Anthony Bourdain’s Presence, and Absence, Have Been Palpable at this Year’s Cayman Cookout
“So I go to the ocean to say goodbye.”
– Charlotte Eriksson
GRAND CAYMAN, JANUARY 20, 2019–Eric Ripert–silver mane brushed back, white Oxford shirt-sleeves and dark-denim pants-legs rolled up in imitation of boyhood–raised his tumbler Heaven-ward, lifting his Negroni toward his pal Anthony, who loved them.
“Cheers to our friend,” he said.
It seemed a spontaneous gesture, and a conflicted one–more whisper than pronouncement. The audience could identify, at least this member could: One wasn’t sure how to feel in the opening moments of what was billed as The Late Night Show with Chefs Eric, Jose, and Andrew, an afternoon rap session under a tent by the ocean at The Cayman Cookout at The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, this hotel’s signature culinary event.
The ambivalence was baked in: Depending upon which itinerary one consulted, Saturday afternoon’s program was either a free-association industry gabfest by insiders Ripert, chef-humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Jose Andres, and television’s Andrew Zimmern, or a tribute to the late Anthony Bourdain, who counted these three amigos among his closest buddies, especially Eric. Last June, as the whole world knows, Ripert was traveling with Bourdain, filming an episode of his CNN program Parts Unknown when the icon committed suicide in his room at Le Chambard hotel in Kayersberg, France.
Audience members packed into an open-sided tent, sat on white folding chairs. We were welcomed with passed Negronis and sliders (both favorites, we were later informed, of Bourdain), and then Andrew Zimmern, in Bermuda shorts and a striped Oxford, took to the stage, played on by a live band in late-night talk show fashion. He proceeded to explain the conceit of the show: a fictional cable-access production in its 18th season that taped in the afternoon and aired at 11:30pm for Grand Cayman residents and visitors alike.
That probably sounds like an oddly goofy lead-in for a tribute to one of the most well-known and beloved public figures by three of his intimates, less than a year after his passing … more like an Elvis Costello bit than a eulogy. But there was a method to the mugging: In our interview Friday afternoon, Eric–sipping a piña colada and charmingly enduring one media tête-á-tête after another in what amounted to a one-chef junket–explained that he felt the Cayman Cookout needed to say goodbye to Anthony (he always refers to his friend by his given name, rather than the abbreviated Tony so many of us use), but that he wanted it to be a celebration, not a memorial, and to not drag the festival down.
He needn’t have worried: The Cayman Cookout has been as well-orchestrated and delicious as you’d expect a Ritz-Carlton resort culinary experience with a three-star-Michelin chef at the helm to be. (Most signage here ID’s it as “Cayman Cookout Hosted by Eric Ripert,” and one of the on-property restaurants, Blue, also bears his name.) As Instagram devotees know, Eric–who might be the kindest, gentlest three-star-Michelin chef on the planet–leverages his relationships and clout to attract an A-list crew of toques and sponsors. Of note: Now in its 11th year, the Cookout is more co-ed than ever: Dominique Crenn shattered the glass ceiling in 2018, and this year Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen, Aquavit’s Emma Bengtsson, and LA’s high priestess of pastry and pizza Nancy Silverton have joined regulars like Andres, Zimmern, Crenn herself, and Emeril Lagasse.
There are caviar lunches with bottomless flutes of vintage Dom Perignon, guest-chef dinners, barefoot beach barbeques with tasting stations better than any James Beard Foundation Awards gala, cooking demonstrations, and chances galore to mingle with all those chefs and snag trophy selfies for your Instagram feed. (Though, as Jose Andres–attired in a We Are All Dreamers t-shirt and black pants–said at Saturday’s talk, they’d all rather hear a story from you than take a picture with you, or at least hear a story before you ask for the picture. Call it the When Harry Met Sally Doctrine–everything’s better when you’re friends first.)
The whole operation is as smooth a machine as you’ll encounter: Rum punches await on a silver tray at check-in, hotel staff cheerfully attend to your every desire, and events go off without a hitch.
But this Cayman Cookout has also been undeniably haunted: Anthony Bourdain has been on everybody’s mind–I’d guess at least fifty-percent of attendees are return visitors, and Anthony, generous and loyal soul that he was, had lent his presence to all ten Cayman Cookouts put on by his friend Eric. As I left the lobby bar on Wednesday, my first night here, I passed one of the participating chefs, who commented to me that they thought this would be an emotional weekend for Eric. By the morning, it had become one for me as well, because during the night, I had a dream, my first ever, about Anthony Bourdain.
