It’s Festival Prep Week! *Scary Music Here*

It’s all coming back to me now.

The heat! The sweaty grossness! The dirt and grime and long hours!

I have a tendency to romanticize the past, make things that were difficult all so wonderful and rosy in my mind. And the Food and Wine Festival is no different. Only here’s the thing: the festival has a weird effect on Cast Members. Everyone is a walking-talking-working zombie at times, but when the Festival ends, everyone is sentimental and absolutely enamored by the events that have just occurred.

I won’t lie. I am charmed by Epcot. I think the Food and Wine Festival is the best experience in the world.

But it’s so hot. It gets so hot you forget what it’s like to feel A/C. Sometimes you’re so hot that you even forget that you’re hot until someone opens a cooler and you feel a nice breeze and you just want to move to Antarctica on the next available flight.

This year I’m working under a new team of chefs, and they’re… um, intense.

And if you haven’t heard of Chef Jens, the Executive Chef of Epcot, let me just tell you that man strikes fear into my very being. (When he shook my hand today and welcomed me back to the Festival, it was all I could do not to just throw out a slew of, “YES CHEF! HEARD! ALL DAY!” and run across the kiosk. As it was a managed a surprisingly cool, “Yes, Chef, thank you Chef.”)

My new chef team is based out of the Norway kitchen (Akershus, the princess dining in the Norway pavilion, is a name that everyone has a hard time pronouncing, so we just call it “The Norway Kitchen” to keep it easy.) They are, for the next three months, my immediate superiors and nothing that goes on in my work life occurs without their explicit approval. My fellow Cast Members, who will be running the left-hand side of World Showcase with me–that’s Patagonia, New Zealand, Australia, Florida Fresh and South Korea–are my family for the next 53 days.

I will do nothing but eat, sleep, breathe and dream of the Food and Wine Festival. I will get to know my team inside and out, and converse with nearly no one else.

“Here are the ground rules,” one of my chefs said to us today. “First, if you have family here, tell them goodbye for the next three months. You’ll get two days off a week if you’re lucky. Two, you’re being moved and placed and judged on your performance. You don’t walk, you stride. You don’t talk, you communicate. Understood? Third, this is your restaurant. You’re inviting thousands of guests over, and you’re their host. Take some pride in your work. And, lastly, don’t try to out-drink the Norwegians, or any of the International College Program Students, okay? They’ll drink you under the table. If you come to work hungover, I’ll send you home. If you come to work drunk, you’re fired. Clear?”

“Heard!”

“Yes, Chef!”

My other chef is a slim, snappy woman who has probably heard the line, “You’d make a great hostess!” as many times, if not more, as I have. But that’s where our similarities stop. She’s tough. She takes no crap. She is the most fierce chef I’ve ever encountered, as if she’s making up for her looks by being as strict and tough as possible. She scares me a little, but I also have tremendous respect for her. I kind of hope she has a little bit of mercy for me–you know, a girl-chef-to-girl-chef kind of way. (We’ll see how that goes.)

Anyway, all I can recall about last year is being thrown into the festival without hope of a life raft. I had none of the on-site training I needed. I just showed up and was told to grill lobster in Hops and Barley, my first kiosk. (Awww.) I learned the hard way last year.

This year, my new area and my new chefs seem to very adamant that we learn the menu back and forth, that we learn how everything is to be produced and that we make no mistakes and have little leeway. I, like the crotchety old grandma I am on the inside, keep thinking things like, look at these newfangled contraptions! as I look at my menu lists and listened to the safety spiels. I was actually given a tour of the kitchen. I was shocked. (Where was I last year? How did I miss all the important stuff like, where do we store the food?)

As the chefs educate everyone on their jobs and the upcoming 53-day culinary boot camp that is Food and Wine, I find myself nodding along like a redundant bobblehead. Of course, the second I realize I’m doing it, I stop, because I don’t want to be that guy” that thinks he/she knows everything. I detest those people.

So I stand, in the front, trying to look both eager and serious at the same time. It’s hard, because on the inside I’m jumping up and down and skipping and singing and thinking, “Yes! I’m back at Epcot! Oh, how thrilling!” On the outside, I’m just trying to keep my, “Yes, Chef,” as even and monotone as possible, because I’m pretty sure everyone would think I was crazy otherwise.

As it stands, folks, there are FIVE days until the official opening.

Less than a week.

Are you ready? I’m ready. I was born ready.

LETS DO THIS THING.

 

Ten Days Until Food and Wine!

