Meet the Chefs Behind Disney World’s Most Iconic Dishes
A lot of thought went into that meal you’re about to devour.
Designing a menu, Disney-style
When it comes to food, there’s certainly no shortage of it at Walt Disney World. With four theme parks, dozens of resort hotels, and a shopping and dining district, there are tons of options for every traveler and every taste bud, including these 10 new foods you have to try when visiting Disney. But someone—or, more accurately, a team of someones—has to come up with the individual items at each of the hundreds of dining and drinking locations. That task falls to the concept-development team. We sat down with chef Brian Piasecki, Walt Disney World’s Concept Development Culinary Director, and Janice Kleyla, the Beverage Sales and Standards Manager for Concept Development, to find out exactly how they work their magic and put a smile on diners’ faces at the happiest place on Earth.
Who are the chefs?
Piasecki joined the company in 1991 and, as he says, “came up through the ranks” by working in the parks and several resorts. One of those resorts was Disney’s Contemporary Resort, where he served as a chef at California Grill for more than seven years.
Kleyla, on the other hand, started with the company in 2008 by participating in the Disney College Program, where she first worked attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. From there, she quickly transitioned to food and beverage, working quick-service and table-service locations, at Epcot’s International Food and Wine Festival, and as the opening project manager for Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
Epcot’s themed festivals, by the way, are some of the hidden gems for grown-ups at Disney parks.
Where is all of the work done?
The magic happens at the Flavor Lab, a surprisingly nondescript building near Disney’s Port Orleans Resorts. It’s off-limits to outsiders since there’s always something new going on in there, from tasting and development to meetings with partners around the resort. There are typically two distinct teams, one for food and one for beverage. They do come together to create menus, but there are plenty of individual projects that the teams work on to devise new concepts and dishes for the Walt Disney World parks and resorts. On the other hand, here are some secrets that Disney employees won’t tell you.
How are new items created?
Everything starts with a story, which comes from Walt Disney Imagineering. “Prior to any work, we partner very closely with our Walt Disney Imagineering team to fully understand the story. Then we try to theme or ‘line up’ the food that will fit into that story, play off the design, and have fun with the creative,” explains Piasecki. “This is the most exciting time because it is where we blue-sky ideas and really get the creative juices flowing. Once we develop those ideas, it becomes all about the testing, keeping in mind whatever we develop needs to be delicious and produced consistently on a daily basis in operations for our guests.”
Kleyla sheds some additional light on the close partnership they have with the Imagineering team. “We get roped in for part of the design, then they do the actual artistic design,” she says. “Then when we get to the point of developing the cocktails, the beers and wine programs, they’re the ones who help with the very highly themed drinks, what direction they would like to see or how’d they’d like to see them, what colors they are, and what kind of display they have for the drinks. Then we develop the program from that.”
How many tastings are done before a dish makes its debut?
Both Piasecki and Kleyla say that tasting and testing is vital. In fact, it can be done more than two dozen times to ensure a dish is perfect and ready to be added to a menu. Some of the latest dishes that you can enjoy from the concept-development team are located inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo and at Oga’s Cantina, where out-of-this-galaxy food and drinks are served every day to travelers on the planet Batuu. By the way, here’s the hardest restaurant to get reservations for at Disney World.
Mr. Ripples and other excellent equipment
The food itself isn’t the only thing that gets a lot of attention—new equipment is also tried and tested regularly. “We do a lot of equipment testing,” says Kleyla. “We’ll bring in new equipment such as espresso machines, wine machines, any of these that are new to the market. One we are really excited about is Mr. Ripples. We’re trying it out at a few locations right now, one of them being Disney’s Riviera Resort. You can customize any picture, including [with] any Disney character, happy birthday, or Mickey Mouse on top of your cappuccino or beer.”
