If you want to know about the current tastes preferences of mainstream American travelers, there are few better places to look than Disney parks. When tandoori and flatbread make the menu, then they've made it.
Disney parks and resorts around the world open their gates to hundreds of thousands of people a day, and somebody has to feed them. The logistics required to serve between half a million and a million meals a day, not to mention the endless turkey legs, slushies, and popcorn guests snack on, are formidable. And making all the guests happy requires more than just a well-fried chicken finger.
Much of the responsibility for this falls on the shoulders of Lenny DeGeorge. As Executive Chef for Resorts, Chef DeGeorge controls the food and beverage program at 18 Disney resorts in the U.S. and abroad. Any new construction, any new restaurant, any new menu, comes through DeGeorge.
After meeting DeGeorge at the opening of Walt Disney World’s New Fantasyland last fall, Skift called the chef to talk more about creating new restaurants, the challenge of sourcing so much food locally, and the evolution of travelers’ taste buds.
Skift: Can you describe a bit of your background and how you rose to this role?
Chef DeGeorge: Sure. One of the great things about working for Disney is, one, it’s not for everybody. Two, it’s incredibly demanding, and three, once you’re in there, you get addicted to it. We’re so unlike anyone else that a lot of times promotions come from within.
I came to Disney 20 years ago. Disney hired me out of Johnson & Wales University in Providence and I’ve been here ever since. I spent time in theme parks, time in resorts, slowly working my way up. I ran Cinderella’s Castle for about seven years in the Magic Kingdom. I was in charge of the Wilderness Lodge for about four of those years. Those are probably the highlights before I was promoted to executive chef for resorts.
Skift: Can you tell me about the process of opening Aulani Resort in Hawaii?
Chef DeGeorge: Hawaii was our first venture that’s not really attached to a theme park. It’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s on the island of Oahu. It’s on the southern side of the island, and we built the most spectacular resort there.
For us, it was interesting because we had never done anything in Hawaii. A lot of the team had never even been to Hawaii. There were months, and months, and months of research just coming up with our best guess on how to do business in Hawaii.
Beyond that, we did lots of research on the local flavor profiles. Our job was to blend those local flavor profiles with the demands of international and domestic guests. We have lots of information over the years of what Disney guests like. After all, they’re the ones that are going to be back in the hotel rooms in Hawaii. We certainly had to keep that in mind as we designed the food and beverage package.
Skift: How long were involved in starting up the program there?
Chef DeGeorge: My team was working on it probably about five years out. A lot of people don’t realize that piece of the work and how far out you have to be. When you’re designing a building that’s going to be two years in construction, they really can’t construct it until they know every little piece that’s going to be in there. It all has to be drawn out. With that, you have to decide what’s going to be on the menu. Obviously, there is going to have to be special equipment in there to support that menu. A lot of decisions are made, honestly, two and a half years out.
Skift: What’s the size of the team you work with?
Chef DeGeorge: Let’s see. Chef-wise, there are four of us. We have a culinary director, Ed Wronski is his name. Then, we have a couple non-culinaries that support us. That’s just the chefs’ side of it. There’s also a project management side of the department. That probably has about five people and then there’s a beverage piece of that has another four.
It’s a very small and powerful team.
We don’t do anything twice. Every time we open a new restaurant, it’s a theme, a recipe package, everything’s specific to that location. Really wrapped around what the story is.
The Walt Disney Imagineering Department will tell us by where the resort is, what the section of the resort might be, and where it is in the theme park. A lot of that is already determined for us and we work within those parameters to make sure whatever we deliver is as authentic as possible. It’s possible just from the standpoint of it still has to be something that the guests will enjoy, order, and come back for.
Skift: How many people do the parks see in a day?
Chef DeGeorge: That is a great question. Depending on the day, you’re into the hundreds of thousands. One time and I had to put down a piece of paper what one resort would feed on a busy. It was north of 50,000 guests, just on a busy resort day. That’s just the people that are staying on properties at a Walt Disney World Resort.
