I'm not intimately familiar with the symptoms of heat stroke, but as I see celebrity chef José Andrés emerge from the Caribbean Sea in a yellow submarine and pull right up onto the beach in front of the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, I briefly wonder if I should seek medical attention.

It turns out, though, that this sort of thing is just business as usual at Cayman Cookout. Think of the food festival like spring break… only instead of college co-eds and beach balls, it’s four days of rubbing elbows with culinary all-stars and feasting like a king. (Also, it’s in the winter, technically, but when it’s 25 degrees with a 100-percent chance of palm trees, distinguishing between seasons just feels pedantic.)

“Last year José arrived on a water jet pack,” a gleeful festival attendee whispers to his companion as the pair take identical videos of the event with their phones.

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foodAVABLU / Ryan Forbes

The exuberant Spanish chef has been a staple at the Caribbean food festival since its inception in 2008, and his annual paella-on-the-beach kickoff has a reputation as a real party-starter, it seems. After Andrés sprays the crowd with champagne and climbs out of the sub (in his chef whites, obviously), he proceeds to perform a spirited one-man show as his assistants scramble to cook a giant vat of paella to feed 200 people in under 60 minutes. His vibe is somewhere between Spanish Jay Leno and tent revival preacher, switching between uninhibited one-liners (“You should marry a conch—they’re bisexual and dance in the heat!”) and earnest meditations on the late Anthony Bourdain (“I saw a seahorse when I was snorkelling and I know it was his spirit!”). The man’s a born entertainer. He’s also barefoot in the sand, which I’m not sure is FoodSafe, but no one seems to mind. 

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Later that day, I find myself shoeless, too, but to be fair, there’s an official “shoe valet” at the Barefoot Barbecue event, so it seems rude to keep them on. Here, on another silky, white sand beach (it turns out Grand Cayman is lousy with ’em), I experience a second surreal moment as I come face to face with Eric Ripert, the festival’s founder, Bourdain’s best friend and arguably the greatest seafood chef in the world. (His Le Bernardin was named the best restaurant in the world by La Liste in 2018 and has been a staple on the World’s 50 Best for years.)

foodNigel ParryRipert is running one of the dozen-plus food stations that line the waterfront, prepping caught-that-day prawns on a bed of Spanish-style squid ink pasta; I’m holding two glasses of champagne and also wearing a plastic poncho because we’re in the middle of a warm tropical storm that has dampened my hair but not the festive vibe. Over the ocean, a man in water-jet boots and a neon bodysuit is dancing in the sky to Coldplay. It feels less like I’m being served dinner by a beloved culinary genius and more like we’re just two friends at some sort of enchanted beach rave. It’s pretty special (and, yeah, the otherworldly shrimp is, too).

This intimacy—watching Ripert work his magic at the grill, running into Chef Dominique Crenn in the elevator—is part of the appeal of Cookout, from the casual beachfront workshops to the gleefully over-the-top, $300-a-head, bottomless Moët finale brunch. “It’s a very relaxed festival. We chefs are on the beach playing with our kids, and then it’s like, ‘Hey, it’s time for your class,’ and you go… and then you come back and swim in the ocean and have a big party, and all the people in the festival join us,’ Ripert tells me later that week, piña colada in hand, iguanas darting around his feet.

cayman cookoutcayman cookout 2019Most of my Cookout comrades are repeat guests, returning year after year. Some splurge on all-access passes, others pick a few key events and spend the rest of the time digesting by the expansive pool. In between the multi-course sit-down dinners and grand tastings, cooking demos take place under big white tents on the beach (for submarine accessibility, I can only assume?) though they function more as celebrity chef talk shows than hands-on lessons. Guests aren’t taking feverish notes: they’re happy to be sipping akvavit with the Caribbean breeze ruffling their hair as Swedish culinary darling Emma Bengtsson (of New York’s Aquavit) shows off her pickling skills.

Sometimes the events are barely about food at all. Anthony Bourdain’s memory is everywhere here, but explicitly so in the mid-afternoon “Late Night Show,” which features Andrés, Ripert and food journalist Andrew Zimmern swapping stories about the late chef and TV host. On another day, the itinerary simply lists a pétanque tournament. Observers lounge happily, lazily, in the sun, drinking cocktails out of coconuts as Ripert and Daniel Boulud get into a playful argument over boules.   

It’s surprising, in a way, that an event so luxurious—tickets are not exactly inexpensive—can feel so down-to-earth and laid-back. But I suppose it’s difficult to feel anything but chill when you’re this well fed, barefoot in the sand and, essentially, on a tropical vacation with a champagne-spewing, submarine-driving culinary legend.

Tickets for Cayman Cookout 2020 (January 15-20) are on sale now at caymancookout.com