Creating the perfect menu for a galaxy far, far away
Piasecki loved working on the new items for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge—and that’s putting it mildly. “Talk about your creative freedom!” he says. “We knew that we had an opportunity to bring something new and different to our guests, and the fact that there are very few references to food in the Star Wars universe, it really opened up that freedom for us. We focused on unique presentations with familiar flavors—like the Endorian Fried Chicken Tip Yip. We wanted it to taste like fried chicken, but we were able to make it look unlike any fried chicken that most people have ever seen.”
While you’re in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, check out the most immersive attraction ever created in a Disney park.
The secrets of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge
“There’s a lot of flavors in here that are very common but almost unrecognizable,” reveals Kleyla. “My favorite drink inside Oga’s Cantina actually uses cantaloupe and kiwi, but together, it’s a completely different experience. That one’s got a really cool story and a really cool color. The worrt in the tank with the eggs ties the story of that drink together. We really try to look for familiar things but think about how do we make them out of this world, how do you make it different, how do you take those combinations so that it looks one way but tastes another.”
That drink from Oga’s Cantina that Kleyla is talking about? It’s Jabba Juice, a fruit-juice mix topped with blueberry popping pearls, which are meant to be the worrt eggs from the tank inside the Cantina. And if you’re a super fan, don’t miss the best Disney attractions for Star Wars fans.
What comes first—the souvenir cup or the drink?
Throughout Walt Disney World, you’ll find various souvenir cups being sold with drinks. The process from start to finish is long, but Kleyla let us in on a little secret. “The souvenirs actually come way before the actual drink. Our timeline for souvenirs is a very long process,” she says. “For example, with Star Wars, we need approval from Lucas Film Studios to give us input on what our designs are. They will work with our Walt Disney Imagineering partners to design our souvenir vessels, such as the porg mug that’s served in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.”
The only way to get the porg souvenir mug is to get the Cliff Dweller drink from Oga’s Cantina. It’s non-alcoholic and totally kid-friendly. Adults can sip on an Outer Rim or Jet Juice. But be careful if you try to bring home one of the souvenir Coke bottles from the park: It’s one of the things that could get your luggage flagged by the TSA.
Food trends at Disney
Vegetarians, rejoice! Plant-based dining is getting bigger and better at Disney, and it’s not going anywhere. “Currently, we see the plant-based movement as a dining shift rather than a trend, and guests continue to search out variety, customization, and uniqueness,” explains Piasecki.
Another big trend? Mobile ordering. “Outside of Disney, a lot of the world has gotten used to mobile order. We’ve started rolling it out through the parks and resort, and it’s been very successful,” says Kleyla. “Mobile order makes it very easy for a guest to plan their day, make sure they get on all the rides, and they aren’t waiting as long to get their food. They have time to really think about what they want. They have time to look over the menu, order, and really have something to look forward to.”
These trends aren’t just limited to Disney. In fact, they’re among the 12 ways fast food will change in 2020.
Do Disney chefs have a favorite project? You bet!
For Kleyla, that would probably be Disney’s Coronado Springs’ Gran Destino Tower. “Disney’s Coronado Springs is one that I’m really proud of,” she says. “Our teams spent a lot of time doing extensive research. We’ve really spent a lot of time expanding the non-alcoholic program in addition to the alcohol. We have guests of all ages that come to our parks and resorts. In the parks, we have the typical soda, lemonade, and iced tea, and those are great. But if you want to go as an adult and have a nice cocktail without alcohol, we’ve really raised the bar here.”
Piasecki, as you might guess from his quotes above, adored working on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. “All projects are fun and exciting in their own way, but truly, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has been the most unique and fun,” he raves. “Just the ability to set the stage, if you will, for what food and beverage may look like on this planet was exciting. Being able to open an entire land and say, ‘We didn’t even add a burger!’ is pretty exciting!”
The best part of working at Disney
Teamwork combined with weaving entire worlds together, Disney-style, makes for a pretty amazing working experience. “The funnest parts about our job is that we get the chance to really bring the story together but bring a part of us into it as well,” says Kleyla. “Everyone has a different talent, and everyone likes a different drink, but I think it’s really fun to go into new concepts and have each of us add something we really like.” Here are more of the best jobs at Disney parks, according to former employees.