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At Disney's Flavor Lab, chefs invent the happiest food on Earth

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Whether you're dining on a $50 filet mignon at Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot, or chowing down on a hot dog at the Magic Kingdom, the inspiration for both come from the same place: Walt Disney World's Flavor Lab, a 7,000-square-foot test kitchen housed in a nondescript building on Disney property.

I recently toured the facility, which opened in December and is not open to the public, for a behind-the-scenes look at how Disney's magic works its way into food innovation.

Our tour guide was director of food and beverage concept development Jean-Marie Clement, an amiable Frenchman who took us past the glitzy show kitchen into a second, state-of-the-art kitchen where pastry chefs were hard at work weighing sugar on a small scale, rolling out ganache and assembling precious cakes. One chef pulled a tray of dark chocolate cookies out of the oven; another created what looked like candy hamburgers. They were testing products for a new high-end, soon-to-be-announced patisserie at Disney Springs.

Clement walked us past a wood-burning oven and through a room of equipment, including a top-of-the-line coffeemaker. In addition to testing food, he said, the kitchen is also responsible for testing products, "things that don't exist on the market yet."

Eighteen full-time employees including chefs, sommeliers and mixologists work daily at the facility, doing research and development for food and drink programs across Disney property. Some days, all they do is test (and taste) food; other days they do reconnaissance at hotel restaurants or host seminars with mixologists.

"We do all the blue-sky stuff for the new restaurants," Clement said, designing everything from the kitchens to the menus.

Months before Magic Kingdom's 2-month-old sit-down restaurant Jungle Skipper Canteen opened, the Flavor Lab was in the kitchen testing rice noodle bowls and the Jungle Cruise-themed restaurant's signature dessert, sugar-crusted congee pudding.

For another new Disney Springs spot, the Ganachery, the test kitchen refined its signature chocolate recipe. And during our tour of the facility, chef Roland Muller presented a trio of items the lab is currently testing for Tiffins, a restaurant set to open in the next few months at Animal Kingdom: coriander-spiced pork ribs, black-eyed pea fritters and a seasonal fish crudo.

In addition to developing food for new restaurants, this is also a space where current Disney chefs can "come to play for a day," Clement said.

"For existing locations, the chef can come be away from the restaurant and get creative," he said. "They come here and they develop menus, they work with our chefs so they exchange ideas, and we end up testing the menu with them."

Recently, chefs at the Flying Fish Cafe at Disney's Boardwalk spent time at the Flavor Lab in an effort to rehab that restaurant's menu. Before this building existed, chefs often took up temporary residence in other restaurants' kitchens, including ones that are only open for dinner, to test new recipes and experiment.

The Flavor Lab also advises other Disney parks virtually, using the overhead TV screens and computers in the large show kitchen to broadcast nationally and internationally. The Flavor Lab recently helped rework menus for Disneyland in California and Disneyland Paris, and it is heavily involved in the company's newest park, Shanghai Disney Resort, which is set to open this summer. Clement said it works both ways, in that Disney's Chinese culinary experts often weigh in on Chinese dishes for Disney World locations.

This includes beverages. Brad Ward and Jason Cha-Kim are behind the Flavor Lab bar helping to craft the spirits and wine programs, respectively, including a recent stint with the wine program at the California Grill restaurant at Disney's resort in Paris.

"It was a bit of a challenge to sell California wine in Paris," Cha-Kim said.

And the building serves as a training ground for Disney employees, particularly servers, who can attend bartending classes and wine tastings to beef up their knowledge in specific areas.

Contact Michelle Stark as mstark@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.

At Disney's Flavor Lab, chefs invent the happiest food on Earth 02/29/16 [Last modified: Monday, February 29, 2016 10:31am]
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