When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you… One of my first jobs as a pastry chef right after finishing my studies at the Culinary Institute of America was at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa in Orlando, Florida.
This was a dream come true, working for Walt Disney World was one of the best experiences of my life. I was fortunate and honored to work at The Disney Grand Floridian under the tutelage of Master Pastry Chef, Eric Herbitschek. He gave me a chance of a lifetime and introduced me to Master Pastry Chef Stefan Riemer. He started his career at the company in 1999. I went to visit him to find out more about his role as chef in charge of creating and developing all the new food concepts for Walt Disney World. Last year alone, the company’s annual revenue was 10.44 billion dollars. Today, The Flavor Lab is an interesting Research & Development center; this epicurious mecca is where magic comes alive.
This is the story of German born Chef Stefan Riemer, who at an early age knew he had a passion for pastry. He began his pastry apprenticeship program in Berlin. Chef Stefan was eager to continue learning the craft of pastry, so he decided to return to Berlin after working in Switzerland to study his masters in pastry becoming one of Europe’s youngest master Chefs at only 23. His brilliant career took him to places like Switzerland, Munich, working in restaurants, hotels and confectionaries, as far away as Indonesia.
“I came back to Berlin from Indonesia to open the Hotel Adlon. I worked there for a few years but Germany felt too small for me and I wanted to continue to travel and went to work in India and after two years I moved to Orlando”
How long have you been working for Walt Disney World and how did you get this job?
I started working for Walt Disney World a little over twenty years ago. I was actually going to work at the Hyatt Hotel to be the assistant pastry chef to Master Pastry Chef Erich Herbitschek.
I knew Chef Herbitschek from when he worked in Asia so I knew he had quite a very good reputation. When I met him we were introduced by our former vice president Dietter Heading and my mentor Harry Haber,who at the time were headhunters. My mentor was my headhunter. I started working for six months at the Grand Floridian to learn Disney culture. Right afterwards, he took the job as Executive Pastry Chef at the Yacht and Beach Club.
Chef Herbitschek was not only a mentor, but he also introduced me to a lot of people that made me very successful, because when you get to learn about Disney from someone who is already accomplished, it’s an easier way to survive. There were a lot of things to learn. It is very different when you work in Asia vs. America, here the ways of how to make things and how to run the show were very different from India.
When you work for the largest entertainment company in the world, people tend to stereotype, thinking that we only do Mickey Mouse shaped cookies.
DWhen you work for the largest entertainment company in the world, people tend to stereotype, thinking that we only do Mickey Mouse shaped cookies.
Tell us about your time in the company?
I worked at the Yacht & Beach Club Resort for over ten years, during which I became regional pastry chef, so I also overlooked the Boardwalk. It was very interesting, I had three resorts to manage, so many people to manage. We were fortunate to organize management into teams, always helping each other.
Plus the convention centers, a lot of weddings at the time, Japanese weddings were very popular. Soon after I moved to this new project, Test Kitchen, which later became the Flavor Lab.
Why did Walt Disney Company decide to open the Flavor Lab?
The purpose was to secure our work, we started this project as a test kitchen, but it was not designed properly. We would all work together: beverage, chefs, and project managers to create a perfect product for guests to enjoy. This has always been critical. Our team was very big at the time and over the years our project evolved. The most important reason we expanded and built a state of the art new research & development laboratory was to overcome the tremendous work that the company was requesting. Our company in the past eight years has grown tremendously, from Shanghai, Hawaii, Tokyo, to Paris.
The objective of the Flavor Lab is to create new concepts that can be open in the different Walt Disney properties around the world. Part of my job was to standardize all the recipes from the foundation to make them consistent.
A company like Walt Disney has high standards in food safety, that’s why all the pastry chefs on the property have the same guidelines.
“The objective of the Flavor Lab is to create new concepts that can be open in the different Walt Disney properties around the world. Part of my job was to standardize all the recipes from the foundation to make them consistent”
What is the hiring method and what do you look for when you hire new pastry chefs?
The interview process is simple. First you have a phone interview, if you pass then you get invited to professional recruitment for the skills test. We select a location on the property and the candidate has to come and pass a skills and questions exam, for example, make a two tier wedding cake, some seasonal plated desserts, mini pastries, they have to handwrite Happy Birthday Mickey in chocolate, and the most important are the quick service desserts, our strongest segment here at Disney World. Desserts that can easily be picked up and served to thousands of people so we want to see creativity, we want to see business driven minds, the personality and the reflection of their skills, techniques, and a direct and excellent interview.
