An Unforgettable Experience at the Cayman Cookout
As a Ritz-Carlton Platinum Elite member, I'd heard of the Cayman Cookout before. It's been going on for eight years now and has really become one of the most exclusive events in the Caribbean. So, naturally, I was dying to try it.
The Cayman Cookout is a five-day culinary extravaganza, and it's really unrivaled in terms of its reputation as a gastronomic experience in paradise. This year, the event took place from January 14 to 18 and was hosted in part by the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and led by Eric Ripert, renowned chef and co-owner of Le Bernadin in New York and creator of Blue at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. The event featured several other acclaimed chefs, sommeliers and mixologists, including Anthony Bourdain, Jose Andres and more. When I saw when it was going to be and who was going to be there, I was downright determined to attend.
I was determined to attend because snagging tickets to this event can be nearly impossible. As soon as tickets go available online they sell out within minutes, so keep that in mind if you want to attend this event next year. However, if you're a Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card holder, you'll have special access to cardholder-exclusive events at the Cookout.
I decided to book a package for the event using my Ritz card. The deal with the package is that you get to stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, as well as have access to scheduled events and cardmember-only events. Cardmember-only events include some really neat experiences, including pre-dinner cocktails on the terrace of the Blue (Eric Ripert's restaurant at the Ritz), as well as a private dinner with Ripert and Michael Mina, a Michelin-starred chef and James Beard Foundation award winner. There are also epicurean demonstrations you can select to purchase individually, and I ended up choosing to attend several more of those in addition to the scheduled and cardmember-only events.
The package I booked included one Club Level oceanfront room, as well as access to the many cardmember-only events. The total for my package was $5,500, whereas a Club resort view room during the same period was starting at $1,299 per night and a Club oceanfront was starting at $1,699 per night. I was there from Thursday until Monday, so my total for four nights would have come to around $6,800 — and that's not including any of the package events! So, it made the most sense for me to go ahead with the package. Of course, I booked using my Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card so I would earn 5 points per dollar at participating Ritz-Carlton hotels.
To get to Grand Cayman, I made use of one of the most lucrative awards redemptions in the airline industry — British Airways' 4,500 Avios short-haul flights. Unfortunately, this redemption ended as of February 2, so I wanted to be sure to use it before it went away — even if it meant flying coach (gasp!). I only spent 9,000 Avios and $86 for a round-trip flight from Miami to Grand Cayman — you really can't beat that!
Once I purchased my package, I was so excited to finally get down to Grand Cayman, which happened to be the same place where my points and miles hobby started exactly 20 years ago. Although I had been to the island before and it holds a special place in my heart, I had never stayed at the Ritz-Carlton. Every time I had gone with my family, we would either rent a house, or once or twice we stayed at a Marriott right along the Seven Mile Beach, which is the main hub close to where the cruise ships dock. However, this time I was excited to stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman (full review coming soon!) as part of my Cayman Cookout package.
To say I had a great time during those five days is an understatement. First off, I met some amazing people, including many Ritz-Carlton cardholders from across the country — a lot of really interesting people whom I became close with during my stay. And, I also got to sit down with Marriott's VP of Global Loyalty Thom Kozik to ask him about the upcoming Starwood-Marriott merger and what that means for both Marriott Rewards and SPG members.
The namesake event, the actual Cayman Cookout, couldn't have been more fun. After having experienced it first hand, I can see why organizers cap the attendance at such a small number — and, even more, why tickets sell out so quickly. Even though the event has been going on for eight years, they really keep it small to make it a more personal and enjoyable time for everyone in attendance. There are some food festivals that have a reputation for making you wait in line for an hour for a hamburger — this is the complete opposite experience. Most of the individual events are capped at 100 people or fewer, and it's an overall well-run and organized five days in paradise.
Although the cooking and the food itself were definite highlights, it's really more interactive than that. The chefs are there and they really come into the crowd, they get peoples' feedback and it's a great chance to be able to interact with them. When I attended Jose Andres' lobster paella event, Andres himself came to the beach by boat while being chased by pirates. I mean, there was never a dull moment — half of the chefs themselves were like comedians.
It was a tented event right on the beach, featuring a giant lobster paella as the main course. And while it was delicious, it was extremely hot under that tent with all the other attendees. I walked away smelling like a smoky mesquite lobster, which I'm not totally complaining about.
This was one of the largest events of Cayman Cookout — and it sure didn't disappoint. Everything from the food to the entertainment to the atmosphere was phenomenal. It was nice to be in a casual and comfortable environment on the beach surrounded by great people.
Although the lobster paella event was great, Saturday was really the highlight of the entire five-day event for me. During the day, we took to the sea. We boarded a catamaran and sailed across the North Sound to one of the most famous snorkeling areas on the island — Stingray City.
I loved being here. It really reminded me of when I used to come here with my family as a child. Snorkeling with the stingrays was just as neat as I remembered it to be.
Oh yeah, the water itself was pretty beautiful, too.
But, the highlight of the day was later that night. After I got back to my beautiful room, showered and got ready, Ritz cardholders were treated to a very special meal — a pre-dinner cocktail and private dinner with Eric Ripert and Michael Mina at Ripert's restaurant in the Ritz, Blue. It was Mina's Middle Eastern spin and Ripert's classic French styles combined to create this amazing American dinner — it was truly out of this world.
But the Cayman Cookout wasn't solely about the events and meeting with these world famous chefs, but what also made it so special were the gifts we were showered with. Just for attending as a Ritz cardholder, the property did everything in its power to make this a memorable event. Just about every night throughout my stay when I would come back to my room, there would be a gift — and not just any gift like a box of chocolates, but things like a Breville Juicer, a bottle of Cayman's own Seven Fathoms rum and a signed cutting board from Jose Andres and Eric Ripert, among others.
While my four nights at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and my entire experience at the Cayman Cookout were amazing, what really made the trip was the interaction between attendees, as well as the ability to interact with the celebrity chefs. It's not just that the chefs are there, but they're so accessible — they're there, they're with their families and they're having a blast just like you are. It's a really neat atmosphere.
All in all, I can't really say I had one negative experience at the Cayman Cookout — maybe that I came out of the lobster paella smelling like lobster mesquite, but I wouldn't necessarily call that a negative. I'll definitely be back at the Cayman Cookout next year — that is, if the packages don't sell out before I can get one!