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.

Culinary Bucket List Time!

Somewhere on a lake in Quebec, a wooden shanty sits on three feet of ice above twenty feet of water.

The unpainted, wooden walls are bare and undisguised, exposed to the cold air and the smoke escaping the stove. The sight in the center of the room seems strangely out of place. A white table cloth, beautiful wine glasses and vintage dinnerware are a sharp contrast to the unpolished interior surrounding it.

Even more surprising is the meal about to emerge. Boneless wild hare a la Escoffier, doused in a silky, thick ribbon of sauce (made with its own blood–not as gross as it sounds, America.) A delicate heap of black truffles adorns the top, and to complete this decadent and surprising meal is a thick slab of foie gras, seared straight on the top of the stove.

If I could steal this meal right off my television screen, I would. Anthony Bourdain is crooning over this Quebecois dish via Netflix, and I’m so enthralled by the highbrow/lowbrow feel of the shack and fine dining together that I stop, rewind, and watch it again. Then I write it down. And I underline the important parts, like…well, pretty much all of it.

Of course, not everyone is food obsessed, but I’m sure someone out there knows the feeling. I just want to eat every meal in the world, okay? There is so much good food out there from so many countries! How can I ever manage to taste it all?

For those of you that don’t watch Parts Unknown, a relatively unpublicized travel show hosted by Anthony Bourdain, it’s on Netflix, and it’s fascinating. I have a love/hate relationship with Anthony Bourdain–his writing is amazing, his sense of humor is both crude and eloquent and he reports on more than just the food, including the families and politics, occasionally alluding to his own dark past. And he doesn’t hide behind editing–he shows the gritty bits of the culinary and travel underworld.

And he’s probably had more good food than anyone ever has a right to.

But, like many people in this industry, he’s unabashedly vulgar at times, and that taints my enjoyment a little.

Either way, I find a lot of his shows entertaining and educational. It makes me want to eat at a sugar shack in Canada and try pancakes cooked in duck fat. I want to eat ceviche in Peru, fresh fish with a squeeze of lemon, maybe some octopus in there. I want to travel with Eric Ripert to study cocoa trees deep in the jungle! Take me there!

I’ve begun to concoct a culinary bucket list. It pretty much contains every food item on earth, but I am determined to try it all. Somehow, some way.

And I’m going to have to take up some serious cardio or you’ll have to roll me out of here. It wouldn’t be fair to eat all that food and be skinny, too.