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Epcot’s new kitchen keeps festivals going throughout the year |

Epcot’s new kitchen keeps festivals going throughout the year

With pavilions representing a variety of countries, Walt Disney World’s Epcot has long been acclaimed for its diverse assortment of restaurants and food offerings. Even in the Future World section of the park, eateries such as the Coral Reef Restaurant and the Sunshine Seasons food court have earned accolades. But when Epcot introduced its first International Food and Wine Festival 22 years ago, it cemented the park’s reputation as a foodie’s paradise.

Through the years, the festival’s planners expanded both the size and scope of the fall event and the number of days it was held. Focusing on produce and farm-to-table dishes, Epcot added food booths to its spring event, the Flower Garden Festival. In January of this year, the park launched its newest annual event, the International Festival of the Arts, and included food booths to celebrate the culinary arts. Also in 2017, Epcot rebranded its end-of-the-year event as the International Festival of the Holidays and placed more of an emphasis on sweet and savory treats from around the world.

With a festival calendar that now spans 266 days each year and the need to prepare a staggering amount of food and beverages to support the events, Epcot was faced with a serious case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Its solution? Build a new kitchen. A really big kitchen. In the late summer, the park opened a 12,000-square-foot culinary facility dedicated to the festivals.

On a tour of the multi-purpose space, I saw a small army of white-aproned chefs slicing, dicing, stirring, whirring, and otherwise whipping up a frenzy of delectable dishes. The equipment and sheer quantity of foodstuffs dwarfs anything found in a typical kitchen.

Piles of pasta were being prepared in three 60-gallon kettles (which, interestingly, are also used to make mixed drinks). Huge batches of soups and sauces simmered in six 40-gallon tilt skillets. Intoxicating smells emanated from a wall of double-stacked convection ovens. On busy days, chefs pump out 4,000 sheet pans of steaming food.

In the kitchen’s bakery area, cakes, cookies, and other goodies were turning golden brown in another array of ovens. I got to sample a still-hot slice of yummy olive oil cake that had been destined for a festival booth.

All of the perishable ingredients, marinades, sauces, prepared dishes, and more are placed in jars, trays, bags, and other containers, meticulously catalogued, and stored in a 5,000-square-foot cooler. When it leaves the kitchen en route to the food booths, the food is in various stages of preparedness.

“We don’t want to pre-cook everything,” explains Greg Hannon, Epcot’s culinary director. In addition to ensuring that everything is served at the proper temperature, there is a compelling reason why the festivals kitchen chefs “pre-stage,” as Hannon puts it, much of the food. “We want to get the aromas out there in the park.”

At the holiday event, for example, “onstage” food handlers finish baking gingerbread cookies. The wafting smells send customers to the booth like Pavlovian dogs. For the final touch, frontline employees decorate the cookies.

When the festivals are busy, the kitchen hums with as many as 90 people cooking and preparing the food and beverages. Another 30 staff members transport the items to the booths. For the food and wine event, which is Epcot’s largest festival, the culinary team creates 150 items from scratch daily. Visitors gobble up as much as 4,000 servings per day of the more popular dishes.

In addition to keeping festivalgoers well fed, the new kitchen also serves as a flavor lab. “This is a food and beverage think tank,” says Rick DeCicco, Disney World’s proprietor of festivals. A team of chefs convenes up to a year ahead of an event to look at feedback from past festivals and brainstorm new items. After developing a list of potential dishes, they’ll prepare them and hold test tastings with employees.

To develop the menus, the team also explores the latest culinary trends. “Figuring out what’s coming next—that’s the best part of our job,” adds DeCicco.

So what foodie fads are finding their way from Epcot’s festivals kitchen to visitors’ plates? Immersion circulation cooking, or “sous vide,” figured into one of the signature dishes at the inaugural Festival of the Arts. Chefs marinated and slow-cooked venison loin in the kitchen. To stimulate Pavlov’s response, the meat was then seared on a grill in a festival booth. The events have also featured innovative plant-based dishes, desserts infused with liquid nitrogen, smoked beer, and donuts that glow in the dark (for which Disney coined the name, “glonut.”)

Epcot’s expanded food festivals and its gleaming, new festivals kitchen demonstrate an overarching culinary trend: the growing appetite for eclectic, tasty, and novel things to eat and drink. Hannon says that after 22 years of food and wine events, Disney can take some of the credit for the proliferation of food festivals, particularly at other theme parks. “I think that can be attributed to us.” If glonuts become a thing, you can thank Mickey’s chefs for that as well.

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