If ever we needed a reminder of how well we do things here in the Cayman Islands, January is the month to open our eyes, smack our lips and take a good look around us. Cayman Cookout reads like a who’s who of modern day gastronomic excellence.
If there is a better event anywhere in the world showcasing such an extraordinary melting pot of talent I have yet to come across one. It just gets better and better and this year will be no exception thanks to the professionalism of not only Eric Ripert and the fantastic group of chefs and sommeliers that he somehow persuades to come and work their culinary magic here on Grand Cayman, but also to everyone involved in our very own restaurant community.
Sometimes we don’t always appreciate what lies under our noses, and I strongly believe that our culinary offering is a prime example. We are rightly proud of our diving and beaches and arguably they are among the best in the world, but we still have to beat off some stiff competition from far and wide. But ask yourself this: are there any Caribbean countries that can come even close to Cayman for sheer quality and choice of dining experience?
Talk about being spoilt for choice; as residents we could eat out every day of the year and we would barely need to visit the same establishment twice, so it follows that any epicure who visits Cayman for any length of time, from a weekend to a fortnight, must consider themselves blessed – no matter where in the world they hail from.
Indeed, we hear repeatedly that food is becoming a highly influential factor in the decision making process for our visitors from both North American and Europe. In the US the very fact that there is such a huge choice for all ages is a significant influence on the family holiday market – those of us with children can relate to the frustrations of trying to find a restaurant that truly understands the term ‘child-friendly’ while away on holiday – and it has even started to cut serious ice in the UK where you might think that a decent meal was perhaps a little way down the priority list after our other notable attributes such as sunshine and diving.
London is after all developing a pretty hot reputation as one of the gourmet cities in the world – supposedly, I hear, you can get a better meal in the British capital than you can in Paris. So therefore it goes without saying that the great and the good who choose Cayman for their holiday will want their dining experiences to live up to our reputation of having, as is widely published in the media, one of the highest standards of living in the world.
A recent survey by the Association of British Travel Agents discovered that in the current economic downturn Brits would rather cut back on other leisure activities at home including eating out before they cut back on a vacation – so making sure that their holiday taste-buds are well and truly tingled while here becomes even more important. And I am confident to state that in this regard, we do not disappoint and I know my international country managers will back me up when I say that people come back to Cayman based on the quality of food that they have eaten here – and I refer not only to the restaurants of international standing, but also to the local eateries where the cracked conch will be as authentic and tasty as you will find anywhere, with service to match.
Here’s an impressive fact to mull over. Did you know that, at latest count, Tripadvisor has no fewer than 223 Cayman Islands restaurants being reviewed online, and you would have to search hard to find one that has less than four and a half or five stars. No wonder we are referred to as the culinary capital of the Caribbean.
But the culinary experience here on Cayman runs much deeper than the variety and wealth of restaurants to choose from, as exceptional as they may be. The provenance of food we eat, and especially the food that we expect to be served in reputable dining establishments, is fast becoming as important as the quality of the ingredients. No mean feat for an island whose natural resources hardly lend themselves to farming.
Yet even in this regard we can hold our heads up, thanks in no small part to the passion shown by our local producers and restaurateurs. Cayman Islanders have a tradition of hardiness and independence of spirit, and local suppliers who studiously manufacturer such staples as pepper jelly, sea salt or the world renowned Tortuga rum cake which originated in the Cayman Islands – are prime examples of this singularly Caymanian trait.
The Farmers’ Market and Fish Market are a rich part of our culture and day to day lives, and have been for a considerable time – but now they are justly becoming tourism attractions in their own right.
Thanks to commendable initiatives around the islands, from Camana Bay’s exceptional events to the ongoing efforts by our dive lodges to manage the lionfish invasion, we have woven our culture into many different aspects of the tourism experience. Our visitors can now participate in a hugely valuable and frankly exciting activity to conserve our reefs that ends up being pan fried in butter, and served as a delicious fish of the day, worthy of any Masterchef programme. Lionfish can even be seen on our supermarket shelves – lest we forget the many visitors who choose to self-cater.
Even our local brews – Caybrew and its White Tip beer, from which every sale contributes to shark conservation, Tortuga Rum and the most recent to market Seven Fathoms Rum are developing global reputations, for not only their taste but for the dedication and passion that has gone into their creation. Not forgetting the Sister Islands.
If Cayman is the culinary capital of the Caribbean then surely Little Cayman’s Gladys Howard is royalty; an island legend whose reputation for nightly dinner parties and gourmet delectation spreads far and wide and brings guests back year upon year to feast on her foraged green papaya salad, locally caught fish a la Pirates Point, and her famous Friday night sushi extravaganza.
Such is the enormity of its contribution that it is truly impossible to put a value on the publicity and word of mouth that an event like Cayman Cookout and its various spin-offs bring to our tourism industry. The beauty is that with such a robust product at the back end – the bank of restaurants, chefs, producers and the strength of the entire community behind it – that it is an entirely sustainable value that will keep on delivering quality, high end tourism to our country.
Given that I am fortunate enough to experience a wide variety of restaurant establishments through the nature of my job here at the Department of Tourism, I am probably slightly biased.
However, given that our international country managers also understand the strategic importance we have placed on this niche from a global perspective, and the fact that they are actively promoting the Cayman Islands culinary delights as a key element of differentiation, I reached out to them to ensure that this perspective still held true. Without fail they all identified our culinary prowess as a major point of distinction over our competitors.
The Department of Tourism in Canada has taken Cayman’s culinary scene right to the heart of its event-focused programme with customised events such as the recent ‘Ultimate Cayman Islands Dinner Event” staged at an Oakville Ontario restaurant with past and present Cookout celebrity chefs Paul Rogalski and Dale Mackay put under the spotlight. The event was a sell out and the celebrity line up blended food and fashion with a Tosca Delfino Swim fashion show featuring her Cayman Islands Signature collection.
Donald McDougall who runs the European office of the Department of Tourism referred me straight to the blog of international foodie and TV broadcaster Varun Sharma of International Luxury Travel and Varun’s Culinary Travels – which is both feared and adored in equal parts by top hoteliers around the world. Varun visited Grand Cayman in late January 2012 for his Culinary Travels show, and while here he reported in detail on his many and varied experiences – in which few stones were left unturned – on his daily blog.
His post on Tuesday 31 January reads: “I have to say that Grand Cayman has fast become my favourite island in the Caribbean!… I would be tempted to move here!” High praise indeed.
Last but not least in rounding out the comments, Tom Ludington, General Manager of DOT’s US operations recalled the Cayman Islands is bringing Caymanian cuisine to New York City on 23 October, 2012 with an exclusive dinner at Kitchen NYC, in collaboration with Snooth.com, a wine-focused social networking website.
The dinner featured a five-course menu, exquisitely prepared by Executive Chef Niven Patel from Grand Cayman’s renowned Brasserie restaurant, and was accompanied by wine pairings from Snooth Editor-In-Chief, Gregory Dal Piaz. The mouth-watering event – which was attended by influential New York food and wine bloggers – allowed diners to experience dishes featuring the flavours of the Cayman Islands, infused with elements of our culture, while at the same time showcasing our commitment to sustainability.
Whichever way you look at it, these are the kind of win, win, win situations that justifiably keep our Islands in the top spot as a Caribbean Culinary Capital…. Even if I do say so myself!