Cayman’s Cook-Off Champions

The Bon Vivant Cook-Off competition has become one of the highlights of the highly-anticipated Cayman Cookout brunch.

Held in January at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, the annual amateur chef competition is judged by award-winning chefs Daniel Boulud, Rainer Zinngrebe, Eric Ripert and culinary TV personality and author Anthony Bourdain.

This year’s winners were husband and wife team Gina Connolly and Phil Cassingham, who acted as sous chef on the day. Originally from Mexico and England respectively, the duo’s winning dish was lionfish steamed in banana leaves with red wine and herbs served with a pineapple coconut sauce and garnished with seasoning peppers and cilantro, along with rice with pigeon peas, fried plantains and mango salsa with avocado marinated in sour orange.

Flava met with Gina to learn more about the couple’s passion for cooking.

Why did you decide to enter the competition?

“We entered the competition for fun and never expected to go this far. We both like to do things together and cooking is something that we are really passionate about and enjoy. We have been cooking together for the past five years and I believe that was key to our success in the competition; we both know how to work together in the kitchen.”

How did you plan for the big day?

“We had a plan from the beginning of who would do what during the competition to avoid any confusion. We had practiced so many times that we knew exactly what each of us would be doing at precisely what minute and what needed to be done in order to finish on time. We were, however, very nervous, especially when Phil cut his thumb in the first minute. Being judged by celebrity chefs also added extra pressure, as we knew how knowledgeable they are.”

What was the inspiration behind your winning dish?

“We were in Mexico last Christmas and this inspired us to combine Mexican and Caribbean flavors together in one dish. We also wanted to incorporate lionfish into our menu as we both really enjoy cooking this fish.”

Have you always been a passionate cook?

“Yes, we both love cooking. We are always learning and trying new recipes from books, family recipes, the Cooking Channel, and through trial and error. We almost always cook at home together, at least five days a week, and often try something new, a recipe from a culinary magazine or recipe book perhaps. We would both love to cook professionally one day.”

When you are not cooking at home, do you have a favorite restaurant?

“We don’t really have a favorite; Cayman has too many good restaurants to just choose one. There is such a wide variety for such a small island, which offers fantastic options to try new flavors and cuisine styles. Cayman has such a great culinary scene, there is always something new to try.”

What is your top culinary tip?

“Never be afraid to try something new. Try to bring out something different on the table using the same ingredients in a different way, and lastly, lots of love and passion while cooking!”