The leaves are changing (in places that are not Florida, I am sure) and the Pumpkin Spice Latte has made a reappearance at the local Starbucks. I personally adore these delicious pumpkin-caffeinated beverages, but have not ordered one out of respect for baristas who hate making PSL’s. (My best friend is one. I did this for you, Miss Barista. I’ve sacrificed my autumn goodness out of respect for your kind.)

Anyway, other than the season starting afresh with all sorts of autumn feel-good nostalgic memories, this is the best season for one simple reason.

It’s Epcot International Food and Wine Festival time.

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It is the absolute BEST time at the best place in all of the Walt Disney World Resort, and that’s saying a lot because WDW is the size of Manhattan. Sure, you can make/buy food that is just as delicious as what we serve, and you can even buy the unique varieties of alcohol we distribute here. But can you ever come close to replicating the feeling of the warm evening air, the twinkle lights, the laughter and the music of World Showcase in the fall?

I’ll answer that right now. You can’t. Because the best cocktail we serve doesn’t have anything to do with the alcohol–it has to do with the perfect blend of atmosphere, experience and music, shaken–not stirred–and served in a sparkling glass.

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My favorite kiosk last year! (I own the photo)

Bear in mind I am not being paid by the company to say any of this. I truly believe it because I’m cheesy and full of it. And I have good reason to love Food and Wine. My very first job (ever-ever) was the Food and Wine Festival, and it was my dream job. It was hard. Guests have it easy–relax, knock back a few cocktails, sip a few beers, eat some sliders, hop from kiosk to kiosk and watch the fireworks explode before retiring to a luxury hotel on property. Cast Members, on the other hand, get to spend eight to twelve hours a day in the searing Florida heat, clothed head to toe in long, unbreathable costumes, leaning over grills in kiosks that reach upwards of 90 degrees, all while plastering that ‘Welcome to Disney!’ smile on their red, borderline-heatstroked faces.

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Some of my fellow Cast Members from last year’s festival! (I own this photo)

And you know what? We love it.

Because we have a chance to put smiles on your faces. Also, we have a blast back there. You would not believe the people I’ve met! My fellow Cast Members, who are in Culinary Boot Camp serving thousands of plates an hour, become family. We’re spending 56 straight days together crammed into kiosks the size of a postage stamp. We get to listen to Illuminations: Reflections of Earth for 56 nights straight. We’ve got that song memorized. I can snap my fingers to every crackling firework shell.

Today, as you may have guessed, was my big training day for Food and Wine. I’ve been ‘deployed,’ in Disney terms, from my ‘home location’ of Columbia Harbour House, Magic Kingdom, to Epcot for the duration of the Festival. I left today’s Festival Overview totally pumped, which is kind of lame because I’ve seen this all before and it can get a little boring for normal people. I, on the other hand, was trying to wipe the ridiculous smile off my face so I didn’t look entirely crazy.

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Last year’s festival! (Again, my photo.)

Walking into Epcot just feels like home. It’s a system I understand. It makes sense to me.

My kiosks this year will span from Mexico to China, to the left of World Showcase. This is a fun and new experience for me, considering last year I worked the back half of the festival, from Germany to Morocco. I’m looking forward to a change of scene and meeting all the new and wonderful people I know I have yet to encounter.

It’s going to be hot. And busy. And a serious workout. But the food is going to be delicious, and the experience is going to be awesome.

So, with just TEN days to go (nine, if you count the not-so-soft opening on the 18th) until the Festival starts… who’s ready for some Food and Wine Festival fun?

Pippi Longstocking Syndrome

There is a name for my problem.

“Pippi Longstocking Syndrome: An instance or event when a peer or superior in a male-dominated field treats a young girl as supremely inferior due to her age, gender, personality or a combination of the three.”

This is, of course, entirely made up. But it has been done so with the utmost consideration. You see, yesterday I had the chance to sit down with (or, rather, work alongside) several burly men in the culinary field as we set up for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s ginormous culinary convention at the Orange County Convention Center. I was merely a volunteer, but we entered through the loading docks (super awesome, by the way) to help move and clean kitchen equipment and, essentially, set up several makeshift kitchens for various competitions.

Found on the FLRA website.

Found on the FLRA website.

“No offense,” one of them said to me, “But you do give off kind of a…hostess-y feel.”

I propped my fists on my hips. “Excuse me,” I said. “I am culinary.”

There was one other woman there, about ten years my senior but the same size as me, who piped up in my defense.

“Just because this is a male field doesn’t mean we can’t do just as well, if not better, than the men. Do I look like I can lift fifty pounds? Well, I can. And I can cook better than all of you.”