If you add that in addition to four theme parks, water parks, sports complex, downtown Disney dining and shopping, it gets up very fast.
Skift: That’s a lot of onions you’ve got to cut.
Chef DeGeorge: It’s a lot of onions, a lot of trucks of onions.
Skift: How do you balance the desire to feed guests with locally sourced food versus the sheer logistics involved in doing over 500,000 meals a day?
Chef DeGeorge: I think the biggest hurdle for us is where we are in the country. If you’re in California, you can get every kind of produce you could ever imagine. It’s absolutely beautiful, and there are longer growing seasons. In Florida, you have tomatoes, you have green beans, you have corn, avocados. There’s more to that list but it’s not nearly as long.
I’m really happy with some of the efforts that local companies have brought forward. We have an organic citrus farm in Claremont, FL, which is really only maybe about 20 miles from the parks. Over on the coast, there’s B&W. That’s a hydroponic watercress farm. Great stuff.
We really have done as much as we can to source local with our shellfish and fish. We work with Fresh from Florida, which is a program that helps us become aware of what’s available.
With everything, when you look at the price per pound, it’s not cheaper, but we feel strongly that it’s the right thing to do for the environment.
Skift: Over the last few years, the demographics of park visitors have changed. How does the park respond to the changing demographics and changing needs of guests?
Chef DeGeorge: The interesting piece when you think about where everybody comes from to visit here, the majority of them want to dine in the local way. We haven’t adjusted greatly the menus with regard to where people are coming from.
The more exciting piece is that, just overall, people have a lot more knowledge of food. In every part of the country, we’re getting more and more into flavors that appeal to or are closer to what international guests probably were raised on. From the level of spice to the complexity of flavor it’s just incredible.
When I was at Cinderella’s Castle 15 years ago, people would ask me what balsamic vinegar was. Today, they will ask me, “Is it truly from Modena? How many years has it been aged, and what type of wood was it aged in?”
As a chef, that’s just incredible. Incredible. When I joined Disney, we may have served five kinds of rice. Today, we’re probably up to 30. As a chef, that’s probably one of the biggest reasons that I stayed here — to help watch that, to help be a part of driving it.
Skift: Can you remember examples of when you guys might have moved too quickly on taste and introduced something that was too soon for audiences or just didn’t work?
Chef DeGeorge: We had a menu that rolled out at the Hollywood Studios that was all around flat bread and kefta, which is spiced beef, and kabobs and those kinds of things. Grilled pita bread. At the time, people were not ready for, but, now, we have that on several menus.
In the last four years, we’ve opened an Indian-inspired restaurant, Sanaa, at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. We have Cat Cora’s Kouzzina, which is a Greek restaurant, that’s at the Boardwalk. They’re both doing well. I don’t think we could have done that 10 years ago. It would not have worked.
We have the Landscape of Flavors food court over at Art of Animation Resort. We have a World Flavors Shop that has four tandoori ovens that are in guests’ view. We have our culinary cast members making naan bread fresh in guests’ view.
If we had done that, say, 10 years ago, the three other shops inside the food court would be thriving, and there would be nobody lined up at the World of Flavors Shop. But, today, it’s one of the most interesting things. It holds its own up against pasta and up against pizza and the burger.
Skift: You guys rolled out the New Fantasyland last fall. It was the first time that you had served beer and wine in Fantasyland. Now that that’s been going a few months, what’s the response been? Have you adjusted anything, or is it something worked as planned?
Chef DeGeorge: It’s worked as planned. There has been no adjustment. I’m not super in touch with any of the latest comments or ratings or those kinds of things, but the plan has not changed. It’s been incredibly popular. Whatever response there may have been, certainly by their sales, there’s a good amount of people that are going there, and they’re pretty happy to get beer and wine in the Magic Kingdom.
