Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Restaurant News

Meet the culinary director of Epcot, a chef from Clearwater

RECOMMENDED READING


LAKE BUENA VISTA — Gregg Hannon is strolling through the theme park, greeting guests with the kind of joviality required of Disney people.

"Hello!" he says. "Good morning!"

As the culinary director of Epcot, this is the man responsible for all the food in the world. He passes the entrance to World Showcase, giant iconic ball in the background. He walks toward the Scotland marketplace, a small, shuttered kiosk that starting Wednesday will serve traditional Scottish lamb stew as part of the annual Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.

GET READY TO EAT: What you need to know for the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival

Soon, the sidewalks will be teeming with guests waiting to get their hands on small plates served across the festival's 30 marketplaces. Revelers won't know that Hannon, who hails from Tampa Bay and holds the highest culinary position at the theme park, has been working for more than a year on a vision. Or that it takes multiple tastings for Hannon and his staff to develop 100 menu items. Or that just three weeks into this year's festival, the chef will start planning for next year.

Such a job requires the calm, measured presence of a guy like Hannon.

• • •

Every employee at Disney has the iconic badge. It says their name. It says where they are from, China to England, Germany to France.

Hannon's badge reads "Gregg" and, under that, "Clearwater Beach, Florida."

The chef, 45, has worked all over the park, restaurants in Epcot's recreations of Germany, Norway, United Kingdom and Canada. This year, he was promoted to the top position when it comes to food.

Hannon grew up in California, where his father worked for a record company and the family dined at the kind of top-tier restaurants that sparked Hannon's interest in food. Later, his family moved to Tampa Bay, which he still refers to as his "home away from home."

He went to Palm Harbor Middle and Countryside High, immersing himself in the food service industry. He worked at delis and restaurants like the now-closed Julie's Sunsets and Seafoods.

Hannon came to Walt Disney World after high school in 1990, when he began a three-year culinary apprenticeship that took him first to the Yacht and Beach Club Resort, then to Epcot.

There, Hannon met Michaela, the woman who would become his wife and mother to his three sons. A cultural exchange program brought her from the real Germany to the one at Epcot, and to the restaurant where Hannon was working.

After the apprenticeship, he did the logical thing: moved to Germany.

"I had a great time at Disney, but I had to expand not only my culinary horizons, but myself, my life." Hannon said. "And I had a girlfriend."

He got a job as a line cook in the kitchen of the Kempinski Hotel Gravenbruch in Frankfurt, part of a luxury international hotel chain, where he honed his craft alongside cooks from different cultures.

"I hadn't been exposed to that. Where you're working with Germans who have traveled to Hong Kong and Singapore, or you're working with people from those countries," Hannon said. "I learned a lot about life in general."

• • •

Every fall, people flock to Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival. Lines swell 50 deep. Last year, parking lots filled and cars overflowed onto the grass. It is the largest food festival in the state, possibly the country.

Hannon considers himself the gatekeeper for food at Epcot, the person who makes sure each dish is executed properly, and, especially at festivals, that each item is special.

There is much to consider.

First, his team identifies what's missing and what's already there. Do we have too much seafood toward the front of the park? Other times, actual countries' tourism boards appeal to Epcot for a spot in the festival. Often, Hannon works with employees at Walt Disney Imagineering to come up with a storyline based on food trends.

Then the testing process begins.

First, it goes to Hannon's employees, specifically ones familiar with the cuisine. Then there's a formal tasting, at which a couple dozen people offer feedback.

Maybe something is tasty but too sloppy to eat standing up. Maybe something is spicy — too spicy.

Sometimes, they test 10 items for a marketplace that needs two new dishes. This year, more than 47 percent of the Food and Wine Festival's menu items are new or reworked.

And it's not just about how it tastes. Hannon makes sure at least one item is cooked in the actual marketplace, so enticing smells can waft through the promenade.

It has become a huge part of the job, preparing for Epcot's food-centric events. In addition to the 62-day Food and Wine Festival, there's the Flower and Garden Festival from March to May and the Holidays Around the World event beginning the day after Thanksgiving.

"My job is not to come up with the menus," he said. "My role is to set the vision for the restaurants, the festival, and then get with our chefs and our staff and kind of bring all that out of them.

This is where the 350 people he manages play a crucial role.

"We have a lot of diverse employees, so I'm really able to tap into their culture," he said. "We truly are reaching out to them because they know how it's supposed to taste, for that particular region."

Dave Kesting, general manger for World Showcase West and Festivals at Epcot, who met Hannon about 12 years ago, said the chef excels at this sort of big-picture view.

"He has to give a goal to the culinary team, our purchasing department, everybody in our supply chain. Because you can have a thought or idea, but the volume we go through? We're at A, we need to get to Z, and he pushes his folks to get there," he said. "You start with an idea and see it all the way to conception. ... That's how he grows our festival to be one of the top festivals in the country."

• • •

Hannon is standing in front of the Mexico pavilion, Mariachi band playing softly in the background.

He's tall, and wearing a white chef's coat, so he stands out. He's in the park every day, walking from country to country, talking to guests. It seems to put him at ease in an environment others might find hectic.

