Before launching a new restaurant, a team of food geniuses labors in a hidden laboratory on a Walt Disney World back lot—we managed to sneak inside.
I first meet Lenny DeGeorge at breakfast, at Walt Disney World's Yacht Club Resort. A bear of a man with a pronounced New England accent, he's got that look, like he's up to something—it happens that DeGeorge, as executive chef of culinary concept development for Disney Parks & Resorts, is up to quite a lot. We're meeting at the Yacht Club's Ale & Compass restaurant to illustrate a point, which is just how much time and effort go into the creation of a new venue, inside the Disney universe.
For sure, the space seems like a massive departure from its former life as the serviceable but ultimately unexciting Captain's Grille—officially described as an homage to New England with a gastropub approach, Ale & Compass is breezy, modern, almost cool, with a menu to match. There's avocado toast, there is house made bacon (on a charcoal smoker, shipped down from Maine), delectable smoked trout, a breakfast pizza, spectacular Parker rolls. For a lot of restaurants, a renovation and a menu re-do can be done in a matter of weeks. In this case, it took eighteen months.
"And that was one of the shorter ones," laughs Chef Lenny. "These things can take up to three years!"
DeGeorge is part of a highly creative team that spends much of their days working inside Disney's Flavor Lab, a relatively secret, hard-to-access space, hidden away somewhere on Walt Disney World property. Their mission? To dream up, create and then help execute every single new food and beverage concept not only here in Orlando, but at the growing number of parks and resorts around the world. What you called lunch on your last Disney visit, might have been the product of years of research and development at the Flavor Lab.
"We're like Imagineering, but for food," says DeGeorge, pointing to the Bloody Mary that has arrived at the table as a perfect example of the kind of effort that goes into everything placed on every menu. "It's great that someone can pull off a Bloody Mary with a lobster claw and a strip of bacon a few times a month, but what if you have to do a hundred of them, every morning?"
Ale & Compass is just one of their recent successes—the popular Satu'li Canteen inside the newly-added World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom is another; there, the relatively healthy, bowl focused menu seems simple enough to navigate—in reality, there are fifty combinations you can create. (That, says DeGeorge, meant a heck of a lot of research.)
Then there's the new D-Luxe Burger, one of a staggering number of recent additions to the completely reinvented Downtown Disney, rebranded a few years back as Disney Springs. There, the french fries took two years to get right. Then there were the sauces—they created twelve, before narrowing it down to six. (Garlic ranch is the most popular.) The rolls for the burger, baked fresh each morning? That was another whole thing. The average visitor to De-Luxe will see it as a place for an easy, grab-and-go meal. To the Flavor Lab team, it's like a child that's now all grown up, and moved away from home.
Curious to see where exactly all this innovating and creating happens, I'd already pestered the powers that be for an invite—later that week, I managed a peek into the actual lab. To get there, you have to be escorted; the lab is located behind a gate that blocks off the service entrance to one of Disney World's mid-priced resorts. Once past the guard house, you drive back—way back—into the hotel's support area, a mini-city unto itself. So unassuming is the 7,000-plus square-foot Lab's presence in this already thoroughly nondescript zone, my assigned escort couldn't even find the building, at first.
Finally, there it was, behind a pair of tinted glass doors—doors that I'm told very few Disney cast members are even allowed to enter through. On the day of my visit, the drinks team is just wrapping up a tasting of very good Oregon wines in the presentation area; this is a typical sighting in the Lab, where on any given day, you might find chefs, sommeliers, mixologists and assorted food & beverage honchos mixing, mingling and creating.
Besides DeGeorge, who that afternoon was busy in his office, you will also likely come across Ed Wronski, a native Detroiter and Culinary Institute of America grad who's been on Team Disney since the 1970's; Wronski is the director of culinary development for the parks. If you're lucky, you might also might bump into Stefan Riemer, an infectiously enthusiastic master pastry chef. Originally from Germany, Reimer recently spearheaded the creation of two of the most ambitious projects to open up at Disney Springs, a proper patisserie and a chocolate-making venture. That's in between, of course, the dozens of other things that he and the rest of the team appear to typically have going on, all at once.
"It's like all of a sudden we woke up one morning, and we realized we'd gone from a few projects to hundreds, all over the planet," laughs Wronski.
The Lab feels like it might double as a cooking school, a very expensive one—at the center of the facility, you'll find a stunning show kitchen and bar area, which could easily double as the set of a cooking show. (In reality, it's used to do video demonstrations for operators in, say, Shanghai, which saves the team a lot of time on airplanes.) The Lab seems like a place that might be a lot of fun to work—that is, if you find obsessing over table heights and chair heights and overhead lighting in a restaurant that has yet to be created to be fun. None of that happens, however, until they talk about the food.
"We work the opposite of typical here, creating the guiding principle, the menu—then we design the restaurant, then we design the kitchen," says Reimer. The same goes for a bar, too. "First comes the drinks, then the bar—in a lot of bars, there's so much running around. We don't want a drink taking twelve minutes to make."
Besides the demonstration spaces, the chefs have at their disposal a dream kitchen of sorts—it seems a little small, but that's likely because its packed so full of top-of-the-line equipment. There's a pressurized fryer that was a huge success at one of the more popular restaurants opened in Shanghai; that same frier will be pressed into service in the new Star Wars lands, coming soon to Orlando and Anaheim. (What will they be frying? I guess we'll find out soon—nobody would spill the beans.)
There's the Crisp N Hold, which has helped the team reach their ideal of European-style frites in a humid Central Florida climate, there is a combination oven which can smoke and dehydrate, as well as all of the other things combination ovens do. The oven has a USB port—insert the standard program they've perfected here at the Lab, and any restaurant, anywhere, can fire the thing up and go to town, without worries of quality control. (Lately, they've been experimenting with ribs.) In the dedicated pastry corner, Stefan has his own playthings, for instance an industrial-sized whipped cream machine, which sounds like an awful lot of fun. Basically, this is a toy store, but for chefs.
Besides the regularly scheduled training sessions, presentations and occasional meetings, it's surprisingly difficult to gain access to the Lab, and that's for good reason—it's not uncommon for a dish to undergo everywhere from twelve to twenty different revisions; premature leaking makes the process more difficult and interrupts the workflow.
"We used to have a tiny facility that we shared with another team," says Reimer. "We ended up dropping a lot of ideas because we'd see them on social media, before they were even launched!"
With that, Reimer opens up a stainless steel cooler, grabbing a plate with a completed, Instagram-ready dessert, a wondrous and strange creation that looks like no dessert I've ever seen at Disney World. Flashing a smile, he quickly returns the plate to the cooler, closing the door tight before I'm able to compose a complete mental picture, which is the best I could have done, seeing as how photography is completely against the rules.
Wait, what just happened? Star Wars, everybody whispers. And with that, I'm ushered toward the door.