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Food & Wine Festival
Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tour
VIP Access Chef Tour
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
10:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Debra Martin Koma
New this year at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival is the Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tour, a program that promised in its description a walking tour "around the world" through the International Marketplaces, hosted by a festival chef. Whenever there's a new offering at the festival, I'm eager to try it, but this program in particular intrigued me. I was anxious to hear some of the challenges of developing and executing the menus for the food booths scattered around World Showcase directly from a chef, and looked forward to sampling some of the new food and beverage items as well.
The group, which is limited to 12 participants per tour, met at the Spotlight Stage in the Festival Welcome Center (the stage located across from the Intermissions Cafe). After a brief introduction by festival content development coordinator Jerred Stephenson, we were each given a special lanyard to wear during the tour, along with a headset that would allow us to hear the tour guide even if we strayed from his or her side. Each participant received a tall glass of Taittinger Brut Champagne and we toasted the new program and the festival, and then we were on our way.
Led by Jerred and festival content development manager Michael Jenner, we crossed Future World and walked up to World Showcase Plaza, where we were greeted by Jens Dahlmann, executive chef of Epcot, who would act as our guide.
Before beginning the tour, Chef Jens spoke a bit about his background and about how this particular program came about. Having given a similar tour of the International Marketplaces over the last several years to a number of VIPs, like Tom Staggs (chairman, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts) and visiting chefs from around the world, Chef Jens realized that this sort of personalized experience would probably be appealing to Disney guests who were avid fans of the Food and Wine Festival. With some adaptation, the concept was introduced this year for a limited number of dates to a very limited number of guests -- and immediately all dates offered sold out. Yes, you could say the interest was out there.
We embarked on the tour in earnest by walking toward the Mexico pavilion, where we encountered our first stop -- the brand new Terra marketplace, which features 100 percent vegan products. Chef Jens, who has been in his current position for about four years, spoke with some pride about this addition to the festival, stating that many visitors had been requesting more vegetarian and vegan options. He joked that Jenner had wanted to give the new marketplace a catchy name, but he (Chef Jens) had nixed it, deeming it too silly. What the relative Disney newcomer didn't realize (Chef Jens has been with Disney just since 2004) was that Jenner's suggestion -- "Veggie Veggie, Fruit Fruit" -- had some nostalgic value. Instead, after bandying about a few other names (including the also-rejected "Earth") they settled on Terra.
Our first taste of the day was this marketplace's Chili Colorado with House Made Chips & Cashew Cheese, featuring Gardein Beefless Tips. I had sampled this dish back in July at the Tables in Wonderland Food and Wine Festival preview, and at the time marveled at the truly beef-like texture of the Gardein product. This savory sample had a bit of a chili kick to it, but I think most of the other tour attendees enjoyed it as much as I did. The crunchy chips were not overly salty at all and made an interesting counterpoint to the chewy chunks of faux beef, reinforcing Chef Jens' claim that he is "all about the flavor of the food."
After receiving Terra stamps in our Festival Passports, we took a few steps further toward Mexico and came upon the Caribbean marketplace, where we were treated to a refreshing cup of Bacardi Torched Cherry Frozen Cherry Limeade. This fruity, slushy drink was a welcome cold refreshment after the heat of the chili -- it was just a bit too large of a portion to down too quickly, though, especially since it was sneakily alcoholic.
As we walked to our next stop, Germany, Chef Jens spent some time explaining how the marketplaces were divided into color-coded zones, each managed by its own chef. Each zone has a central production area (in Norway, Germany, and Canada) that's basically operating 20 hours each day, in which the food is prepared then cooled down to the proper temperature before being transported to the individual marketplaces.
"The volume of food we are preparing here is unreal," he noted. "For example, we will go through 20,000 pounds of pork butt. I can project that we will sell 40,000 pork sliders [in the Hawaii marketplace], but we sold 2,500 just on this past Saturday. So we constantly tweak, tweak, tweak and try to gain speed and efficiency."
