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Gourmet Guide to Caribbean Food Events

Foods and beverages are defining characteristics of the Caribbean that any traveler in the region can explore and savor on any visit.

By Hal Peat and Paul Mermelstein

A restaurant experience, a private villa dinner, or any of the casual lunch or dinner stops you make on your way can all provide you some examples of what locals use as staples in their cooking and how they prepare their dishes.

Another way to really expand your culinary adventures both in the local food experience and beyond is by timing your itinerary around one of the food festivals that have emerged around the region. The great aspect of these is that you don't have to be a culinary expert, or seasoned connoisseur of wines or other beverage – just bring along your enthusiasm and taste for learning from the top chefs and other pros who will share their knowledge with you at seminars, cooking sessions or tastings.

Barbados

While Barbados has long been a magnet for sports and beach lovers, nowadays it is also catching the eye of food enthusiasts thanks to the recent arrival of the Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival, now in its second year. The four-day event for 2011 runs from November 18 – 21, is hosted by Travel + Leisure's Features Director & Special Correspondent Nilou Motamed, and includes a wide variety of chef demonstrations, tasting events and interactive sessions. Culinary masters at this year's events include Tom Colicchio, Marcus Samuelsson, Ming Tsai along with Barbadian culinary sensation, "The Rhum Chef" Paul Yellin as well as Food & Wine wine expert Anthony Giglio. International chefs include Mark McEwan and Tom Brodi of Canada, Bruno Loubet from the U.K. and Brazilian chef Vitor Gomes.

Some of the event highlights to consider if you attend this year's festival: n authentic Bajan lunch expertly prepared at a historic plantation house hosted by Travel + Leisure's Nilou Motamed; a Bajan style fiesta while Chef Paul Yellin demonstrates how to prepare local dishes kids can take part in their own interactive cooking demonstration; Colicchio, Ming Tsai, Marcus Samuelsson, Bruno Loubet and Mark McEwan showcase their skills using special cooking techniques amidst intimate settings at some of Barbados' leading hotels and restaurants; wine expert Anthony Giglio shares tips on entertaining along with his favorite holiday wines for pairing; and chef Tom Colicchio brings his creativity and innovative culinary style to the gorgeous seaside setting at The Cliff restaurant for an evening amidst candlelit conversation, sumptuous cuisine, crashing waves and a panoramic view of the Caribbean.

Where to stay: getting around Barbados is an efficient affair, and events are spread out, so take your pick from any of the participating upscale hotels of the Barbados Hotel & Tourism Association such as Mango Bay, Accra Beach Hotel & Resort, Fairmont Royal Pavilion, Tamarind by Elegant Hotels, Sandy Lane (location of some events) or The Crane. For a full schedule of events and information on purchasing festival tickets, visit the official website.

Grand Cayman, The Cayman Islands

The relatively small and flat terrains that make up the Cayman Islands are no handicap to locals having an established flair for preparing great recipes of their own at Grand Cayman's finer restaurants and hotels. Seafoods are a natural main staple of many dishes given the lesser presence of agrarian produce, but the inventiveness of Cayman cuisine is on display nowadays during the annual Cayman Culinary Month, the centerpiece of which is the Cayman Cookout, now in its fourth year and next scheduled for January 12-15, 2012. This epicurean weekend will once again be hosted by celebrity chef Eric Ripert, creator of acclaimed Grand Cayman restaurant, Blue, and sponsored by the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, and Food & Wine magazine.

Guests are treated to fine fare and also to personal encounters with participating world-class chefs and sommeliers which in addition to host Eric Ripert, will include culinary masters Anthony Bourdain, Jose Andrés, April Bloomfield, François Payard, Richard Blais, Paul Rogalski, Food & Wine wine and spirits expert Ray Isle and Le Bernardin's master sommelier Aldo Sohm. Other notable attendees will include Food & Wine's Dana Cowin and Gail Simmons. Some of Cayman Cookout's 2012 events will include:

• Chefs Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain revealing all their kitchen secrets in a tell-all session.

• A multi-course dinner at Camana Bay's top restaurants with an extensive dessert buffet by famed pastry chef, Francois Payard.

• A casual Caymanian beach party with epicurean spreads from Cayman Cookout's top chefs at popular bar and lounge, Tiki Beach.

• A Top Chef reunion with celebrity judge Gail Simmons and Top Chef Masters finalist Richard Blais.

• An extraordinary Cayman Cookout Gala Dinner, the highlight of the weekend – a seven course meal prepared by the weekend's celebrated chefs.

Where to stay: event sponsor The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman will be the ideal place to access most events or travel to other event locations from. Additional events will be held throughout the weekend and announced closer to the date, so stay updated by checking the official Cayman Cookout site.

Puerto Rico

There probably is no other island in the Caribbean that celebrates the many worlds of food and beverages in quite so many ways than Puerto Rico manages to do. Dining in the capital you can encounter both the traditional criollo cuisine, the nuevo latino cuisine, or the wider culinary influences that form part of Puerto Rican urban life today, while a stop-off at a small town or countryside restaurant brings you in close contact with local produce brought straight to the kitchen and your plate. But aside from that, Puerto Rico has become host to a collection of culinary happenings that present both island, regional and international creativity.

Saborea Puerto Rico – Happening each spring, this festival along San Juan's Escambrón Beach brings together a changing kaleidoscope of local and international culinary personalities, diverse activities, and tastings from some of the island's leading restaurants, rums and more. Scheduled next for the weekend of April 13-15, 2012, Saborea Puerto Rico will happen on Blue Flag beach as dozens of restaurants and chefs from around the world demonstrate their cooking specialties. Local celebrity chefs such as Robert Treviño and Giovanna Huyke serve up samplings of the Puerto Rican dishes that have put the island on the culinary map, while chefs and culinary personalities from the Food Network and the Cooking Channel also contribute to the tastings and demonstrations.

