Saturday, January 14, 2012

On the road again: Cayman Cookout,
Grand Cayman, day 4

Morning came entirely too early for me, as it is wont to do, because I have to work before I can leave for the ten o'clock first session. No whining, though; I'm on Grand Cayman at one of the world's premiere foodie events.

That first presentation was an hour of interesting fun: "Good vs. Evil: Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert." A single chair stood in the middle of the small stage. Bourdain made Ripert sit in it, and then proceeded to circle Ripert and pummel him with questions. The questions were fun but also had an edge, as in when Bourdain made Ripert admit that Ripert has been on the Martha Stewart show two dozen times. After about twenty minutes, they swapped roles, and Ripert interrogated Bourdain. They're clearly great friends, so nothing turned mean, and both men--and the audience--laughed a great deal. They then took questions from the audience until we were well past time and had to head off to Blue for lunch.

Before we ate the three-course meal on the patio in the perfect Caymanian day, Chef de Cuisine Luis Lujan, the man who really runs that kitchen, showed us how to prepare two of the dishes we then tasted as starters. Lujan has worked at Blue for some time, and previously he ran the fish station at El Bulli, so his knowledge was both what one would expect from someone of his background and quite impressive. The lunch itself was delicious and, true to the spirit of both Ripert's signature Le Bernardin and Blue, kept the fish front and center as the star. I would have an entirely different attitude toward seafood and would eat it daily if it were all this good.

Everything here runs on island time, so we were late heading to the next presentation, one on sustainable farming, fishing, and cooking. I learned a lot and came away more determined than ever to support local farmers practicing sustainable farming.

After an hour in a hot pavilion, I was glad for the break before the next session, because I was able to dangle my feet in the gorgeous pool to cool off.

Yeah, I know: tough duty here.

I positively loved the next presentation, in which Top Chef winner Richard Blais used a whole lot of liquid nitrogen to create some fun and very tasty dishes. He is a lively and entertaining character, and everyone laughed and learned for an hour.

From there we headed straight over to another beach pavilion to watch Eric Ripert create tartare, ceviche, and carpaccio from three different types of fish. The last, the carpaccio, was the tuna and foie dish I mentioned we had eaten at Blue a few nights ago, and we were lucky enough to sample it again after Ripert finished.

I then crammed a bunch of work into the time before the evening's festivities started. We rode buses to Camana bay, ate tasty snacks and drank on a lovely open square, and then headed to different restaurants for dinner. Ortanique was our destination, and I confess to having picked it with almost no research. I paid for that laziness with the weakest meal of the trip, one that was good but that suffered by comparison to all the great food of this trip.

As I said, tough duty.

After dinner, we wandered back to the square where a local chef whose name I did not get, the legendary Francois Payard, and Top Chef: Just Desserts winner Chris Hanmer were all serving multiple types of desserts. Hanmer had the fewest on offer--only three--so I tried them all. (Hey, these were small!) Payard amazed with a hot and cold pina colada (barely a drop of alcohol in it, so I tried it), a single shot that burst in your mouth with contrasting hot and cold temperatures and complementary flavors. The real stars, though, were his white truffle macaroon, which was a delicious fusion of truffle and white chocolate flavors, and its even more intense sibling, the dark truffle macaroon. Wow, were they good.

As we all boarded the buses back to the hotel, we all universally complained of how much we'd overeaten.

Yup, tough duty indeed.

Friday, January 13, 2012

On the road again: Cayman Cookout,
Grand Cayman, day 3

This morning, the event began in earnest. Multiple tracks run simultaneously, so I can tell you only about those that I attended.

After an early wake-up and catching up on work, we headed out to a temporary pavilion (a large white tent) on the beach to watch Jose Andres. A few minutes after the scheduled start time, he came walking out of the water in full scuba gear. One of his young daughters had received her scuba certification yesterday and so they'd been on a morning dive. As he talked, he ditched his gear and changed his shirt. Then, he told us all to come out with him and stand on the beach.

So we did.

While we clustered on three sides of a rectangle around him, with the tent the final side, he directed a team of chefs from his restaurants and quite a few volunteers in the preparation of a sort of sangria and two dishes. I skipped the alcoholic drink, both because I don't drink and I am allergic to mint.

The first dish to finish was a simple grilled fresh oyster. Put the closed oyster on a grill over wood--everything was over wood--and wait for the shell to open. When it does, add butter, pepper, and salt, then grill a bit longer. I'm not an oyster fan, but wow, were these delicious!

The other dish was a variety of paella that uses pasta. It took most of the hour to prepare and contained fish sauce, pasta, pork ribs, lobster, salt, and some spices. It was also completely delicious.

