Turkey legs and Mickey pops may rule the Magic Kingdom, but at Disney's Flavor Lab - a test-kitchen-meets-food-wonderland - culinary pros are dreaming up new dishes that redefine theme park food.
One question's been plaguing Disney's executive pastry chef for the past four years. Whether Stefan Riemer's testing packaging designs for his chocolate shop, The Ganachery, or perfecting the mirror glaze on a Minnie Mouse cake, it's been rumbling in the back of his mind - until recently.
"What would the Na'vi eat for dessert?" By Na'vi, Riemer means those lithe, fluorescent-blue aliens from Avatar, the movie James Cameron committed to so wholeheartedly he announced he wouldn't create any other films for the rest of his career. It's also the franchise Disney backed so wholeheartedly it designed an entire section of its Animal Kingdom theme park around them. As Pandora - named after the mythical world in the movie - sets to open this summer, Riemer's been tasked to create otherworldly desserts that bridge the gap between fantasy and, well, something the average person actually wants to eat. Oh, and the food should have some connection to conservation, because that's a huge part of Avatar's storyline, and if you're going to learn anything about Disney World, it's that everything - everything - follows a story.
"The characters are so tall and lean; what would they eat to stay like that? What would be a dessert for them? Maybe berries," Riemer explained. "The colors are so vibrant there, so I've been thinking a lot about the color blue. It's something you typically avoid with desserts, but blue is intriguing. That's my goal: To intrigue people - to get them to slow down and take notice - then elevate the flavors they're used to."
Each morning, he's been working with his team to find that perfect mix, testing desserts in Walt Disney World's Flavor Lab, a 7,000-square-foot test-kitchen-meets-innovation-incubator, where just about all of the theme parks' and resorts' drinks and dishes are created. The lab isn't open to the public, but the House of Mouse offered Delish a rare peek at the one-year-old facility, revealing that every item that makes it on the menu is one part science, one part art, and one part anything-goes, supercallifragilistic-sky's-the-limit-ocious daydreaming.
They're Juggling 100 Things At Once. All The Time.
Developing the dessert menu for Pandora's eateries has been Riemer's latest project - and while he'll tease us with a few clues, like his desire to marry exotic flavors with everyday ingredients people already love to "elevate the flavor" of each dish - he's keeping mum for now on what, exactly, he'll offer. What we can know for sure, however, is that they won't simply throw together the parks' greatest hits and call it a day. Just like Walt Disney designed its utilidoors, a system of tunnels under the park, so that a cowboy at Frontierland wouldn't be caught strolling through Tomorrowland, or vice versa, the company uses the Flavor Lab to ensure every project gets that same attention to detail - and never shatters the illusion of being transported to another time and place.
But that's not all. The Flavor Lab works on restaurants and dishes across Disney's parks and resorts worldwide, meaning at any given time, they're working on 100 different projects. At Disney World in Florida alone, that ranges from coming up with Huck Finn-inspired poolside cocktails for Fort Wilderness, a nearby resort, to deciding on just the right plate pattern to stock at a high-end restaurant in the parks' shopping district, Disney Springs, or yes, deciding what will be the equivalent of a turkey leg in Pandora.
"Every time we create something, it's unique and different," says Jean-Marie Clement, Disney's director of Food and Beverage Concept Development.
The decision to add anything to the menu actually starts with location, location, location. And then storyline, storyline, storyline.
While chain restaurants face the challenge of creating one dish that needs to be standardized nationwide, with each new restaurant or project, the teams at the Flavor Lab must start from scratch - and make sure the dish can both satisfy millions of different tastes, given the parks' international clientele, and be served at a scale to keep up with the roughly 54 million guests visiting Walt Disney World each year.
Imagineers Touch Everything - Even The Food.
Coming up with the next Disney treat isn't as simple as saying, "Hey, Cronuts are popular, so let's create our own version!" While Epcot does serve a croissant donut (offered a la mode, too, so take that, Dominique Ansel), the decision to add anything to the menu actually starts with location, location, location. And then storyline, storyline, storyline.
When the Flavor Lab was tasked with creating an Italian restaurant at Disney's BoardWalk where a Greek restaurant used to be, they first met with Imagineers to come up with the place's backstory, which would inform every decision they'd make going forward. They knew people loved Italian food but craved a variety of flavors, so they decided it'd be run by a family that traveled throughout the country, spending time in the North, South, and seaside areas. That way, they could serve carbonara and red sauce, explained Lenny DeGeorge, executive chef for culinary development. And when it came to carbonara, they weren't taking any shortcuts.
"We used guanciale, not bacon or pancetta, making it in the classic Roman style," DeGeorge says.