Skift: Do you guys keep track of what your best-selling dishes are, the most popular things that you do? I know each restaurant is slightly different, but there are consistent items across the menu, whether it’s chicken fingers or burgers or whatever. Is there one thing that you have to have on just about every menu?
Chef DeGeorge: There’s not one thing that you have to have on every menu. I could say that I don’t think that you need to. Even in today’s age, you could get away with not having certain things in certain parks. We’re definitely mindful of what are pleases the guests and what they will always go for.
When you look at a theme park especially, we take the whole map and put up by restaurant what each restaurant offers and make sure that there’s a great amount of variety for the whole park. Any theme park in the United States, I think everybody’s been trained to go in and have a burger or pizza or fried chicken with French fries.
I don’t think that will ever go away, but we like to do things a little bit more progressive sometimes too. Like Pinocchio Village Haus in the Magic Kingdom doesn’t serve traditional pizzas anymore. They serve flatbreads, flatbread sandwiches. The guests’ response to those have been overwhelmingly positive.
Skift: What’s been the most exciting development over your tenure there?
Chef DeGeorge: It really is the more and more progressive thinking by the guests, more and more acceptance of authentic, flavorful food. I can tell you when I got here that you needed to almost cook bland if you wanted to satisfy the majority of people in your dining room, or guests in your dining room. Whereas today, you’re always going to have to have those main things or at least one or two items that will appeal to everybody.
Fortunately for us, that’s usually beef. Any kind of a steak is always popular. Beyond that though, you can almost do anything and people will experience it and they do enjoy it. I’m most proud I think of Sanaa and of that World Flavor Shop in Art of Animation. The fact that we can get that specific and so ethnic and still have success really tells the story.
I’ve had the ability to do the work on the West Coast quite a bit and we were able to transform what the Quick Service dining looked like at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. I think we were helpful on probably six or seven Quick Service menus, and out of all those menus, out of all those facilities, not one of them was a straight burger restaurant.
There was a burger on two of the menus, a really good pastrami cheeseburger that was incredible. But that just goes to show that people are accepting of things other than the burger and the chicken fingers. We did a kabob restaurant. We did a pizza/pasta restaurant where you get to see everything made on stage. We did a makeover of Hungry Bear, which is over in Frontierland at Disneyland. We did a fried green tomato sandwich for a vegetarian option that is just incredible.
Skift: There’s a real vegetarian item on every menu now, is that correct?
Chef DeGeorge: Yes, and beyond what is on the menu our chefs have a couple that they’re ready to prepare at any time upon a guest’s request. Our menus can only be so big because that slows down people’s ability to make a decision.
They are all so great that they don’t want to choose one. But yes, every menu will have a vegetarian option, and again, the chef is able to prepare others.
Skift: Is there a big difference between designing your plan for Disneyland and the parks in Orlando because of different tastes of the audiences?
Chef DeGeorge: There is. You hit on it earlier. There are those mainstays that are good on both coasts. In California, you can’t ignore the influence of Mexico and that Latin flavor palate. There are plenty of offerings — Rancho del Zocalo and Cocina Cucamonga — that really cater to that palate. On the West Coast, guests are looking for more fresh fruit than I think they do on the East Coast.
Skift: What’s in store for the next few years? I know you plan out three, four, five years ahead of time.
Chef DeGeorge: I think it’s going to continue the way it has, honestly. We’re going to continue to strive to serve the freshest food possible. We’re going to continue to push the limits on what that flavor palate is.
A lot of that really is always decided by the guests and the media. Now you have the food trucks that have entered the world really pushing the limits. You can get anything at a food truck. Some authentic banh mi. You can get crazy fruit and grilled cheese sandwiches. Deep fried macaroni and cheese. Who knows what’s next? The great part about my job is, I’m one of the ones that are attached with making sure that we’re up to date with all of it. I get to do a lot of research.
Skift: Are we going to see food trucks on Disney property?
Chef DeGeorge: I would say you never know.