The ads for this event note that Andres is the guy you'd most like to have a beer with. It's true. He is a whirlwind of energy, enthusiasm, and emotion, a man who could not talk if you bound his arms; his hands are as much a part of the way he speaks as his voice. I know it's part of his shtick--we saw moments of fierce focus and energy as he directed his team in whispers--but it also seems to be part of who he is.

This was the best session of the day, and it made me want to eat in every restaurant Andres owns.

By the time it ended, though, we were overheated from standing in the sun and had only a little of the planned thirty-minute break left to us before the next session. After cooling as much as possible poolside, we headed into the hotel's 7 Restaurant for a lunch Anthony Bourdain was hosting. In his opening remarks, he said the goal was to recreate the sort of French restaurant that still operated in spots in New York and had never changed, the old-school French places where beef was king and green beans came with the meat. The food was pretty good, though not exceptional, but the event failed to deliver on its promise of stories from Bourdain. He hung with the staff and ate a bit outside with other chefs, but otherwise was largely absent.

The kitchen fell a bit behind, so we left immediately after dessert and still were seven minutes late to the next demonstration, a session on desserts from Chris Hanmer, the recent winner of the Top Chef: Just Desserts TV show's second season. Hanmer was both incredibly likable and also extremely knowledgable. He made the dessert that was one of the dishes with which he won the final contest of that show and that also helped him to become the youngest American ever to win a World Pastry Team championship. The dish included both banana and passionfruit caramels and looked yummy. It proved to be just that, because they distributed pre-plated dishes to all the attendees.

After a brief break and more time dangling feet in the pool to cool off, we headed back to the beach pavilion to watch a "Chocolate Epiphany" session by the world-famous pastry chef, Francois Payard. Despite the heat in the tent, which he swore was a hundred degrees (but probably was not), he managed to create some beautiful chocolate cookies, tart, and cake. Again, we had the chance to sample small bits of pre-made versions, and, wow, were they good.

I particularly liked his answer to a question about why he used grams instead of ounces: "Precision. When I bake, I am a robot, doing exactly the right thing exactly the right way. Ounces are not precise enough."

After this session, I spent all the time before dinner sitting in the dark, cool (as cool as I could make it) room, catching up on work and cooling off.

Dinner required a ride in a bus down the island to Tiki Beach, where at about a dozen different stations chefs, including Bourdain (pork), Ripert (beef), and Andres (pork with jamon on top), were preparing food for all of us. A live band playing island music, tiki torches, great food, and perfect island weather made it a lovely, delicious experience. I could never turn off the voice in my head that constantly reminds me that I don't really belong here, but that voice says the same thing in almost every group gathering I attend, so I'm used to it.

Tomorrow is an even more crowded day that starts as early as today but runs later, with no real break in the middle.

I had at one level hoped that the Cayman Cookout would suck, so I would never want to come back, but it most assuredly does not.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

On the road again: Cayman Cookout,
Grand Cayman, day 2

I won't see a lot of Grand Cayman while here, but the Seven Mile Beach, on which this hotel sits, is easily one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever visited. The sand is perfectly white and fine, the water so clear you could read a book a yard under the surface, and the air always gentle and salty. I love it.

The level of service and luxury at this hotel surpasses anything I've experienced except the Inn at Little Washington; no service tops the Inn's. I took a mid-day work break to spend some time in the water and on the beach. Floating in the water along the beach are a few swim-up "aqua lounges." Each has a large square foam table center, which is anchored to the sea bed, and four covered chairs, one per side. Sit in it, and a waiter walks out and takes your drink and lunch orders. It was embarrassing to do but also great fun. Sipping a non-alcoholic mango daiquiri while sitting mostly underwater in a lovely shaded seat is a great way to relax.

Were I far richer than I ever will be, I could certainly see the appeal of spending a month here during the worst of the winter.

Growing up in Florida, I knew people who worked at places like this, usually people with sufficiently good connections to score one of those high-paying jobs, but I never knew anyone who actually stayed at one. I still find it quite amazing that I am here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On the road again: Cayman Cookout,
Grand Cayman, day 1

Two hours of sleep--twice interrupted sleep at that--is simply not enough, even for me, so I awoke utterly exhausted at 4:30 a.m. this morning. (I normally am crawling into bed about that time or a bit later.) After a shower that wasn't enough to wake me fully, I headed for the airport.

All whining about today, however, is unacceptable in the face of a single fact: I'm on Grand Cayman island to attend one of the coolest foodie events there is, the Cayman Cookout.