"Going into a festival where we're about to open 30 marketplaces at one time, to make sure that you have been thoughtful and making sure you have planned everything out," Hannon said. "It starts to weigh on you. Did you think of everything?"

As he talks, Hannon passes Germany, where he got his start in this theme park. He returned to Disney in 1997 and has been here since. But he speaks fondly of those early days.

"I walk in and I can see me as a cook and my wife as a server," he said. "You know, there are cast members who still work in this park who knew me when I was 20 years old. It is pretty special for me. The few that are here, sometimes they'll tell me it's kind of like a fairytale ending. I guess it sort of is."

He stops at Germany and picks up a strudel, explaining how the dough has to be stretched as thin as a newspaper. Then, it's really authentic.

Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] Follow @mstark17.

 
Comments
Dining news: More poke coming, Frogman Feast raises money for SEALs and Gold Star families

Dining news: More poke coming, Frogman Feast raises money for SEALs and Gold Star families

FUNDRAISER: FROGMAN FEASTLast year, the first celebrity chef charity event called Frogman Feast raised more than $12,000 for Navy SEALs and their Gold Star families. Ken Bowen is spearheading the effort again this year from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at 3 Da...
Updated: 12 hours ago
No Thanksgiving plan? Head to one of these Tampa Bay restaurants for traditional feasts and more

No Thanksgiving plan? Head to one of these Tampa Bay restaurants for traditional feasts and more

You realize Thanksgiving is just a week away, right? No pressure. If you don’t have a holiday game plan for Nov. 23, let’s do this thing. There are still a bunch of options, many traditional Thanksgiving repasts and some a little less conventional. C...
Published: 11/16/17
Oak & Stone with self-serve beer coming to St. Pete, South Tampa’s Byblos to reopen

Oak & Stone with self-serve beer coming to St. Pete, South Tampa’s Byblos to reopen

COMING SOON: OAK & STONEBeen to Oak & Stone in Sarasota? In early 2018 we’ll get one in St. Petersburg at 199 Central Ave., next to the newly constructed Hyatt Place. The concept is wood-fired pizzas mated with a self-serve beer wall highlighting cr...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/20/17
A St. Petersburg artist created the labels for this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau wine release

A St. Petersburg artist created the labels for this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau wine release

Every year, there are bad things we can count on: taxes and death. And good things: Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November and on the Thursday before, the Beaujolais nouveau arrives. What is less predictable is just how this vin de l’ann...
Published: 11/15/17
Updated: 11/17/17
Restaurant review: NuMex needs to tell its story better to stand out among St. Petersburg’s taco scene

Restaurant review: NuMex needs to tell its story better to stand out among St. Petersburg’s taco scene

ST. PETERSBURGI seldom have been so perplexed about a new restaurant. The prospect of NuMex’s opening in the Grand Central District swirled more than a year ago and I watched the hip little building come together. The spelling of the name itself was ...
Published: 11/13/17
Updated: 11/21/17
Proper in downtown St. Pete to close as Park & Rec takes over its space

Proper in downtown St. Pete to close as Park & Rec takes over its space

ST. PETERSBURG — Next week, something almost unprecedented is happening in St. Petersburg’s restaurant scene.Park & Rec, the game-oriented concept from Stephen Schrutt’s Hunger + Thirst Restaurant Group, will expand Nov. 17 into a second building. It...
Published: 11/10/17
Don’t want to cook on Thanksgiving? Where to pick up every part of the meal in Tampa Bay

Don’t want to cook on Thanksgiving? Where to pick up every part of the meal in Tampa Bay

Some years you’re feeling it. The peeling of the pearl onions, the procuring of the chestnuts, that one creepy moment when you’re nearly elbow-deep trying to locate the bag of giblets. Thanksgiving is the most important cooking holiday of the year, t...
Published: 11/08/17
Made Coffee’s cold brew creation is brewed and canned right here in Tampa Bay

Made Coffee’s cold brew creation is brewed and canned right here in Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURGLet’s start with the actual can itself, a turquoise-tan-orange vessel emblazoned with text and illustrations: "Ingredients: coffee, water, time"; an image of a simple coffee brewing process under "How we made it." The colors pop, the fo...
Published: 11/07/17
Updated: 11/10/17
New Indian restaurant Rasoi now open in Ybor City

New Indian restaurant Rasoi now open in Ybor City

Rasoi Indian Cuisine, launched its grand opening Saturday (Nov. 4) as the only Indian restaurant in Ybor City. Located at 1701 E Eighth Ave., the traditional restaurant cooks authentic Indian food with the finest spices and ingredients imported from...
Updated one month ago
Naples is a dining destination worth visiting, rich with newcomers and long-standing favorites

Naples is a dining destination worth visiting, rich with newcomers and long-standing favorites

NAPLES Naples Restaurant Week is a semiannual promotion celebrating the region’s best dining at an affordable price, with lunch and dinner prix fixe meals available for either $25 or $35, depending on the location. This year it’s slated ...
Updated one month ago