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Photography provided by the Ritz Carlton, Grand Cayman

When José Andrés offers you a swig of his freshly prepared sangria from the porrón wine pitcher he’s passing around, there’s only one obvious answer: Yes, chef. The standout Spanish-American chef, restaurateur and humanitarian had taken over the beachfront — ostensibly to show us how to make his prized paella, but in reality to have us laughing, crying and laugh crying with his skillful storytelling and heartwarming humor. As he danced between two giant paella pans and lovingly dropped in ingredients, Andrés also dropped little nuggets of wisdom like, “In both life and cooking, the separation between chaos and perfection is one degree.”

These are the kinds of intimate encounters with the world’s top chefs that Cayman Cookout attendees can expect. The annual foodie fete just celebrated its 15th anniversary at the world-class Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. Renowned French chef Eric Ripert — best known for his three-Michelin-starred New York City institution, Le Bernardin — has hosted this epicurean extravaganza since its inception. To commemorate the occasion, this year’s celebration featured more than 90 perfectly orchestrated events, including dozens of bespoke food and drink experiences, catamaran and private jet excursions, chef-led scuba diving and deep-sea fishing expeditions, and even an exclusive Goo Goo Dolls concert.

“The Cayman Cookout is never the same from year to year because of the talents we bring in,” Ripert tells Artful Living. “It has evolved a lot over time. We started with only a few chefs — Anthony Bourdain, José Andrés, a couple others and myself. It was just José’s paella class, some dinners and some classes on the beach, and we were catering to maybe 100 or 200 people. But even today, we keep it very limited in terms of access. We want the guests to have those intimate experiences with the chefs, because that’s what makes the cookout so unique.”

I hesitate to use the word “festival” to describe the Cayman Cookout, as that term conjures up images of droves of people waiting in long lines to snag bite-sized portions of uninventive fare made for the masses. In contrast, this FOMO-inducing affair is limited to just 500 guests — many of whom return year after year to rub shoulders with the likes of Emeril Lagasse, Andrew Zimmern, Kwame Onwuachi, Kristen Kish, Angie Mar, sommelier Aldo Sohm and others. (This year’s running joke was that attending the cookout might be an easier way to experience Onwuachi’s cuisine than trying to secure a reservation at his Big Apple hot spot, Tatiana.)

These celebrity chefs are having just as much fun as the attendees themselves. After all, how could you not enjoy spending five days at a Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond Caribbean paradise? The cookout events — some of which accommodate larger groups, while others allow for just a handful of people — are peppered throughout the 144-acre property spanning from storied Seven Mile Beach to the North Sound. Known for its hospitality and safety, Grand Cayman is the largest and the most populous of the Cayman Islands at 76 square miles. The festival showcases local flavors and ingredients in addition to highlighting the extraordinary talents of the featured chefs.

But the Cayman Cookout is about so much more than just rubbing elbows. Sure, guests get to have authentic, personal experiences with these food world icons (many of whom remember devotees and look forward to seeing them time and again), but they also get to experience multiple meals of a lifetime. And that’s not an exaggeration.

An elegant evening at signature eatery Blue by Eric Ripert, for instance, celebrated the diamonds of the earth — aka Sabatino truffles — across multiple courses prepared by Blue Chef de Cuisine Thomas Seifried and Okan Kizilbayir, chef de cuisine at Salt at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. The lively Beach Bash on nearby Rum Point, meanwhile, involved a relaxing catamaran sail with a stopover at Stingray City, a shallow sandbar where adventure seekers can mingle with the calm titular fish, before arriving at this idyllic isle to nosh on more casual culinary creations. And not to be missed is the Bon Vivant Chef Competition Brunch — a favorite among cookout regulars — which features a vast smorgasbord of inventive fare to savor while watching a spirited cooking contest among friendly rivals.

There’s also ample downtime to enjoy the elegant yet easygoing resort’s many impressive amenities, including a beckoning beachfront; multiple pools; a family-friendly water park; a Greg Norman–designed golf course; basketball, pickleball and tennis courts; and a plethora of island activities like sailing, kayaking and snorkeling. The 20,000-square-foot spa engulfs you in a world of relaxation and boasts a full menu of massages, facials, nail services and other pampering treatments employing high-end ESPA and 111SKIN products. Travelers who can’t get enough can fully buy into a residence, which offers the best of both worlds.

Ripert visits several times throughout the year to check in on Blue and help plan for the next cookout. So how does this esteemed chef like to spend his time there? “Going to the spa in the morning never hurts,” he says with a smile. “I really enjoy going to the beach every day, and I love swimming with the stingrays at Stingray City. Sometimes in the late afternoon, I’ll go kayaking in the mangroves at the back of the property; it’s just so majestic and beautiful. We also enjoy playing pickleball. And I sleep so well at the Ritz — much better than at home.”

Even if you can’t make it out for the epicurean affair, The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman is a foodie destination in itself. The expansive property has six onsite eateries and lounges, including Blue, fan-favorite sushi joint Taikun, Italian outpost Andiamo, breakfast spot Seven and the swanky Silver Palm (complete with an extensive cocktail menu, a selection of Caribbean cigars and a lovely afternoon tea service). But this gourmet couldn’t get enough of refined beachfront restaurant Saint June, which dishes up South American–inspired fare paired with picture-perfect water views and fresh ocean breezes.

As for Ripert’s top dining choices at the resort, he has “a weakness for the pizza at Andiamo; I have a pizza almost every day I’m there,” he shares. “At Blue, the menu changes, but there are a couple signature dishes, like the carpaccio of tuna with foie gras that we also serve at Le Bernardin. We also have different types of ceviche that are very local. Right now, it’s the season for conch and spiny lobsters, which are very unique to the Caribbean, so I always recommend trying the ceviche.”

No matter how you slice it, the Cayman Cookout deserves a spot on every foodie’s bucket list. My advice for anyone eager to attend? Book early, as the exclusive festival sells out early thanks to all those devotees. Pack some clothes with stretchy waistbands, as you’re like to leave a few pounds heavier, as beloved Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman General Manager Marc Langevin half jokes (he’s as much a celebrity around these parts as the chefs themselves). And be prepared to have the culinary experience of a lifetime.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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