman Islands Tourism Association.