For the past few weeks national media have been swooning over the newly unveiled Disney Springs, the shopping-dining-entertainment complex formerly known as Downtown Disney.
USA Today waxed rhapsodic, Travel + Leisure called it "a theme park for food." As with most Disney projects, it afforded the Imagineers an opportunity to come up with an elaborate (and largely ersatz, but heck, that's why they're Imagineers) backstory, with a series of neighborhoods — Town Center, the Landing — centered around a "natural" spring, its story something about a cattle rancher finding a water source in the mid-1800s.
I reported when Morimoto Asia opened, that STK was debuting and that Fulton's Crab House would become Paddlefish. But it wasn't until mid-July, when I got to see it firsthand, that the full magnitude of the assembled dining options really hit me. It's stunning, with a range of cuisines, price points and architectural styles, all supported by some of the biggest names in the American culinary world.
I sat down first with Art Smith, who spent years as Oprah's chef before winning two James Beard awards and appearing on Iron Chef America, Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. He has just opened Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Shine Bar. And next, I walked around the corner to sit down with megastar and multi-Beard winner Rick Bayless, who has just debuted Frontera Cocina, an offshoot of the high-end Mexican place he pioneered in Chicago in 1981.
Here's what they had to say about coming to Florida, how their cooking has evolved, and what the future of food is.
Explain the name Homecoming.
It stands for two different things. It's a return to Disney (after he attended Florida State University, Smith did a culinary internship with the Walt Disney World College Program) and it's also a return to Florida. The mayor of Jasper, where I'm from, reached out to me and said, "We need your support." Hamilton is one of the poorest counties in the state. Twenty-five-thousand acres in the area have been bought up by Bill Gates. So this farm town was no longer rich in farms, and the residents hadn't figured out how to reinvent themselves.
With Homecoming, how did you arrive at the specific concept and menu?
I thought there needed to be a real Florida experience, and more family experiences, here. (Smith and his partner Jesus Salgueiro have four adopted children.) I got an email about coming to Disney while I was at a screening of The Butler with Oprah. I thought, if Jasper is good enough for the president, it's good enough for the Mouse.
So it's fried chicken and "church lady deviled eggs," pimiento cheese hush puppies and "Anna Maria fish dip." Very Old Florida.
The fish spread is mullet, but we'd never call it that. The greatest lesson Oprah taught me is to know your audience. Hillary Clinton started the American Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, because food is peace. I've been to Israel and Azerbaijan and Riga, Latvia. We did the first gay pride at the USA Pavilion Milan Expo. When I feed people fried chicken, I figure maybe there's some other stuff I can feed them. Fried chicken takes no sides.
You are known for orchestrating outrageous events, like throwing 101 gay weddings in Miami and then in Atlanta. How does this square with launching a restaurant at Disney?
What I love about Disney is that they've always been a friend to equality.
What's next for you?
We're opening Blue Door Farm Stand in Chicago, and in my hometown of Jasper we're going to build a bakery that will service my other restaurants and that will help to rebuild the community. We'll have 100 employees and be ready for business in January.
Why is Disney a good fit for you?
Two reasons. First, to be at Disney means to have an audience that is the whole U.S. and beyond. The second reason is that you don't get into these things willy-nilly. You have to have an operating partner that you trust. Here our partner owns one of the most famous restaurants in Mexico City — their being a part of it clinched things for us.
How has the Frontera Grill brand changed over time and how different is Frontera Cocina?
We wouldn't have been interested if we'd had to change or dumb down our concept. We have three small restaurants at Chicago O'Hare and everyone said we'd have to dumb it down. But they've been successful. If a dish is supposed to be spicy, it's really spicy. The American palate has changed so much. When we first opened we had to warn people about spicy dishes. Now it's not just Mexican food. Thai, Korean, Indian. We want complexity and depth of flavor. Now ethnic food is part of everyday eating, what we call American food.
Chicago has historically taken a backseat to food cities like New York and San Francisco. Doesn't that seem to be changing?
We hate it and we love it that people mostly have ignored Chicago. In the last 15 years we've really gotten on the map and in the last five years it's really exploded. We've hosted the Beard awards there. In New York, there's so much money and there's three times the population of Chicago, but if you look at it per capita, Chicago might have a better restaurant scene.
So if Chicago has been considered a lesser food city, how did you become such a recognized "celebrity chef"?
To ascend to celebrity status, you have to be a showman and be articulate. That's what you need to be on the Food Network — viewers never get to taste the food, after all. Also, you will never be a great chef until you can communicate effectively. You have to be able to communicate to the press exactly what you're doing and why you're doing it.
You were an early adopter of the farm-to-table idea. How has that shifted for you?
I'm super into midsized farms and in building a strong, close relationship. I don't work with 40 farms. It's more like seven. We started the Frontera Farmer Foundation in 2003 and we give away $10,000 or $12,000 grants to help small farms scale up. It's a no-interest loan program that they have to pay back within a year. We've given $1.5 million in small loans. At the restaurants we try to see how deep we can go — right now we have the Onion Project. We go through 500 pounds of white onions a day, so we've tried to see how far we can go with one farmer.
I've heard that you're a devoted yogi. How does yoga fit with being a multirestaurant chef?
Yoga is a perfect balance of physical intensity and a certain kind of focus that empties your mind. As a chef, I needed a physical challenge, but also something that gives me a little mental vacation.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.