Each day, the Saborea Puerto Rico Village becomes the centerpoint for savoring samples from the island's top restaurants, while demo kitchens provide the opportunity to learn the techniques and ingredients used to prepare recipes the way that local and visiting experts favor. Over the past four years, the festival has welcomed such gastronomic luminaries as Chopped host Ted Allen, Robert Irvine of Restaurant Impossible, restaurateur Marc Forgione, and also Kegan Geerard, Cat Kora, Ingrid Hoffman, Anne Burell, and Claire Robinson.

Where to stay: recent host hotels for the event have included Caribe Hilton, Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza, Verdanza Hotel, and Radisson Ambassador Plaza Hotel. For upcoming festival details and bookings, check the Saborea Puerto Rico website.

Condado Food Festival - It's a bi-annual event taking place once in the spring and again in the fall along trendy Ashford Avenue in the Condado district of San Juan that has its own dedicated following. The audience grows with each event as new visitors discover the pleasurable mix of a food dedicated travel experience set amidst chic entertainment, top hotels and the adjacent shoreline of one of the Puerto Rican capital's fashionable areas. But it's the imaginative line-up of local restaurants, chefs and other culinary experts that remains the key ingredient: the most recent 2011 event featured dining spots such as Ambassador Bar & Grill – based at the Radisson Ambassador Hotel; Bar Gitano – Spanish influenced tapas restaurant from chef Roberto Treviño ; B de Burro – Mexican cuisine; Di Parma – featuring Northen Italian cuisine and located near Ventana del Mar; Di Zucchero – Italian cuisine; El Barril – Bar /restaurant from chef Treviño ; East – Japanese; Tijuana Bar & Grill – Mexican cuisine; Waiters – Puerto Rican cuisine; Yerba Buena – Puerto Rican/Cuban influenced cuisine. The festival also features lives music at various locations along Ashford Avenue and surrounding areas

Where to stay: Being local to the Condado district allows you to walk in a few minutes to most of this festival, so consider leading hotels here such as Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza, La Concha, a Renaissance Resort, or you can also be nearby in the Isla Verde district where there are more high-end resorts still in easy driving distance.

SoFo Culinary Fest – The name is an abbreviation of the area it takes place, South Fortaleza street in Old San Juan. Again, this is a twice yearly event happening once in July and again in December. More than 40 restaurants and cafes in this historic district of the capital take part in a weekend gastronomic celebration which sees many leading dining hot spots opening their doors to tasting and samplings, outdoor dining and in the evenings, live music also to be enjoyed. Established and more recent dining arrivals to watch out for during this two-day event include: Aguaviva – Latino-Carribean; Parrot Club – Nuevo Latino; Dragonfly – Asian and Latin; or Fogata Latino Bar & Grill – Nuevo Latino at the Sheraton Old San Juan.

Where to stay: A main ingredient here is the pleasure of walking in Old San Juan – so any of its smaller boutique or larger hotels should work well to access SoFo. Among the latter, there is the very charming and nearby El Convento or the classic Sheraton Old San Juan.

St. Croix, USVI

Small in size, St. Croix nevertheless is both distinct in its foods and cosmopolitan in what it has to offer the traveling foodie. This all comes together annually at the popular St. Croix Food & Wine Experience, when celebrity chefs, wine-makers and culinary leading lights converge on this Virgin Island each year in the spring for a week-long celebration and exploration of the worlds of food and wine. Happening next over April 17-22, 2012, the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience is also a fundraising affair that includes gourmet dinners, an island-wide culinary competition with wine tastings from celebrated vintners, wine seminars and more. Guest chefs for the upcoming event include Govind Armstrong, Graham Elliot, Howie Kleinberg, Orlando Santos, Ana Sortun, Roberto Trevino and Sue Zemanick. Winemakers will be announced in February 2012.

Some of the individual event highlights to look forward to in 2012 will include:

Grand Gourmet Vintner Dinner – held at Tutto Bene restaurant, this largest of the week's wine dinners pairs a celebrity chef with a renowned wine maker with outstanding results.

Food Fight – Celebrity and island chefs team up to compete in a hilarious series of challenges that has had past competitors swimming in the ocean, cracking conch and answering quirky culinary questions. Held at Eat@CaneBay, a popular beach bar and restaurant.

Wine Seminars – Visiting vintners and wine experts in seminars for both the trade and wine aficionados.

Wine Dinners – Three local restaurants support the week by offering spectacular wine dinners featuring a special menu, guest vintner and great entertainment.

A Taste of St. Croix – The event that started the entire program is A Taste of St. Croix, a one-night event held at a beachside resort where local restaurants along with winemakers, rum distilleries and breweries all provide attendees with samplings of their best creations. Visiting celebrity chefs, winemakers and VIP's are the judges.

Also on the program: Cork & Fork dinners - an elegant dining experience with a visiting celebrity chef; Sunset BBQ - held at historic Fort Fredrik during Sunset Jazz, this event features three bars, two grilling stations, a dessert station and room to roam and dance; Kids Cooking chefs teach early healthy and fun cooking to children; Wine in the Warehouse – a Saturday night of live music, wine tastings, cocktail samplings, small bites at the warehouse of a local wine distributor; and Cuisine on The Green – held at Carambola Golf Course, a fun tournament with bites and booze at the tees. Non-golfers are invited to samples the tastings via a golf-cart tour.

Where to stay: Located near the eastern end of the island, the Divi Carina Bay Beach Resort hosts Taste of St. Croix. Check the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience site for final event details.




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