When we reached Germany, we were able to park ourselves at some picnic tables (they're celebrating Oktoberfest here!) and try two samples: the Schinken Nudel (Pasta Gratin with Ham and Cheese) and the Schöfferhofer Grapefruit beer from the nearby Brewer's Collection.
I'm not much of a beer-drinker, but I found the Schöfferhofer unbeerlike and strangely refreshing -- almost like a citrus-y fruit punch, with a beer aftertaste. It was rather cloudy and orange in color, with almost no head, so it didn't look like much of a beer, either. I had tasted the Schinken Nudel the previous day and had enjoyed it, even though it wasn't quite like the macaroni and cheese it closely resembled. The tender noodles blended with a creamy, cheesy sauce were tasty, although would have liked a few more pieces of ham -- the bits of meat were so tiny that they didn't make much of an impact on the dish's flavor. One thing about this dish: the portion is surely one of the largest among all the international marketplaces.
As we departed Germany, we took a few moments to appreciate the pavilion's miniature railroad village, which was also observing the Food and Wine Festival, down to the detail of its very own cranberry bog.
The next waystation on our itinerary was the second of the festival's two new marketplaces -- Florida Local. Again, Chef Jens talked about the challenges of bringing his idea for this new entry to fruition. As he noted, taking advantage of Florida's local produce required some detailed planning in order to not wipe out the stock of any particular farmer. More than a trend, he stressed, taking advantage of the bounty of the region, capitalizing on its strengths, "is the right thing to do." In this booth, we were presented with the Florida Shrimp Ceviche with Fire Roasted Vegetables, Fried Plantains and Cilantro. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, which was surprising given the conditions under which they were prepared, and the vegetables in sauce had a nice spice to them. The accompanying plantain, though, was bland and boring, and a bit greasy, adding nothing to the dish. Still, overall I'd rate the ceviche itself worth a taste.
After walking past a few more food booths, we came to New Zealand where I hoped we might be tasting one of the savory dishes -- either the Seared Sea Scallop with Kumara-Red Curry Puree and Apple Radish Salad or the Lamb Meatball with Spicy Tomato Chutney. Nope. Instead they brough us a small glass of the Kim Crawford Un-Oaked Chardonnay to help extinguish the slight fire on our tastebuds created by the ceviche.
We marched on to Canada, where we were treated to one of the premier food items presented at the international marketplaces this year: the renowned "Le Cellier" Wild Mushroom Beef Filet Mignon with Truffle Butter Sauce. The filet was paired with a dark, chewy red wine, Mission Hill Family Estate Syrah. The filet replaces the Canada pavilion's previous perennial favorite, Maple Glazed Salmon. According to Chef Jens, after years of selling the salmon, he "just couldn't smell it any more," and decided it was time to introduce a new taste treat. Looking to Canada's signature restaurant, Le Cellier, for the recipe, the chef discovered that the labor-intensive mushroom risotto the beef is normally coupled with was not practical for production in the limited international marketplace kitchen. Instead, they developed a truffle butter sauce that is a worthy substitution. Chef Jens pointed out that the filet is center-cut, high quality Canadian beef, warranting the comparatively high ($6.50) price tag, but, as he asserted, this is in keeping with his goals of upping the standards of the food found in Epcot. That was hard to argue with, as I found the filet tender and seasoned perfectly, with plenty of buttery mushrooms to compliment it. The syrah, too, was a good choice, and I nodded when Chef Jens called it "the best match found anywhere among all the marketplaces."
"My vision is to provide authentic flavors," he claimed, "but I want you to not only enjoy tasting the food, but to enjoy smelling it and seeing it." He stood in the middle of the promenade at one point and gestured. "Here. What do you smell? Do you smell how good that is? This is what I have been trying to do for the past four years. Hopefully you see the transition."
