This fall, the pavilions are rising at Epcot, and the scent of delicious food and drinks is in the air. In what has become a beloved annual tradition, the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival returned on September 27, 2013 for a longest-ever run of 46 days.
For 18 years, the Festival has been introducing new flavors to Guests. Its beginnings were modest; for instance, in the early years, foods were cooked in central kitchens and brought to the kiosks – nothing was cooked in front of Guests! But it has grown year over year into one of the country’s most prestigious and lavish food events at which cuisine takes center stage.
We talked to Chef Marianne Hunnel, who has been part of the Festival since the very first year. She’s shared a behind-the-stove perspective on fall’s most delicious event.
Disney Insider: What was the first Festival like?
Marianne: When the festival started in 1996, I was a chef at the Studios. It was an exciting opportunity to showcase some of the great culinary talent we have here. We got to assist the guest chefs, so I met celebrity chefs like Todd English, Jean Louis Palladin, Norman Van Aken, and Allen Susser. We got to learn and cook with them, in addition to tasting cuisines and wine from all over the world. I got to experience it as a guest/partner. This was before the Food Network, and there weren’t very many culinary festivals at the time, so it was pretty exciting to bring it to our own backyard.
Many of the chefs who took part in the early years are big names now, but back then they were just starting out. Even Tom Colicchio from Top Chef was here that first festival! These are the best chefs from New York to California.
I remember that the first year I was assigned to work with Monique Bardot, one of the James Beard Best Chefs. Working with her, I was pinching myself! I was just starting in my career and it was pretty exciting. The second year we had Julia Child here. I was growing up as a chef and meeting all these people was an out-of-this-world experience.
Did it seem like a risky venture?
It probably was risky! But we knew that if we were going to do it, Epcot was the perfect venue because of the cultural aspects here. It has always been known as the Park to go to for a fine dining experience. I think the initial managers decided, ‘Let’s see how it happens. It’s fall, it’s a little cooler and the kids are back at school.’ It was interesting to pull together this really great event. That first year, Guests would come into Epcot and be surprised to find this event going on! Now the Festival has become an event – as early as May, Guests want to know the schedule so they can plan their vacations.
How has the Festival changed over the years?
The festival has several elements. In the marketplaces, the biggest change is that most of the food is finished on stage and the aromas are so incredible! It’s very seasonal. The chefs have elevated the flavors.
When the festival began, beverages were offered everywhere; but now we put a lot more focus on beers. The marketplace structures are huge now and anchored down, where at first they were carts. Years ago all the kiosks were pretty much the same, but now Walt Disney Imagineering has done some incredible work to impart more of what each culture is about.
Another shift over the years has to do with the special events, where the guest chefs host different dinners. Because awareness of the chefs is more mainstream, more Guests want to experience these events, so we offer more opportunities to attend.
Finally, even though there are more festivals now than ever before, more than a million Guests attend ours annually. And when you think that they’re coming especially to attend our festival and choosing it over other festivals, it really means a lot to us. Wineries and chefs can choose what events they want to take part in, but they’re big advocates of what we do and make time to participate in our events – it’s a huge honor. It has gone from 30 to 40 to 46 days – I think that says that we’re doing pretty well!
So much of a chef’s normal work is behind the scenes. Is it exciting to get to meet Guests at the festival?
I love it! I talk to the Guests all day long because I’m in the Festival Center on the Promenade, seeing how they like things and getting feedback. We can put together all these great ideas, but if it’s not what our Guests are looking for, we aren’t doing our job. Many innovations have come from talking to Guests – for instance, with craft beers and cocktails becoming so popular, we’re incorporating some of those.
Any tips for Guests?
We recommend that if you’re coming to the Festival on a busy day, it might be less crowded if you start tasting around the world at the back of the Park and move toward the front. Go to the tip board to see who’s going to be there or get the weekly map to find out about all the events. Keep in mind that there’s so much to see beyond the Marketplace — I’d hate Guests to miss out on seeing chefs or winemakers at the Festival Center. And make sure you get a passport! It lists all the items available for tasting.
This year’s Festival runs through November 11. If your appetite has been whetted, plan your Food and Wine adventure now. Bon appétit!