I blame the ocean.
This is my first time in the Cayman Islands, but I grew up in Coral Gables, Florida, so I felt immediately at home when I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac the other day: a faint breeze tickling the palm leaves, the humidity that lets natives of this climate know what month it is–it was all eerily familiar. The hotel is on the beach, and the ocean is omnipresent; its power, when it’s right there all the time–even when you can’t see it here, you can hear the surf–sneaks up on you. One feels compelled to take long walks along its shore, or to spend time gazing out to the horizon line. Its vastness is both overwhelming and a relief; it reminds of your own mortality, but renders you unable to get too worked up about it by teasing you with evidence of your own insignificance.
The Ritz-Carlton hooked me up: They invited me here as their guest to do some podcasting, and have put me up in an ocean-view room on the penthouse floor. The waves are in view at all times. I’m convinced this is why Tony came to me the other night. It wasn’t much of a dream–we were having a drink in a dive bar–but I woke up shaken and upset, and sad for all his friends. The same was true when I woke up Friday, having dreamt of going to some noodle shop he wanted to turn me on to, even though that never happened in real life. In between the two nights, his name came up repeatedly in conversation, most poignantly when a colleague and I lamented that he was one of the few public figures willing to call out hypocrisy and unfairness in our industries. For me personally, this might have been the most devastating longterm aspect of losing him.
I never eulogized Tony in writing. What could possibly be added to what others, most of whom knew him much better than I, had written in articles more eloquent than I could have conjured up on deadline in the wake of the horrible news last June. (At the time, I settled for a spontaneous podcast conversation with Chef Bill Telepan.) I’d never dreamed of Anthony before this trip, but think of him all the time since he died. As for so many, he meant a lot to me, and for my own distinct reasons: In spring 2000, visiting my hometown, sitting under a sun much like the one on display here on Grand Cayman this week, I laid out on a chaise lounge chair poolside at the Biltmore Hotel and read Kitchen Confidential for the first time. I was making my living collaborating on chef cookbooks, and KC showed me a different type of writing, and subject, that I thought could become my focus, and eventually did. Over the next eighteen years, I’d have a few chances to meet Anthony, and he was always encouraging, sometimes breathtakingly so, like when he Tweeted out some of my first articles on this blog, putting it on countless peoples’ radars. I was always too awkward in his presence to have become friends with him, but his approval helped drive me at some crucial moments. (When the Zero Point Zero team who produced Parts Unknown asked me to help eulogize him on a “Bourdain’s Impact” episode last fall, I was stunned, and honored.)
But back to Saturday afternoon: The surf was both visible and audible just outside the tent where the talk show was staged, and through the clear-plastic backing behind Andrew, Jose, and Eric the audience could periodically spy guests pulling their boats out of the water and onto the shore. Between jokes and banter, the trio offered observations and memories of Bourdain that gifted us all some insight: Jose explained that for all his influence, Tony never took himself seriously enough, never realized how much he was loved worldwide. Eric described their schoolboy antics, like how he loved taking pictures of Anthony as he slept on airplanes and in cars on the road, and posting them to social media. Andrew explained his theory that we wouldn’t really know his impact for another decade, when kids who grew up watching him become writers, chefs, entertainers, and we see his influence in the breadth of their interest and output.
Eric also told a charming story about how Tony once asked him if he could profile somebody from Le Bernardin in the book Medium Raw. Eric, a practicing Buddhist, said of course, no problem. The profile in question was of the restaurant’s longtime fish butcher Justo Thomas, with whom Anthony spent a week to make sure he got it right. The chapter is often pointed to as evidence of Bourdain’s affection and appreciation for the usually unsung heroes of the industry. The charming part is that the ever-modest Ripert confided, “I thought he was going to ask if the chapter could be about me.” This brought the house down.
I’m not sure if the goal of the afternoon was closure, and to be honest, I don’t think it was attained. We celebrated, we mourned. We laughed. We shared a moment. And that was a lot. It was enough.
By sundown, everybody was eating and drinking again, and the action continued past midnight with a dance party around one of the pools. The sun came up this morning and the ocean outside my window is, as always, a perfect, endless turquoise as far as the eye can see. I don’t know if this event, or any of us who were touched by him, will ever really get over losing Anthony Bourdain. We can say goodbye to the man, mourn the circumstances of his passing, feel sorry for our loss. But despite the insistence of the big, blue sea, not everybody is ultimately insignificant. A lucky few abide within the rest of us. Resisting that would be like trying to brush back the tide. Better, I think, to relent, and let that feeling wash over you forever.