A trip to Disneyland used to be all about the rides, the blast of fireworks, and getting a coveted hug and picture with Mickey Mouse. Now, it’s about the food. Although the classics, like massive turkey legs and foot-long churros dusted in cinnamon sugar remain, there’s so much more to devour in the Magic Kingdom.
But how are these new dishes and drinks-from glowing blue milk that hails from the fictional desert planet Tatooine to Shawarma wraps reminiscent of New York City found in the Marvel campus to “the gray stuff” from Beauty and the Beast-developed?
Brian Piasecki, the culinary director at Walt Disney World, has the answer. As a chef at Disney World for over 31 years, he has seen it all-and has worked at a range of restaurants from Epcot to Animal Kingdom. “From a food and beverage standpoint, we’ve grown up a lot,” Piasecki explains. “Food in the beginning stages of our company was really there as an amenity. Now, we have the unique ability to take a dining experience and intertwine it with our incredible IP.”
The journey for a dish or drink to make it to Disney parks is a long and arduous process that can take up to four years of ideating, recipe development, testing, and scaling. All of this happens at the Flavor Lab-a top-secret location where chefs come together with Imagineers, architects, and mixologists to bring to life visions of new restaurants and dining experiences. “We always start with: ‘What’s the story?'” Piasecki says. “One of the first steps that we take is sitting down with Walt Disney Imagineers to really understand their vision-tell us about the textures in the restaurant, the theme, the backstory.”
From there, Piasecki-alongside his team-enters what he calls the “culinary blue sky,” where any idea can be thrown out and nothing feels unachievable. The space, Piasecki describes, is covered in white boards filled with notes, a brainstorm in constant motion. The team scours the internet to see what new foods are trending or what items guests are gravitating towards. This is the time to chase delicious dreams.
Then, it’s back to reality. “After we do all of that crazy blue sky work, we start to peel it back a little bit. What’s really realistic?” Piasecki says. Logistics come into play-how much space is in the restaurant versus the kitchen? How many guests can be seated? How many dishes can realistically be made?
Although some dishes crafted in the Flavor Lab feel like immediate winners, especially in terms of taste, Piasecki also has to keep scalability in mind. “Can I consistently produce this is a question that we have to ask ourselves now,” Piasecki says. And with the continuation of supply chain disruptions, Piasecki also has to consider ingredients and the vessels the food and drinks are delivered in and whether or not the supply chain can support them.
One of Piasecki’s proudest accomplishments was overhauling the food options at the Regal Eagle Smokehouse in Epcot’s American Adventure with a selection of regional barbecue options ranging from Memphis-style pork ribs to Kansas City smoked chicken to Texas brisket sandwiches. Barbecue is tricky-it requires time to develop flavor and an array of spices to get the rub just right.
“I don’t think anyone was really proud of the food that was at the American adventure-a fried shrimp basket, a hot dog, and a hamburger wasn’t really the best representation of what American cuisine is,” Piasecki explains. But Piasecki knew the story of barbecue across the nation was more compelling and, with his team, found a way to strike a balance of flavor and efficiency needed in a quick service restaurant. There’s even a plant-based barbecue option made from jackfruit.
When it comes to Disney food, aesthetics matter, too. Although blue milk doesn’t actually exist in real life, it feels tangible enough to guests. The shade of blue has to be just right. “The guest has an idea of what blue milk is going to look like, because they’ve seen a glimpse of it in a movie from 40 years ago,” Piasecki laughs. “Part of our job is to make sure it’s as authentic as possible-a word I use loosely because blue milk didn’t really exist.”
But Piasecki knows they can’t just add food coloring to a glass of milk and call it a day; there’s an expectation from Disney-goers that what they’re drinking is meant to replicate milk from a bantha. That means experimenting with natural dyes and landing on a vegan coconut-based drink that tastes vaguely of pineapple juice.
There are a lot of intricate details that go into a plate of food you might consume before riding in a Matterhorn bobsled-a mere segment of a day at Disney. But feeding guests is Piasecki’s pride and joy, his entire career. “We don’t sit back and rest on our laurels and say, you know what, we have enough food for the X amount of people here today-we have pizza, burgers, and chicken nuggets so we’ll be fine,” he explains. “It’s so much more than that.”
For dishes that seem more trend-forward, like boba milk tea rolled out during Lunar New Year or birria tacos, the development can be expedited. This tends to happen for pop-up food festivals or other timely events. “The festivals have a much shorter time of development so they have the ability to be a little bit more on trend. Still, it changes so quickly,” Piasecki explains.
But Piasecki has also found a method of keeping iconic Disney treats relevant. “Look at something like Dole whip, which has been around forever and is a staple with our company,” he says. “Now we have Dole whip kiosks that are serving Dole whip nachos, there are Dole whips with different types of flavorings, sangria. We can be trendy around our core products.”
The same goes for churros, with flavors that expand upon the original cinnamon-sugar coating. Some iterations have included lemon bar, chocolate peanut butter, and a Maleficent-inspired churro covered in chocolate cookie crumbs for Halloween.
To be a chef at Disney properties for over 30 years, you must be a lot of things: creative, excited by prospect of providing top-tier hospitality, imbued with a sense of childlike wonder, and equally as obsessed with Disney IP as guests. Whether it’s brainstorming dishes from a faraway galaxy in the Galactic Star Cruiser or the simple comfort of a grilled cheese and tomato soup from Jolly Holiday, Piasecki oversees it all.
Despite the challenges and differing day-to-days, some of which include tasting 50 different iterations of shrimp before landing on the right recipe (Piasecki says it gets to a point where he has to spit food out), the results are worth it for the excitement guests receive seeing their beloved Disney favorites come to life.
“There is that little bit of, let me pinch myself, you know? Do I really get paid to do this because this is like the best job ever, right?” Piasecki grins. “Where else can you have dinner and watch fireworks over top of Cinderella’s castle? There’s one place in the world to do that-and that’s what keeps me coming back.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!
Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.
The cold weather in most parts of Australia coinciding with EOFY celebrations is the closest thing that we’ll get to snowy Christmas vibes. And if you’re in dire need of some festive cheer after the first six months of 2023, grab your ugly sweater and head to your nearest Red Rooster for Xmas in July deals.
From June 29 – July 31, 2023, Red Rooster is serving up free food items, a chance to win $10,000 or one of 10 merch packs valued at $400 and other fun prizes. All you have to do is sign up as a Red Royalty member and spend $5 on at a location near you or online.
Each week there’ll be new delicious deals and prizes to win. The week one deals have already dropped and they’re looking pretty tasty. You can get access to them via your Red Royalty account. The more you purchase, the more chances you have to win.
Spoiler alert: you can get 10 chicken nuggets for free, right now. Brb running to Red Rooster.