It’s no secret that there are large portions of Disney World that are off limits to guests. Sure, there are backstage areas that the average guest doesn’t have access to, but all you have to do is take a “backstage tour” to see some exclusive areas.
Then there are areas like the one we’re going to talk about today. It’s so top secret that even most Cast Members can’t access it, and the large majority don’t even know where it is.
I’m talking about Disney’s Flavor Lab. Here, a team of chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists work to create anything and everything food related for all of the Disney Parks around the world. And it’s located right inside Disney World! Where? Well, that’s a secret.
Now, let’s take a look at the top ten functions of Disney’s Food Lab.
1. Dream Big
There are very few limits placed on the team of The Food Lab. Their sole job is to dream big, create, and execute new food and beverage concepts for every Disney Park around the world.
To do this, they have access to a dream kitchen packed with top of the line equipment. If they need it, they have it; if they don’t have it, they’ll get it.
Currently, the kitchen has a pressurized fryer, which has been popular for foods in Shanghai Disneyland. The chefs also say that it will be used to prepare foods for the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opening in Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2019.
They also have a Crips N Hold machine, which helped them reach the ideal crispness for European frites even in the very humid climate of Florida.
Finally, there’s a combination oven that can smoke and dehydrate meats, convection cook with dry heat needed for pastries and breads, and steam foods like fish, rice, and vegetables. What’s really cool is that this combi oven, as its called, has a USB port; this means that any chef Cast Member in any Disney Park anywhere in the world can insert the standard program that was perfected in the lab and accomplish a perfect cook on demand over and over again. This insures quality control- more on this later.
The kitchen even has a pastry corner, a favorite of Chef Stefan Reimer, Executive Pastry Chef, that has an industrial sized whipped cream machine! I want one of those! Reimer used his pastry machines to dream up Amorette’s Patisserie and The Gnachery. These accomplishments recently got him voted as one of the Top 10 Pastry Chefs in America.
To dream up and execute such creative dishes as those that are served at Disney World takes a lot of research and development. Menus, drinks, restaurants, and even single foods can take years of R&D.
DeGeorge, Executive Chef of Culinary Concept Development for Disney Parks, says the chefs in the Food Lab are like Imagineers for food. They use everything at their disposal to invent new dishes and reinvent existing dishes. While they look at current trends, they also look at classic ways of cooking and what they can make that is new and inventive and fits the theme of a certain area. What’s more, they research cultural traditions and develop dishes that will fit into a certain cultural theme. These dishes are served mostly in Epcot‘s World Showcase.
3. Perfect dishes
After years of dreaming and research and development, the top Disney Chefs must perfect dishes. Dishes must be easy and quick to reproduce so that chefs in the on stage kitchens can keep up with the demand of guests.
On stage Cast Member Chefs must be able to perfectly execute hundreds of guest plates every day even though it took the top chefs years to create the perfect dish. They do this by using their combi ovens and other tools to make preparation easy and reliable and maintain that quality control for which Disney is known.
4. Create new restaurants
It should come as no surprise that part of the chefs’ jobs is to create new restaurants for guests to enjoy. Food is a big deal in the Disney Parks, and they must keep the food interesting and better than local fast food chains that are not very far away and more affordable. Cool, innovative restaurants keep guests on property.
Satu’li Canteen in Disney’s Animal Kingdom‘s Pandora is one such restaurant. The theming of the restaurant is really incredible, but it’s the food that people have really been interested in. The bowl-focused menu at Satu’li seems simple, but there are over 50 combinations that can be made consisting of beef, chicken, fish, tofu, and vegetable slaw plus your choice of base (either whole grains and rice or red and sweet potato hash), and sauce (charred onion chimichurri, black bean vinaigrette, or creamy herb dressing). Getting the flavors and cooks right on each element meant lots and lots of research before it was rolled out to guests.
