Thursday, April 19, 2018
Cooking

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

LAKE BUENA VISTA

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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.

   
Comments
A taste test for drinking water? They can be surprisingly different

A taste test for drinking water? They can be surprisingly different

BROOKSVILLEThey brought it in glass carboys, in jars, in 2-liter bottles. It stacked up at the entrance to the auditorium, some of it just slightly murky but most of it crystal clear.Water. For more than 15 years the members of Region IV Florida Sect...
Published: 04/18/18
Five ideas for travel-friendly snacks

Five ideas for travel-friendly snacks

Whenever I fly, I pay way too much for food. Iíve stumbled jet-lagged into fancy wine booths and nearly bankrupted myself with cheese plates. Iíve purchased granola bars that cost more than my plane ticket (okay, maybe it just felt that way). If youí...
Published: 04/18/18
Enjoy a slice of sunshine with Tangerine, Ginger and Chocolate Tart

Enjoy a slice of sunshine with Tangerine, Ginger and Chocolate Tart

There are chocolate people, and there are vanilla people. I am a lemon person.Show me a dessert menu, and Iíll choose whatever is flavored with puckery lemon or any of her citrus sisters ó lime, tangerine, kumquat, yuzu. Even as a kid, I went for lem...
Published: 04/17/18
Recipe for 30-Minute Spaghetti and Meatballs

Recipe for 30-Minute Spaghetti and Meatballs

As the name suggests, 30-Minute Spaghetti and Meatballs is no substitute for the kind of meatballs simmered for hours in your nonnaís Sunday gravy. Strangely enough, the recipe doesnít even include oregano or basil or a dry Chianti. And yet I think t...
Published: 04/17/18
Re-create that fancy spa water at home

Re-create that fancy spa water at home

It was lunchtime in the middle of the workday, so although I sat at the bar at downtown St. Petersburgís Asie Pan-Asian, I opted for a water. The bartender poured a glass and I took an unknowing sip.Cucumber. It was definitely cucumber. Iím not the b...
Published: 04/17/18
Taste test: citrus-flavored sparkling water

Taste test: citrus-flavored sparkling water

Many years ago, I took a trip to Rome and learned enough Italian to find directions and order dinner from menus. I learned very quickly that if I didnít make it clear, I would get sparkling water rather than still water at every restaurant. My husban...
Published: 04/16/18
Hereís how to make shakshuka, the egg dish with the awesome name

Hereís how to make shakshuka, the egg dish with the awesome name

By Rick NelsonSuddenly, it seems like shakshuka is everywhere.Restaurant menus. Food Network how-to shows. YouTube videos. And on breakfast, lunch and dinner tables in homes across the country.Maybe the dishís ascendancy can be traced to cookbook aut...
Published: 04/11/18
Cooking Challenge: Making a bowl of fancy bacon-and-egg ramen at home

Cooking Challenge: Making a bowl of fancy bacon-and-egg ramen at home

My boyfriend, Ben, screws a nail into the cork of our Bread and Butter wine bottle. Iíve recently moved into my own apartment ó the first step in a fully adult life ó but apparently, Adult Me doesnít own a bottle opener. Tonight, Iím cooking my first...
Published: 04/11/18

From the food editor: Homemade biscuits make the meal

Raise your hand if you have leftover Easter ham in your freezer. Yeah, me too. Itís not every day I pick up a large cured ham at the supermarket, so when holidays come around that call for the pork centerpiece, I always try to think of at least three...
Published: 04/10/18
Spice up salmon with this tarragon vinaigrette

Spice up salmon with this tarragon vinaigrette

A good piece of fish needs very little to make it perfect. Here, the anisey-tangy flavor of tarragon vinaigrette is a wonderful complement to the lushness of salmon fillets. If you start with excellent salmon and super-fresh herbs, and donít overcook...
Published: 04/10/18