The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman is about as nice as a resort hotel can get, which I am here to tell you is pretty darn nice. After a late poolside lunch, I worked, rested a bit, and then caught this view of sunset from my oceanfront room.

My iPhone's camera doesn't do justice to the magnificent view, but you get the idea.

As I said, whining is simply not acceptable when you have this to look at.

And this pool view, from looking down from the room at about the same time.

So, yeah: no whining.

Dinner was late and at Blue, the local restaurant of legendary chef, New York restaurateur, and Cayman Cookout host, Eric Ripert. I was particularly interested in this restaurant because I've never eaten at Ripert's Le Bernardin restaurant in New York; in fact, I've never eaten his food before. I'm not the biggest seafood fan, so I've never pushed his restaurants to the top of my must-eat list.

I will now. The meal, which was almost entirely seafood, was magnificent. Every bite of every course was spot on. In each dish he managed to fuse his French heritage, his love of seafood, and tastes reminiscent of this island and the Caribbean in general.

To pick but one, the opening listed dish (after the amuse), was this lovely tuna carpaccio with foie gras.

It's so easy for foie to take over in any dish in which it's present, so that was a real concern here. As I hope you can see, they pounded the tuna until it was very thin, so I was doubly worried that the foie would drown it out.

I had no cause for concern. The balance of the flavors was perfectly tuned to keep the tuna the star but let the richness of the foie enhance that flavor. I ate it as slowly as I could.

Now, I am even more excited about learning from him and eating more of his food at the Cayman Cookout this weekend!

I will, of course, report back as the event unfolds.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Midnight In Paris

I missed this Woody Allen film in the theaters but caught it the other night on Blu-Ray. It's been a while since I have so loved and so hated different parts of a movie. (Spoilers ahead.)

The opening montage was as long and deep a love ode to Paris as any Allen has created for New York. I didn't think he would ever give any other city so much affection, but I was happy he did, because his city shots are always wonderful, and I absolutely adore Paris.

Then, unfortunately, we cut to the present-day action. Owen Wilson did a fine job of playing Gil, who was really just Woody Allen playing himself, and of course Wilson was more attractive than Allen. Rachel McAdams, as his fiance, Inez, was gorgeous, but she was also completely shallow and cardboard, as cheap a shot as Allen has ever taken at a major character. Her father and mother were worse. At several points during the present-day scenes, I rose from my chair to leave, then sat again. I hated those scenes so much--their horrible emotional content, their cheap shots, the fact that they clearly conveyed that Wilson and McAdams would never have been together--that I could not understand why anyone had liked the film.

Fortunately, the journeys to the past began, and the interludes with Inez and family shrank, and then I was hooked.

Allen's take on the writer and artist scene of Paris in the '20s was exactly as mythical and overblown as our fantasies of it. He caught perfectly the popular view of that time, in which every night is a party full of great figures, with more great men and women always available in the restaurant around the corner. The past characters were, in a much more pleasant way, as cardboard as the present-day ones, but Allen's love for those great artists made them lovable for us.

In the end, I wished I could have cut McAdams and family and watched only Wilson's present-day search for himself and his budding romance, then focused on the past.

In the end, the movie was saying what Woody Allen so often says: great art, most of which is in the past, is what most nourishes us, and when we live in and of and for art, in our actions and most importantly our romances, then we are most alive.

Despite the early present-day scenes, on balance I have to recommend Midnight In Paris strongly.

Just plan to hate parts of it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The CD on repeat right now

is Jon McLaughlin's Forever If Ever. (You can listen to some cuts from it and learn more about McLaughlin here.) It is a strong album indeed, one that repays multiple plays.

It begins with this lovely tune.

Careful and regular readers may recall that I saw McLaughlin when he opened for Stephen Kelloog and the Sixers back on the first of October in Carrboro. The album ends with this song; the video is from the show I saw.

The sound quality for that fan-made video isn't very good, but you can still tell what a joy-filled performance it was.

They played this song in front of maybe seventy people. Seventy. Maybe.

Art you love is art you love, no matter how few or many other people also care about it. I don't know why this album didn't make any big noise last year, but I do know that it's big for me.

As artists, we have to accept that our audiences may not be as large as we'd like and still create the art we believe in. As fans, we have to support the artists whose work we love.

That's all we really can do.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A car game I lost

Driving home yesterday, we were discussing one of the recent fun fact games: finding the number-one hit the week you were born. (You can easily do so here.) Everyone else in the car had a good song, one you would know and remember.

I had this.

Really. The McGuire sisters? In an admittedly weak year for popular music, couldn't I at least have had Bill Haley & His Comets singing "Rock Around the Clock."

Well, I can have it here, and cleanse my ears in the process.

There, that's better.


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