Meet the culinary director of Epcot, a chef from Clearwater

Gregg Hannon of Clearwater is the culinary director for food and beverage at Epcot at Disney World Resort. He's preparing for the upcoming Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, Sept. 14-Nov. 14. LARA CERRI   |   Times
Gregg Hannon of Clearwater is the culinary director for food and beverage at Epcot at Disney World Resort. He's preparing for the upcoming Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, Sept. 14-Nov. 14. LARA CERRI | Times
Published Sept. 9, 2016

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.

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"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 Follow @mstark17.