Our tour concluded, not surprisingly, at the Desserts and Champagne marketplace, where we had the opportunity to try the Moët & Chandon Ice Impérial champagne and a trio of desserts: Yogurt Panna Cotta with Orange Cake, Raspberries and Pomegranate; Lemon Custard Verrine with Blueberry Compote; and Dark Chocolate Mousse with Chili and Salted Caramel. Having tasted these desserts at the Tables in Wonderland event in July, I was not surprised to see them again, and my opinion of them did not change. The intensely lemon custard was my favorite of the three -- even though I am a recovering chocoholic, I can't say that the dark chocolate mousse wowed me at all. The champagne was interesting -- I'd heard from others about how unusual it was, and while it was a novelty to have ice in your sparkling glass, I didn't think it was enough to convince me to try it again.
As we wrapped up, our hosts distributed oversized gift bags with an assortment of treats: a Festival Passport, a Festival cookbook (which Chef Jens graciously signed before we departed), a plastic palette plate (a notched dish designed to hold a wine glass as well as your food), and a light-up plastic tumbler with the Epcot30 logo.
So... bottom line? I found this new tour to be worth the $90, if you, like me, are an aspiring foodie who loves and anticipates the annual Epcot food and wine extravaganza with a passion. Even if you are vegetarian, or have other dietary concerns, this tour can be for you -- we had a vegetarian on the tour, and she was offered alternative tastes at every location, even if a food sample had to be obtained from a neighboring marketplace.
Tasting the food with Chef Jens, hearing his stories, and having unlimited access to him for two hours, was practically priceless. He repeatedly stressed how he and Chef Gregg Hannon, Epcot chef de cuisine have worked both consciously and conscientiously to upgrade the quality of the festival's food offerings, and also of the overall festival experience. In fact, it was a pleasure to hear him talk about anything and everything, not just the Food and Wine Festival, but also the 45 or so kitchens around Epcot that he oversees, and even his own personal preferences when it comes to dining around the World. (He gives Sunshine Seasons in The Land major props.)
That's not to say that I don't have a few criticisms and warnings about the tour:
1. Starting us off with a glass of champagne was a nice touch, but it would have been even nice to have some time to enjoy it. After one sip we were on our way -- very awkward to carry a glass of bubbly at that pace, and even more awkward to chug the champage on your way out the door.
2. The day of our tour was extremely hot and humid. While water was offered at the stops later in the tour, it might have been a good idea to also offer a bottle before we got started.
3. Stamping our passports at each stop was a nice idea, but a bit awkward -- you're juggling a plate and a glass, sometimes without a table to rest on, and then you have to dig in your pocket or backpack for the passport? It might be a better idea to give out pre-stamped passports to save that little time-consuming aggravation.
4. We were lucky enough to find seats and/or tables at many of our stops, but it would have been nice if we could have been guaranteed at least a table at each location. As I said previously, juggling glasses, plates, cameras, and backpacks became a challenge.
But these criticisms are minor when looking at the overall big picture. I would say that the single biggest complaint anyone might have is that these special tours are so difficult to get into. Chef Jens' time is clearly at a premium during the festival -- he himself said he is basically "living here" in Epcot at the moment -- so I would imagine it would be difficult to spread him any thinner. But I do hope that the festival organizers are able to expand this program in the future, so that others can enjoy such a special VIP Food and Wine Festival experience.
Marketplace VIP Access Chef Tour -- Taste items
from pre-selected Marketplaces and learn behind-the-scenes
facts on how these dishes were created. The menu includes
five food items and five alcoholic beverage items.
When: Wednesdays - Tour begins at 10:30 a.m. and lasts approximately two hours.
Where: Festival Center - Spotlight Stage, then select marketplaces around World Showcase.
Price: $90 plus tax - Theme Park admission required.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This tour has sold out for the 2012 Festival. If you take this tour, please leave a review on our Rate and Review page HERE.