D-Luxe Burger is another newer Disney-owned restaurant. It’s one of many additions to Disney Springs; they serve high-end burgers at a table-service restaurant and a grab and go quick-service window. Again, burgers seem simple, but that’s far from reality in Disney World. Food Lab chefs created 12 sauces and narrowed it down to six, and you can try all of them! The rolls are baked fresh each morning, insuring soft, tasty rolls even in the humid climate. In fact, it took chefs two years to get the French Fries right!
5. Re-imagine Existing Restaurants
Disney’s Food Lab chefs don’t just create new restaurants; they also re-imagine existing restaurants.
One such restaurant is Flying Fish at Disney’s Boardwalk adjacent to Disney’s Boardwalk Inn. Formerly Flying Fish Café, this restaurant used to be an unassuming though exclusive dining experience with some of the best fish at the resort. Inside, the Café was nice, but neither the name nor the theming were appropriate for the quality of the restaurant. The new restaurant continues to use some favorite dishes, but the interior has been upgraded to match the level of Fine/Signature Dining.
Restaurant re-imaginings like this one can take up to three years, so Food Lab Chefs are often working on several projects at once.
6. Cooking School
The chefs in the Food Lab don’t just create the food; they also have to teach others how to make it to insure consistency and quality. Their dream kitchen also functions as a show kitchen where chefs can demonstrate how to make the food and drinks they create.
Chefs in Disney World can use their show kitchen as a cooking school for chefs in other parks like Shanghai. After all, not all foods created in Orlando are used in Disney World; some of it is used exclusively in other parks.
There’s also a show bar area with overhead cameras like the show kitchen. Mixologists can use this area to teach others how to create fabulous-looking and tasting drinks.
These show areas save a lot of time and money on travel so chefs from other parks don’t have to go to Orlando to learn how to make food that will only be used in their park.
7. Meeting space
The Food Lab also functions as a meeting space. The more than 7000 square foot building located behind the gates of one of the moderate Disney resort hotels allows a private meeting space for chefs, sommeliers, mixologists, and other food and beverage executives to work without interruption.
They hold regularly scheduled training sessions for other food and beverage staff and presentations and meetings of all kinds.
8. Not just food
Surprisingly, these highly trained chefs in the top-secret food lab are responsible for more than just food. Have you ever wondered why some restaurants have high top tables while others have chair-height tables or why some have booths and others have chairs? Who decides these details, and are they done arbitrarily?
When they’re planning a restaurant, Food Lab chefs are responsible for everything from dreaming up, creating, and executing perfect dishes to choosing table heights, chair heights, lighting, windows, and really the overall design of the entire restaurant. These details are then passed on to the builders and they carry out the plan.
9. Strategic Planning
The food chefs have a very strategic way of planning all of these details, and their process may surprise you.
The Food Lab chefs first design and perfect the menu. This can take a lot of time, a lot of research and development, and a lot of trial and error. Once the food menu is finalized, then they work on the design of the restaurant, and finally the kitchen.
Bar planning follows a similar process: first the drinks, then the bar. Mixologists and sommeliers carefully design drinks that will wow guests but not be too complicated to make. If guests are waiting several minutes for a drink, they’re not only unlikely to order another one, but they probably won’t be very happy. With several bartenders running around doing a variety of tasks, bars and drinks need to be designed so they don’t get in each other’s way, and the Food Lab Chefs are excellent at doing just that.
10. Keep new things secret
As I’ve mentioned several times, this Food Lab is top secret and closed off to even most Cast Members. It’s very difficult to access, and for good reason.
Dishes and drinks can go through several revisions (up to 20) before they are perfected. This can take a significant amount of time, and they want to prevent leaks from happening during this process.
Before the new facility was built, the Food Lab was located in a small building shared with other teams. Unfortunately, the other teams didn’t have much discretion and would snap pictures of dishes and post them on social media. This led to leaks of innovative dishes, which really set the chefs back.
For these reasons, it’s really important that the building stay as secret as possible, and those who do have access are absolutely prohibited from taking any photographs and are sworn to secrecy. What happens in The Food Lab stays in The Food Lab until it’s rolled out!
What’s your favorite food or drink in Disney World?