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.)…