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All-Star Chefs Dish on Sustainability, Swedish Cuisine and Cooking with Curiosity

Bonding on the beach with acclaimed chefs Eric Ripert, Dominique Crenn and Emma Bengstonn. 

Think of Cayman Cookout like spring break…only instead of college co-eds and beach balls, the world’s most celebrated chefs are cooking giant vats of paella barefoot on the beach for hundreds of well-fed on-lookers. Also it’s in the winter, technically, but when it’s 25 degrees and the sand is between your toes, distinguishing between seasons just feels pedantic.

The four-day festival is an intimate long weekend of foodie events—over-the-top champagne brunches, barefoot beachfront barbecue dance parties, and chef-vs-chef pétanque tournaments—where guests mingle happily with the who’s-who of Michelin star winners. We were lucky enough to be part of the scene this past January, and to get up close and personal with some of the headliners… including host Eric Ripert. The acclaimed Le Bernardin chef (and best friend of the late Anthony Bourdain) concocted the event 11 years ago, mostly out of the desire to hang with his culinary buds in paradise.

In between snacking on lobster tostadas from Emeril Lagasse and taking mojito-mixing lessons, we pulled up a beach chair next to some of America’s most interesting chefs—Ripert himself, Atelier Crenn‘s Dominique Crenn and Aquavit‘s Emma Bengston—to dish on Carribean cuisine, Bourdain’s legacy and dream breakfast menus.

Left to right: Dominique Crenn, Eric Ripert and Emma Bengstonn.

On José Andrés making a grand entrance to his Cayman Cookout beachside cooking demo every year:

Eric Ripert: “Every year José says next year I don’t want make a grand entrance, I just want to walk and that’s it—it’s too much, I don’t want to do it. I’m like, okay José, sure. Then we show him options [like this year’s submarine appearance] and then he’s like, ‘oh my god, I like that.’ He is very easy to tempt.”

On taking inspiration from Grand Cayman’s food scene:

Ripert: “Cayman is definitely coming a long way, I mean 20 years ago it was difficult to find some local products because everything was imported and nobody was thinking about it. Today, I’m so happy that we are with this event and the visibility that we create and with our daily work at the restaurant [Blue by Eric Ripert]. We were at the beginning of that change. It wasn’t only us, but we were at the beginning, because we were like, why bring frozen fish from Miami when fish is caught here? Why don’t we go to the fisherman, and now he comes to the hotel and deliver us. Why do we have to import some fruits that could be cultivated from this island? It’s something I am very happy to be part of – that movement. Twice a week they have a farmer market. Who thought of a farmer market in Cayman fifteen years ago?”

On cooking curiously:

Dominique Crenn: “I think that in life you have to be curious and you have to always ask questions. I wake up in the morning and I feel like I started cooking yesterday. I’m not getting bored at all. I’m curious about humanity, I’m curious about climate change, I’m curious about equality. I’m curious about how to… bring, give, a voice to people who don’t have a voice. I am fascinated on what is going on right now in Iraq. There’s those young students who are on school strike because of climate change. It’s amazing. I’m curious to all of that.”

On sustainability and seafood:

Ripert: “We do not serve species that are on the verge of disappearance or stressed. We serve only sustainable seafood and that’s important to us and we see more and more restaurateur and chefs being inspired to do the same and not only with the seafood but sustainability with the land and sustainability in general.”

Chef Eric Ripert with executive editor Stacey McLachlan (and a pina colada, of course.)

On how the festival has evolved in its decade-plus history:

Ripert: “When we started we didn’t really know where we were going, but what was amazing and what we loved at that time, our children were very young—now they are fifteen, seventeen, eighteen—were on the beach having fun and we were playing with them and then it was. ‘hey it’s time for your class,’ oh, sure I’m going…and then we were coming back and swimming in ocean and we were gathering with the families and having a big party and people participating in the festival were joining us. The festival has grown but we have kept that spirit of  intimacy. Also, it’s a very relaxed festival and it’s not too much stress going on. I mean, of course when you have to be the host or you have to cook a meal you have to be focused on what you’re doing, but for the chefs it’s not stressful it’s just part of our daily life. It’s called focus.”

On Anthony Bourdain’s memory:

Ripert: “Anthony was here with us for eleven years and he enjoyed very much obviously the Cayman Cookout because he did come for eleven festivals. But we are having a great time, and yes we miss him, but at the same time, we are definitely celebrating Anthony as a friend and Anthony as a professional and Anthony’s legacy.”

On being an accidental ambassador for Swedish cuisine:

Emma Bengstonn: “I think a lot of people are focusing on Noma and what he is doing is great, but he is also pushing everything so far. No, we don’t need raw ants and bark everyday, so I think that’s like the most misinterpreted thing for Swedish cuisine. I think also that a lot of people are confused with this whole thing when it comes to New Nordic; for me, it’s about salt and sugar and acid. Our flavors are very, very elevated, the only thing that’s not in our cuisine is the spice and the heat. But when it comes to everything else, we’re utilizing a lot of bitterness as well and I think it’s just very extreme in that kind of way. Everyone I know in Sweden nowadays is travelling with salt in their purse. It’s just the way our DNA is formed from our survival-focused way of cooking, with all the grinding and curing, and drying. Everything was salted back in the day. It’s the only thing we had. Surrounded by oceans and salt, that was the best way of preserving food. So like the South Americans have the tolerance to spice, we have it to salt.