The guy who had issued the comment backed up, affronted. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just the Pippi Longstocking thing you have going against you.”

Admittedly, I was in my dirty work clothes, which means I was sporting an old black t-shirt, some sneakers and a worn out pair of jeans. And the jeans may have sparkled, because I bought them on sale at Charlotte Russe for two dollars after Christmas. I’m me. I like cheap, sparkly clearance items. They are great work pants.

And, uh, my sneakers may have also sparkled.

And, if I’m continuing with this honesty streak, my hair was in two side braids a la Anna from Frozen, but only because my hair wouldn’t stay in its ponytail. (Hazards of new conditioner, you feel me?)

Anyway, the comment should have offended me, but I knew I was kind of asking for it, so I didn’t respond. Pippi Longstocking, huh?

This prompted a conversation of influential women in the kitchen, and the phrase Pippi Longstocking Syndrome found its way into our vocabulary. The chefs we were working under (American Culinary Federation bigwigs and the Banquet Chef from Universal Studios) also gave some opinions over lunch, and it was a great conversation. If I were in more of a feminist ranting mood, I’d relay it all here, but I’d rather share a bit more of the overall volunteer experience. It was awesome.

Photo Credit: jjkllc.com

Photo Credit: jjkllc.com

If you’ve never been to the Orange County Convention Center, it is a truly massive building. The first day, it was nothing but a big cement room. Gradually people began to roll in machinery,  equipment and carpet through the giant loading dock entrance. Booths began to sprout up. It’s also high security–people are paying big bucks to attend this convention, but even the setup was strict. No wristband/ID/badge, no entrance. The first day the wristbands were purple. The next day they were blue.

I was a grunt worker, thanks to my status as Cheerful Volunteer. I moved the heavy refrigerators and cleaned them all out, which was a rather unpleasant job. For one, it required me to bend at all awkward angles to get to the corners of these reach-in coolers, and they all smelled funky, sounded funky or were covered in funky residue from their last event.

“Look at this!” I said to one of my fellow volunteers. “It looks like coffee grounds.”

“Pippi,” he said (my new nickname, thanks to my braids) “That’s rust.”

The whole underside of one of the shelves had rusted and was raining down physical contaminants onto the cooler floor. After serious scrubbing, wiping and shelf replacing, the issue was fixed, and I was covered in cleaning chemicals.

All the work was worth it, though, to see the finally assembled kitchens all in a row. (One of my best friends is competing in the big event, and I’m awfully excited for it.)

The next day (today) was even better. Out of ten volunteers, only two of us showed up–me, and my fellow Pippi Longstocking. As rewards for our efforts we were given lunch and some extra products from sponsors. And, of course, we got the last laugh.

Plus, we got free lunch.

Reviewaholic

TripAdvisor keeps sending me bumper stickers.

It all started so innocently– great service prompted a request for a good review on TripAdvisor, the online travel review help site, and so I happily typed up a glowing paragraph and submitted it online.

They sent me an email, a very cheerful and grateful one– Thanks for writing such a great review! We’re glad you’re willing to share your experiences with other travelers.

That did the trick. I was tickled pink. Who cares if no one even read the review? It was out there, for the world to see! My experience was helping make educated travel experiences for others!

Write another review? It prompted me.

So I did. A restaurant review. And another.

Another.

And another.

And that’s how it happened. That’s how I got addicted to TripAdvisor. I’m no food critic, but that’s the beauty of being online in this day and age. I have a cell phone camera and a fairly large vocabulary. I can experiment with phrases like, ‘fork-tender’ and ‘dazzlingly complex’ without having the pressure of being Frank Bruni or Pete Wells. I can share my experiences with the world, and TripAdvisor will keep encouraging me with emails containing subject lines like, “Another Great Review!” and “You Wrote It. They Loved It!”

It even tells me who all has read the reviews. I’ll open up yet another email from them, exclaiming, 435 views on your review!

And the few people that have voted my reviews ‘helpful’ have only encouraged me further. I am slowly gaining TripAdvisor badges like an overeager Girl Scout on caffeine. I reached my Contributor badge in less than a week.

To make matters worse, I signed up for Yelp this morning. I just had such excellent service at a tire store, and my review-happy typing fingers just had share the knowledge.

And Yelp, like his good buddy TripAdvisor, prompted me to write another review?

And I couldn’t say no.

It’s official–I’m addict. Is there a Trip-Ad Anonymous out there? And if so, has anyone reviewed it?

If not, I volunteer.

The irony abounds.