They didn’t serve a lobster roll at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival once.
"My second year here," says Executive Chef Michael Deardorff, "the culinary director decided to change things up. We made a killer lobster mac-and-cheese instead."
Disney guests, he quickly found, are fiercely loyal – not only to the park and festival, but to favorites deemed sacred.
"We heard about it every day as we walked out to Hops & Barley," he laughs, lesson learned. "As long as I am working here, there will always be a lobster roll over there."
Imagineering, apparently, extends into Disney’s culinary realm, as well. Tinkering can and does happen.
"Different parts of New England have different styles with their lobster rolls," Deardorff notes. "Some make it as a salad, some do it cold. This year, we’re serving it warm, poached in butter with a nice aioli on top. We re-imagine dishes all the time."
Even so, says Deardorff, each year brings with it all-new creations for guests to taste. "About 30 percent," he estimates. While dishes like the jerk-spiced chicken lollipop, a popular item from the Islands of the Caribbean marketplace returns this year with a re-imagined spin. Others, like the charred chimichurri skirt steak (recipe below) from Flavors from Fire, are brand new.
The process, says Deardorff, begins in a boardroom, not a kitchen, where festival chefs converge.
"We sit around and blue-sky ideas," he explains. "Flavors from Fire was new last year, and so we ask, 'What proteins do we need out there? Do we need steak? Pork? This marketplace isn’t bound by nation. Danny (Sous Chef Daniel Contreras) came up with [the skirt steak dish]; but with just about any dish, we lay them out and talk amongst ourselves and decide which we will push forward."
Executive Chef Michael Deardorff and Sous Chef Daniel Contreras show off the charred chimichurri skirt steak at the 23rd Epcot International Food & Wine Festival — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Along the way, each recipe is tweaked – aioli changed, herbs added – until it lands at what guests will experience at the festival.
"We had a dish with a corn cake last year," Deardorff notes. "This year, we smoked the corn, then made the cake, adding a layer of flavor to the end product."
It doesn’t always work that way, though. The Active Eats energy bar bites (recipe below) were born as a project at Sunshine Seasons, a food court inside Epcot’s Land Pavilion.
“We wanted to make our own energy bar, so our pastry chefs came up with this version, which is really quite ingenious," Deardorff notes, rattling off ingredients. "It’s dairy-free, gluten-free – made with dates, coconut milk, chocolate and peanut butter chips, sunflower seeds, almonds, pistachios. It’s very decadent, so it really gives guests that dessert feel." (Vegans take note: the bites contain honey.)
Chefs’ inspiration, he says, literally comes from everywhere – TV shows, meals out with family, something stumbled upon in a home kitchen, a magazine article. And Epcot’s robust event schedule ensures no winning dishes go untasted.
"Now that we have four festivals, something that doesn’t work for Food & Wine could be a great one for Festival of the Arts. If it’s plant-based, perhaps we hang onto it for the Flower & Garden Festival. It’s nice that we don’t have to shelve so many things anymore."
And it’s always a team effort.
By the time Contreras’ chimichurri concept was ready for its close-up, it was pieces and parts of the festival chef collective.
"When a dish like this gets selected," says Deardorff, "everybody wins."
And the figurative trophies come on the days the chefs walk the festival.
"We just step off to the side and watch and wait for the guest to take that first bite. And when you see that smile, that desire to share it with someone – 'Hey, you have to try this!' – that’s where the personal satisfaction happens. It doesn’t mean anything until that guest says, 'Nice job!'"
Flavors from Fire: the skirt steak dish is an all-new Epcot offering this year — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Charred skirt steak, corn pancakes and jicama slaw
Yield: Serves 6
Marinated Skirt Steak
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon chopped Fresno or jalapeño pepper
1/4 teaspoon chopped serrano pepper
2 tablespoons diced red onion
1 pinch coarse salt
1 pinch freshly ground pepper
1 pinch smoked Spanish paprika
1 pinch chili flakes
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 cup canola oil
1 pound skirt steak
1 cup peeled jicama, julienned with mandolin
1/2 cup peeled carrots, julienned with mandolin
1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced, about 2-inch-long pieces
1 teaspoon finely diced Fresno or jalapeño pepper
1 cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons canola oil
1/4 teaspoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Pinch coarse salt
2 large ears yellow corn, shucked
1 large egg
3 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons whole milk
Pinch coarse salt, freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup masa harina
1 teaspoon canola oil, more as needed
For marinated skirt steak:
- Place all ingredients except steak in blender and purée until smooth.
- Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Put steak in large zip-top bag and add marinade. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.
For jicama slaw:
- Julienne jicama and carrots with mandolin and place in glass bowl. Add onion and diced pepper.
- Blend vinegar, salt, pepper and sugar at medium speed in blender.
- With blender running, slowly add oil.
- Stir in parsley and adjust seasonings. Pour dressing over slaw.
- Transfer to glass bowl or zip-top bag and marinate in refrigerator at least 4 hours.
For cilantro cream:
- Combine all ingredients in blender and purée until smooth. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
- Transfer to bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
For corn pancakes:
- Smoke corn over hickory wood chips at 220°F degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, cool and cut kernels from cob. Divide into 2 equal portions.
- Purée egg, water, milk, salt, pepper, and half of corn in food processor until smooth.
- Transfer to medium-size bowl and fold in masa harina and remaining corn.
- Heat canola oil in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Pour a heaping tablespoon of batter into skillet and spread to about 1/4-inch thickness. Cook for about 4 minutes or until golden brown, flipping halfway through. Cook in batches and keep warm until ready to serve. (This step can be done while steak is resting.)
- Remove steak from marinade and grill over charcoal to medium rare. Remove from heat and rest 10 minutes. Slice thinly against grain.
- Place pancake on serving plate, top with steak, slaw and cilantro cream.
Cook’s Note: If you don’t have time to make the corn pancakes, you can serve with store-bought corn tortillas – fry them in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat with 2 tablespoons hot oil for about 10 to 30 seconds on each side until browned and cooked (they will still be pliable). Drain on paper towels and keep warm until ready to serve.
What to drink: Pair with a cool margarita served over ice in a salt-rimmed glass or agua fresca made with fresh melon, lime, sugar and mint.
The Active Eats energy bites have a dense mouthfeel made sweet by a base of dates — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Active Eats energy bar bites
Yield: About 30 bites
14 ounces dried dates
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup chopped toasted pecans
1/3 cup chopped toasted almonds
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
1/3 cup dried blueberries
1/4 cup chocolate chips
1/3 cup peanut butter chips
2/3 cup oats
1 1/2 cups shredded coconut
- Combine dates and water in a shallow dish. Cover with a plate and microwave 2 minutes. Set aside 10 minutes. Strain dates, reserving water.
- Place dates in a food processor and purée. Add reserved water as needed to form a thick paste.
- Combine pecans, almonds, cocoa powder, pumpkin seeds, dried blueberries, chocolate chips, peanut butter chips and oats in a large bowl. Add date paste and mix until well combined and uniform.
- Refrigerate 1 hour.
- Use a 1-tablespoon scoop to scoop out balls; roll between hands until smooth. Place coconut in a bowl and roll balls in coconut to cover.
- Store refrigerated in an airtight container.