Usually in that test you have five chefs as judges, who check the flavors and evaluate plus asking questions. It’s very structured to make sure we find the right talent.
Is the Disney Culinary Academy still open?
It closed down unfortunately , but let me give you an example of what we do here. We do train students and we hire them if they are good. This is the case of chef Lexy, we try to build business cases and she is the clear example. As a student, you graduate from your program and a lot of times they’ve dropped the career to do something else.
Chef Lexy was an intern here from Cordon Bleu as a student, she never gave up and accomplished herself. Now, she is the Pastry Chef for the new Riviera Resort.
“When we hire new pastry chefs we want to see creativity, we want to see business driven minds, the personality and the reflection of their skills, techniques and a direct and excellent interview”
What is Disney World doing to keep up with the high demand of customers that want better, faster, cheaper food and better and different dining options?
The high demand for drawing attention on social media has created expectations among our guests. Our company has changed dramatically because of social media. The reputation Disney World had about just serving good fast food was changed by the constant postings of the millions of guests that dine at our restaurants and visit our world class attractions and stay at our resorts.
Disney learned there is a market for pretty much everything and of course when you deal with international guests or other audiences you have to cater for their needs.
Every person has different needs and expectations. There was definitely a need to offer new and unique offerings, concepts, bring a new flair to our restaurant scene.
We design our menus according to the theme of the restaurants, guests always aim for something new, they like to try the food, but they don’t like to read. There is a fine line when we create the language for the menu when you deal with so many cultures and countries.
We like them to be easy to read so our guests don’t get lost in translation, making them balanced and nutritions. Always focusing on our guests’ needs.
“It’s all about having options and up-selling, providing a great experience for the guest to come back. I think that is the most difficult part.”
Are there any plans to open new fine dining restaurants ?
What is trendy in the U.S is fast casual. This is definitely something our company implemented, today with social media the habit of people quickly obtaining information, if you offer them new concepts they snap a picture quickly! I don’t think you have this with fine dining. Our company has been critical in looking after the dining experience from start to finish, we know that the dining experience today has slowed down because everyone takes their phones to take pictures. It is important to bring a live concept which makes sense for the guests but also for the operations. The majority of the guests are looking for fast casual. We don’t have plans for any more fine dining restaurants. The success of our company is fast casual, quick service signature dining. They want quality experience and they have an expectation from Disney to deliver that.
We want to make sure we deliver exactly what our guests want. It’s all about having options and up-selling, providing a great experience for the guest to come back. I think that is the most difficult part.
What is the process for creating a new concept and tell us about what you have come up with?
We work with the Walt Disney Imagineering Department, they scoop the projects and they know exactly for example, how much square footage there is in a restaurant, and what original concept it is based on by creating storytelling. We create concept menus, which are basically many ideas, then we go back to create the kitchen.
We create the menus that will be executed from this kitchen so basically when you do this you are connecting the different storytelling menus. Always leaving space for the expectation of Walt Disney Imagineering.
One concept that I came up with was La Ganachery, located at Disney Springs. I wanted to do a chocolate boutique shop for Americans, and not try to intimidate anyone, teaching the story of chocolate and allowing people to have their own opinion. Valrhona Chocolate Company customized our blend for this project. We decided to use 65% cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic, but we also had some Peruvian and Brazilian cocoa beans. Exclusively made for the Ganachery boutique obviously brought a diversity of chocolates but focusing on the Valrhona blend.
What is Walt Disney World doing to fight climate change? And what is the company doing about the no waste movement?
We like to work with the new generations of chefs. When we hire them, one thing we implement is working with portion sizes, education, cross civilization where you build a menu, that you functionalize your menu but also facing the responsibility of using all the ingredients.
We developed the concept to bring less! Instead of having a kitchen with a thousand ingredients we go for less, we create with maybe two hundred ingredients to set an example. That way, we don’t over-order and we don’t waste as much as we did in the past.
“Instead of having a kitchen with a thousand ingredients we go for less, we create with maybe two hundred ingredients to set an example. That way, we don’t over-order and we don’t waste as much as we did in the past”