Some things, though, had to be tailored for Americans' tastes and practicality's sake. "A true Neapolitan pizza takes 90 seconds to cook, but because of all of the toppings we use, ours takes two minutes," he says. That longer cook time keeps the pizza's crust crisp, so it doesn't turn floppy and spill caramelized onions and artichokes all over your shirt.
At the Flavor Lab, each dish is tested three to four times before it's ready to be presented to Disney's executives, and it often goes through three to four rounds of presentations before it's ready to be ordered by the masses. All that happens within a year to 18 months, for a restaurant revamp like Trattoria al Forno (the aforementioned Italian joint). Projects like Pandora, however, can take 3 to 4 years, while developing all of the food for an entire park - like the newly opened Disney Shanghai - can be 7 or more years in the making.
The story itself may seem eyeroll-inducing at first: Do you really need a fictional traveling Italian family to create an Italian restaurant? But it's the backbone of every project to ensure nothing strays too far from the goal - and it also makes it easier to connect Disney's focus groups and other research to real things, like which foods to serve, which cocktails are the most on-brand, and even the types of chairs and tables you sit at while downing both.
The Happiest Place on Earth's Also Home To Some Serious Cooking Showdowns.
The Flavor Lab is divided into four key sections. When you walk in, to the left there's a kitchen area that looks like the set from Iron Chef, complete with stage lights, stainless steel appliances and two giant flatscreens mounted from the ceiling. And, like Iron Chef, some serious competition goes on there. When hiring chefs, the company will have each finalist take center stage in a "skills validation" test, where they have two hours to create a four-course menu for a set of executive chefs. And you thought your job interview process was nerve-wracking.
This demo area, labeled "Eat," isn't just for giving potential employees full-on Mary Katherine Gallagher sweats. It's also where chefs will present and discuss new dishes, using the TVs to connect with chefs at other parks.
Directly across from Eat is its less-flashy counterpart, Create, which looks more like a techy college classroom, with its wall of TVs and rows of long tables. That's where the culinary team meets with Imagineers to dream up new project "stories" and host wine tastings and other classes for park employees, so they're able to give solid recommendations when you're not sure whether you can best channel Belle's no-longer-provincial life over a glass or Champagne or rosé at Be Our Guest (uh, rosé all day).
It's also the spot where big-money deals go down, where food, drink and appliance vendors meet with Disney to show off their latest and greatest. Snagging a Disney parks contract can mean major business. Case in point: Walt Disney World sells 75 million Cokes a year. That's higher than the population of the United Kingdom.
Beyond that, there's Drink, featuring a bar that'd make Bond villains jealous - a growing part of the brand's bottom line, given Disney's announcement in December to expand its beer and wine sales to four new restaurants within the Magic Kingdom - and a separate room where every place setting for every restaurant is tested and considered.
The most impressive feature, though, is even further behind the scenes. Past a large swinging door is a massive, industrial kitchen loaded with just about every commercial appliance imaginable - and they're all regularly swapped in and out as Disney considers new wood-fired pizza ovens, ice cream makers and slushie machines for each new project. In a land that'd seem cookie cutter - everything so pristine and polished - no two restaurants are exactly alike, even on the backend, since their needs are as varied as their menus.
That's where DeGeorge, Riemer, and the others spend a good portion of the day, figuring out how to translate Imagineers' stories into dishes for the masses. Some ideas don't work out, but that doesn't mean they're gone forever.
They've Been Poutine-ing This On The Back Burner. Until Now.
"We wanted to do poutine for years, but the timing wasn't right," Clement says. Then, as chefs reimagined the food served at Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney), they decided to devote a walk-up food stall to the Canadian smothered fries, naming it The Daily Poutine. In addition to selling the classic, cheese curds-and-gravy variety, they decided to offer three other flavors to appeal to guests' diverse tastes (and, undoubtedly, draw in people who love cheese fries but are freaked out by squeaky curds): a Latin version topped with black beans, pulled pork and queso fresco; a French one, with mushroom cream sauce and Gruyere; and an Italian, with mozzarella and Bolognese sauce.
It's proven so popular the company recently launched a breakfast option, featuring tater tots with cheese curds, sausage gravy and a fried egg.
In a way, the shop's success underscores the exact challenge Riemer's trying to find with his desserts at Pandora: Introduce people to something fresh and exciting, using ingredients they're familiar with, so they're more likely to take a chance on it. The Flavor Lab still hasn't found a way to unseat the turkey leg - more than 1.8 million pounds of drumsticks are devoured at Walt Disney World each year, making it the parks' bestseller - but that doesn't mean they won't stop trying.
"We try to find that middle ground," Clement says. "We have to find the comfort food in our creativity."
We'll have to wait until May, it seems, to see how that translates to the world of Avatar. Though "Mountain Banshee legs" has a certain ring to it.
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