Swedish cuisine has changed so much so when it comes to street food. You grew up with hot dog, mashed potatoes, mustard, but Sweden is so influenced by the world, from the ships coming in. So just a couple years ago they renamed our national dish as pizza. Curry came around in the ’80s as well. There is a sushi restaurant in every corner. Like the bodegas are everywhere in New York, we have sushi restaurants, so it’s actually hard when you go to Sweden to find a restaurant that serves Swedish cuisine. I remember growing up it was 60,000 people and 60 pizzerias. There was the biggest section in the phone book was pizzeria.”

On cooking trends:

Ripert: “What makes me happy is people have much more awareness of what they are eating, especially the young generation. Processed food is not as prominent as it used to be. Sustainability is important, but also people want to eat well and if they have choice between something that is organic and something that is not, very often now we start to see that they make the right choice, because who wants to give to his family pesticides, GMO, food or antibiotics and growing hormones in eggs, vegetables, and meat and milk? We are starting to see that trend of supporting the local farmers as well, more and more. Of course the winter is difficult for the north, but we see markets everywhere and it’s growing and I don’t think that trend will fail.”

On the changing restaurant industry:

Bengstonn: “I feel like everyone is in such a rush now a days. I know it started to change around when I got situated in the restaurant industry, but I think one of the reasons why we are so short staff and don’t have enough cooks and things like that, is because new people come out of school and they work for a year and then they need to be sous chef and then within two years they are opening their own restaurant and you’re like wait, wait, wait, that’s not how it works. Sure, anyone can run a restaurant now, they just need some financial backup and kind of know how to cook and they will survive, two, three, four, five years, whatever. But it kind of ruins the chain [of command], you know. I’ve always felt like your supposed to come out, work, put your head down. You work for free, maybe six months or a year to get your foot in the door. Then you grind, you learn and maybe if you’re lucky, within five or six years you get a sous chef position. But now, within a year, people go, ‘I don’t know if I have a future here because you already have a sous chef.’ But like, you haven’t really been here for a year, like do you even know what it takes to be a sous chef? So yeah, that’s very frustrating.

I think we are going to get to that point where a lot of things crash. The wages are going up, and the salaries are going up, which is a mixed feeling; I love cooks can actually have a decent living but there’s a part of me that dreads it because I can’t employ as many as I want to. The cook in me will always go like yes, do it, it’s equal rights, but I don’t think the general public is aware of it yet. They might fight for everyone to get equal pay but they don’t want to pay. So I think we are going to see a lot of upper-class restaurants maybe dropping out, having to close and unfortunately a lot of fake cuisine coming up. Restaurant that are getting stuff out of cans and boxes. I’m afraid that will be a version of dealing with it. Then the middle-class restaurant who actually put the effort to finding the organic and local and taking care of that, they are going to have to raise their prices and I think they are going to struggle. I think everyone is going to struggle. I’m trying to actually go out and eat to more of those places just to support it and give another feeding mouth. Even though I know I can just cook at home.”

On what people get wrong about cooking seafood:

Ripert: “Well, very often they don’t have access to fresh seafood and they don’t know what is fresh and what is not fresh. Although it is very basic, when it smells like fish…it’s too late. Fish shouldn’t be fishy, so shopping is a big part of the process. Then very often overcooking the fish and putting way too many ingredients in the plate that destroys the delicacy of the main ingredients—which is the seafood. “

On food and politics:

Crenn: “I think eating is an act of activism. Food is political, because it affect so many things. Food affects equality, food affects economy, food affects gender. I was listening to this amazing women do a TED talk and she was talking about equality and the connection between equality for women and young girl and climate change. If we rebalance who is getting education, who is farming, it changes the power of the economy, it will rebalance everything.”

On maintaining a media presence as a chef:

Emma Bengstonn: “You have such a great advantage if you know how to speak and behave [in the spotlight]. I was a little against it in the beginning, but in New York City the competition is so massive. There are restaurants popping up every single day. If you don’t stand out, people will forget about you. It’s kind of just the way it is now. I try travelling a lot to spread the world. I think, a lot of people have the misconceptions and they kind of stuck in twenty years past when Marcus Jernmark was there and they go like, yeah, been there done that. A lot of those really high-end restaurants, if you don’t swim in money, you go to one place once then you move on because the list is so long. So I’m trying to get out there and you know even though [Jernmark] is great, he’s not there anymore, a lot of things have happened. It’s a whole new place, it’s a whole new deal, get your ass back into the restaurant.”

On their perfect food day:

Ripert: “I don’t see a meal without a glass of wine. Keep it simple. I don’t need to eat complicated food. I don’t like to cook complicated food. It doesn’t have to be rich.”

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