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.

 

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Discovery Day: Take Two

To anyone who has ever been an Epcot Cast Member, you remember Discovery Day. (Probably.)

You know the drill–a run-through of the Four Keys Basics (repeat after me, class: Safety, Courtesy, Show and Efficiency!) and a mostly-walking tour of Future World, followed by a boat ride around World Showcase and a visit from your respective Coordinator of Training.

And the magical secret Epcot initiation that I want so badly to share but swore not to, with my right hand raised and the oath “So help me, Mickey!” ringing in my ears.

This is my second Discovery Day, which is to say I have been re-Epcot-ized. No more Magic Kingdom for me! Not for the next few months, anyway.

And boy does it feel good to be back. I love Epcot, love with a capital LOVE.

There are some things I was reminded of on today’s walking tour, a refresher course in the magical world of Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. For example, there are over 11,000 triangle tiles on Spaceship Earth (the actual number seems to vary depending on who you ask or which website you use) and Ellen’s Energy Adventure is 45 minutes long. And Innoventions is a really awesome way to get out of the heat.

The best part about Discovery Day is arguably the ride portion. A quick trip to the past and future on Spaceship Earth provides air conditioning, a good synopsis of what Epcot is all about (uniting the world through technology, without forgetting our past) and some good fun facts.

“I can smell Rome burning from here,” one girl behind me said, inhaling deeply in the queue line. This is a reference to the piped-in scent featured on the ride, the smell of smoke (faintly like bacon, really) pouring from the scene where Rome burns the scrolls of Alexandria.

That launched the group into a discussion of other piped-in smells, like the Main Street sweets and confections scent and the popcorn in Storybook Circus. This, as most conversations do when speaking with other Cast Members, turned into a fact war. Who has the most information? The craziest Guest story? The most magical moment? (Cast Members are both defensive and territorial, and the ‘True Believers’ all like to out-magic each other, a rather angry defense system I think comes from smiling day-in-day-out).

“Have you had Beverly?” someone asked in a challenging tone as we walked past Club Cool. For the uninitiated, Club Cool is a Coca-Cola sponsored store in Epcot where you can taste various carbonated drinks from around the world in shotglass-sized portions. Beverly, an Italian aperitif with a horribly bitter aftertaste, is a bit of an initiation for Cast Members. It tastes gosh-awful, and it’s a running joke to not warn people about the taste and laugh at their reaction.

“I once chugged five portions of Beverly on a bet,” the girl I was with said. We all made respective disgusted faces, because most people refuse to even finish a single sip.

We strolled past all sorts of landmarks and discussed important facts at length. We made friends with our fellow Cast Members and checked out our costumes for the Festival.

Most of all, though, we got to high-five each other for escaping our respective locations for the next five months. Because everyone loves Food and Wine! (And those Hollywood Studios Cast Members were relieved to get away from Frozen.)

Actually, during the introduction portion of the day we were asked to list our name, location and favorite Disney song. When we’d gone around the room, our guide applauded and said, “I noticed not a single one of you mentioned Frozen. That’s how I can tell you’ve all been Cast Members for a while!”

(For the First Time In Forever, we do not want to Build a Snowman and think it’s time to Let It Go.)

No matter the reason or season or how we all ended up in the same room, there was a tangible zip of enthusiasm in the air. It’s a new season! A new Festival!

Hello, Food and Wine 2014! Bring it on.

The Great American Pie Festival: Yep, Its A Thing

Let me start off with this: I spent my day at a never-ending pie buffet.

Today in Celebration, Florida, where I am a Wyoming transplant among the sunny jungle of Floridians, the Great American Pie Fest was held for the thirteenth year in a row. Shockingly, I had the day off from work, so I grabbed my cutest sundress and walked just a few blocks from my apartment to ‘the pie capitol of the world’ (as the website proclaims) where countless booths and endless slices of pie sat waiting for me. Right in my own backyard.

Does life get any better?

Of course, as a culinary student with an appetite for anything food related, I had to view the festival with a discerning eye. Without further ado, here is my honest review of the Great American Pie Fest of 2014.

Parking was insane, something I expected, so I decided to walk the few blocks from my residence to the adorable downtown area of Celebration. Market Street, home to shops and events and all sorts of good times, looks like a perfect American Main Street. It is literally a flawless design, kind of like a living, breathing version of Disney World’s Main Street minus the trolley dancers (although they do have trolleys.) The festival took place at Lakeside Park, which is where the Farmer’s Market is held every Sunday morning, and expos of all kinds take place.

As I approached the festival, I could hear an emcee from an unseen stage announcing, “Just look at those faces! Oh my, half of a cherry pie already down–can you believe it? Aaaand… look at that, he’s finished! That’s a new record! Just look at those messy smiles, folks!”

It was hot outside. April in Florida feels like mid-summer Wyoming with humidity. When I entered Lakeside Park and purchased my buffet ticket ($10 for all you can eat pie) they handed me a free bottle of ice water. A nice touch, since the heat was a little intense.

