'I love the bone marrow': A chef's perspective on Disney World's EPCOT International Festival of the Arts
As the sun set over EPCOT, Spaceship Earth sparkled with rainbow light.
The iconic sphere greeting visitors to the Walt Disney World theme park wore optimistic hues for this year's International Festival of the Arts , an annual celebration of beauty and creativity.
As always, the festival featured nightly Disney on Broadway performances, with stars of popular Disney shows such as "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King."
Open markets throughout the park's World Showcase highlighted demonstrations and whimsical works by Disney artists. On a recent night, Trevor Carlton put the finishing brush strokes on a colorful painting of Donald Duck.
But while I love music and paintings, I'm drawn to the food , and when it comes to the culinary arts, nobody does it like Disney.
Wanting to get a food professional's perspective on the festival, which began Jan. 14, and continues through Feb 21, I brought my pal Scott Earick, chef and owner of Scott's on Fifth in Indialantic, Florida, to the event's media experience.
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Scott is a fabulous chef, but he is also one of the least adventurous eaters I know, so I knew some of the festival offerings would be outside his comfort zone.
Our first stop was at the Deconstructed Dish studio, which is near Port of Entry and features a new twist on classic dishes.
Scott ordered the deconstructed French onion soup: beef broth encased in a ravioli served with gruyere espuma, onion bread pudding and onion textures. He tapped the ravioli with his spoon, and the rich broth spilled out into the bowl. He ate every bite except one, which he spared for me.
He even tried some of my deconstructed BLT, an artsy arrangement of crispy pork belly, a soft-poached egg, brioche, watercress espuma and tomato jam.
At L'Art de la Cuisine Francais in the France pavilion, Scott went straight for the creme de brie en petit pain, a warm, creamy brie puddled in a delicious bread bowl. I ordered the croissant a la truffle noir d'hiver, a warm croissant filled with truffle cream. Our dishes paired perfectly with the Charles Lafite, Brut Rosé Prestige, Méthode Traditionnelle Champenoise, a French sparkling rosé.
He let me try the brie, so, being a good friend, I responded in kind.
As we made our way around the World Showcase, we struck up a conversation with Gregg Carter, who was sporting a hard-to-find Figment popcorn bucket. The $25 bucket shaped like EPCOT's purple, winged dragon resulted in long lines and lots of hype. It sold out during the festival's first weekend, though we're told more should be available soon.
Carter pointed us toward Vibrante & Vivido: Encanto Cocina studio between France and Morocco, which features Colombian cuisine inspired by the Disney animated film, " Encanto ."
We both ordered the chorizo and potato empanada with turmeric aïoli and annatto aïoli. It was flaky, savory goodness. This time, neither of us had to share.
The highlight of our visit came when it was time to talk with EPCOT festival chef Kevin Downing.
"I'll video you," Scott said.
"Nope," I said. "I'll video you. You're doing the interview."
Here are some snippets from their conversation:
Scott: Hi. Chef-to-chef, we get up and do the same thing every day. How long have you been here?
Downing: I've been with Walt Disney World almost 15 years. As the festival chef, just about three.
Scott: How did you get to this point?
Downing: I started as a line cook and had worked my way up through the years. When I came to EPCOT, I was the chef at Le Cellier Steakhouse for a few years.
I'd always just been in restaurants. ... I wanted something new. I decided this would be a great way to learn a new line of business, expand my knowledge of what it is to pull off a festival like this.
Scott: Obviously, you're in charge of something here. At what point do you say ... 'It's all on me now?' (For any chef), it always is on you, but you're on a grand scale. This is impressive.
Downing: Even at the restaurant, it was all about myself and my team. And then coming here, this is just on a much larger scale. I have a great team of sous chefs and culinary that really help support and drive the whole operation to make all of these items come to life.
We spend a lot of time, whether it's in the creative process or the development process, making sure that we're trying to provide interesting items and items that are themed appropriately for the guests that are coming to the festival.
Scott: I'm in charge of my staff, and I'm a staff of three (which makes it easier to control what everyone is doing). How do you get (your staff) to think on point with you?
Downing: This festival, more than any other, because it's so culinary art-driven, it's really about food as an art form and the culinary arts. Our culinary cast do want to do more. This is a festival where they want to learn a little bit more. They want to be more involved in the process. They want to see new ingredients.
Scott: Are they looking for their break move?
Downing: In some cases I would say they are. Some of them are looking at this as an opportunity to showcase their talent. We can see what they're capable of doing.
Like, if you can take a plate, like this scallop there, and plate that for 900 plates and make it look like that, that really shows you have that drive and that passion, and that helps you move to that next level.
Scott: That's really interesting. Every dish when you plate it, especially at the level that you're doing this, has to look exactly the same. The guests are expecting that.
Downing: A lot of our dishes are photographed, whether it's through social media or whether it's even internally. ... We have to keep that in mind. ... If it doesn't look right change it.
Scott: How many hours did you work today?
Downing: It's been a lot.
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After the interview wrapped up, I asked Chef Downing about his favorite dishes at the festival.
"I love the bone marrow," Downing said of the roasted bone marrow available at Gourmet Landscapes in Canada. "I think it's just a fantastic item. I'm super excited that we're even able to offer this item in a festival setting.
"I also love the cast-iron roasted mussels out of our Craftsman Courtyard (near Disney Traders), one of our new food studios. It's a pretty simple presentation. It's just mussels with tomatoes and herbs and white wine, but absolutely delicious."
Scott asked Downing if he ever thinks about returning to a traditional restaurant. Downing gave a slight shrug.
"This is such an interesting position, such a great job," he said. "It's been a fun ride."
We finished our EPCOT adventure at a dessert party for visiting media, where we met Mickey and Minnie, sampled red velvet whoopie pies and watched the social media influencers pose for pictures.
I wasn't able to talk Scott into trying the bone marrow dish, but he loved everything he tried.
"I thought the food was basically simple by flavor, but elegant in presentation," Scott said.
We headed for the parking lot as the Harmonious fireworks show began, and I turned Scott's question to Downing around on him.
Would he trade his three-person staff and intimate restaurant for the grandeur of a Disney kitchen?
"I would definitely absolutely love to spend a time period there just to see how it really works, because it's impressive what they do," he said.
But no, he doesn't want to make a permanent switch.
Scott's on Fifth is where he belongs.
EPCOT International Festival of the Arts
The EPCOT International Festival of the arts runs through Feb. 21. Park admission is required to visit the festival marketplaces. More information is available at artfulepcot.com .
The festival includes 15 food studios, multiple art marketplaces and the Disney On Broadway concert series, with performances at 5:30 p.m., 6:45 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. EST daily in the America Gardens Theatre.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: 'I love the bone marrow': A chef's perspective on Disney World's EPCOT International Festival of the Arts