Dancing out front was a giant pie of the costume variety, waving and taking pictures. A girl in a dress decorated like a pie bounced and waved in her Village Inn advertisement attire.

I started at the front and worked my way back. There was a lot of pie. Most of the large supermarkets were giving away pie, as well as some other lesser known pie corporations. Really, the whole thing felt very corporate…no home cooks were involved, it was all mass-produced pie. (Well, I take that back. There’s a competition for the best pie in America, but I wasn’t around to see that since it takes place at a convention center.) I started with a blueberry pie from the Publix booth–good, sweet, nondescript. I went back to a few more booths and found more of the same. Plastic containers, like takeout boxes, were stacked by the dozens to accommodate the crowds. In the steamy Florida heat, the pie fillings were puddling quickly around the crust.

Unfortunately, there were not enough tables or chairs in the shade to accommodate all the pie-lovers. I stood in the hot sun and ate my pie, taking in the demographic. It was a very family-oriented event. Live music played, some cooking demos were going on.

“Here’s the difference between MY garlic and YOUR garlic,” one pushy salesman was saying loudly. He was advertising a type of microplane grater. I didn’t hear the rest, I just smiled to myself. I love the sounds of food people.

The Winn-Dixie booth was handing out coconut cream pie, and I’m a total sucker, so I grabbed a piece and tried to snag some shade to eat it. I was, admittedly, disappointed–heavy and sweet, the pie was warm on the outside and cold in the middle. Really cold, I’m talking ‘frozen-and-not-given-time-to-thaw-properly’ cold. It made the cream filling ice-crystal grainy. Actually, it felt nice against the outdoor sauna that is Florida weather, but texturally it was not very delicious.

After four pieces (blueberry, apple, Boston cream and coconut) I moseyed out of the pie buffet and towards the demonstration stage. I caught the tail end of a cookbook author and was able to watch a comedian performer show off a bunch of juggling tricks. He did a lovely improvisational routine with a little boy who was continually drawn to the stage, and the audience was in stitches.

Fortunately, I was in the prime spot to catch a demo from food stylist Susan Spungen, who was making a peach pie similar to the one she styled for the movie Labor Day with Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet. (Her charming website is here.) I got the chance to stop by and chat with her momentarily, although the large line behind me gave me limited time. Still, how often does that happen? A food celeb in my own backyard? How cool!

In her demo, she mentioned dusting the bottom of the pie crust with instant tapioca (the powder) to keep loose filling from making the crust soggy. I didn’t know that– how clever!

At this point, I’d spent several hours eating and meandering and eating some more, so I called it a day and left Lakeside Park for my second home: Starbucks. (I am such a consumer of corporate coffee it’s really sad. And I’m ashamed. But I really, really love Starbucks. I’m your stereotypical white girl with a green cup in my hand.)

It was truly a perfect day. I sipped my iced coffee, read the Celebration Newspaper and listened to the endless playlist of great music coming from the tapas bar next door.

I will admit, the pie itself was a bit disappointing, and the fact that everything was a big corporate advertisement was a tad bit of a letdown. But the pie eating contest was entertaining, as were the demos and entertainment, and the day couldn’t have been lovelier. A fun time? Certainly. Worth traveling across the country for? Um, no. Probably not.

For anyone in the area, the festival continues tomorrow from 12:00 to 5:00, and there will be plenty of pie to sate your appetite!

Since this is an annual event, perhaps I’ll be around to attend next year! I might even participate in the pie eating contest. That sounds like a blast.

In The Zone

The EPCOT Food and Wine Festival is finally taking shape. I’ve been given my international marketplace locations! Ladies and gents, I’m going to cook my way through…

Poland-500x333Poland

New-New-Zealand-booth-600x430New Zealand

Hops-and-Barley1-500x333Hops & Barley

Cheese-Booth-2-442x525Cheese

Florida-600x513Florida Local

Germany1-500x333Germany

FW1-Karamell-011-500x749Belgium

Brewers-Collection-500x333and last but not least, Brewer’s Collection.

As a Cast Member, it’s my job to make sure all festival attendees have the most magical time they possibly can. It’s just a plus that I get to have the experience of a lifetime! 46 days of food and Disney. Sure, it’s going to be rough, but it’s going to be worth it.

I apologize for my erratic posting schedule. Training for the festival has taken up the majority of my time, but I’ll be as on schedule as I possibly can from here on out!

For any of you attending Food and Wine this year, wave hello if you see me at one of these international marketplaces!

The countdown is on: 11 days to go. As the coordinator of this monstrous event told us during training, his smile as wide as a canyon as he welcomed us to the Food and Wine family, “Let’s throw ourselves a little festival now, shall we?”

We shall! Hope to see you there.

* All photos are from the Disney Food Blog, I do not claim to own any of them.