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Universal Orlando's top chef talks about Mythos, food trends... and Harry Potter

Written by
Published: July 7, 2008 at 7:00 PM

Last week, Mythos restaurant at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida won Theme Park Insider's award as the world's best theme park restaurant, for the sixth year in a row. Prior to the announcement, I spoke on the phone with Universal Orlando's executive chef Steve Jayson, who oversees all the resort's food operations, including Mythos.

Steve JaysonJayson, a 53-year-old graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, joined Universal in February 1989, before Universal Studios Florida opened to the public. He previously worked at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Lake Buena Vista, among other positions in the hospitality industry.

At most theme parks, food service provides little more than fatty take-out fare, often dished up by outside vendors. Disney's Epcot made dining an attraction unto itself when it opened more than a quarter century ago, but few other parks have risen to that challenge since then. I asked Jayson about Universal's philosophy toward food service.

"We wanted our food service program to be equal to that of anything that [visitors] would find anywhere in America," Jayson said. "If they were at Louie's Italian Restaurant in the New York park of our Universal Studios park, the experience in that restaurant would be equal to a street corner Italian restaurant in New York City."

Jayson talked about the importance of using fresh ingredients in producing award-winning food for theme park visitors.

"The infrastructure put in place by the industry to deliver to chefs anything, from organic products to fresh products, seasonal products, regional products, has grown incredibly," Jayson said. "So I can get the little, unique ingredients that one might need to create something very individualized."

"I can get anything from anywhere, within 48 hours," Jayson said.

Freshness is also the key to Mythos' success, Jayson said.

"Everything in there is fresh," Jayson said, crediting Mythos chef Mark Wachowiak. "We use all fresh produce, all fresh poultry, all fresh fish and we cook it in a simple type of way."

"You get this innovative, creative menu that you might not expect to see in a theme park and then when the food gets delivered, it's good... it's hot, it's wholesome, it's fresh and it tastes good. Then you walk out and you go 'Holy cow, I never expected anything like that at a theme park.'"

So what is Jayson's favorite item on the menu?

After pausing for a moment, he picked the cedar-smoked salmon. "I usually get it a Mythos and I'll put it on a salad, like our blueberry spinach salad that we do. That's my favorite, whether it is on the salad or the full entree."

So what other trends does Jayson see in the industry, trends that we'll be seeing at Universal Orlando?

"The big, giant desserts are a thing of the past," Jayson replied. "I think that chefs in America are slowly educating the public about flavors and creativity and at the same time the portion sizes are coming down - for a number of reasons. The simple fact [is] that costs of goods are getting higher, so chefs are saying, 'Well, I can try to make it a little bit smaller.'"

"The other part of it is the whole obesity issue in America is really starting to surface... so that's our way of being sensitive to that, too."

Jayson cited the shot-glass desserts served at Mythos, as well as smaller pastries now being served at Confisco Grille as two examples where Universal's embraced a "smaller plates" philosophy.

I couldn't resist the chance to ask Jayson about Universal Orlando's next big project: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Forget Quidditch, the "Harry Potter" experience I most want to have is a Hogwarts feast. Jayson confirmed that he and his staff are working on new food service concepts for Universal's Harry Potter land.

"We've visited Scotland to get a real close, personal look at the cuisine that they eat," Jayson said. "We're going to have one restaurant that's going to have a nice selection of items that you would probably expect to see in that vein of cooking, and I think it is going to be great."

But what about pumpkin juice? They've got to have pumpkin juice, right?

"Pumpkin juice, butterbeer," Jayson laughed. "All those great beverages, we are working on a lot of different things."

Click the link below to listen to my complete, 21-minute interview with Universal Orlando executive chef Steve Jayson:

Readers' Opinions

From Joshua Counsil on July 7, 2008 at 11:16 PM
Excellent. Half the fun of vacations is the dining experiences, and it's nice to give a nod to the underdogs of the entertainment industry - the serving staff.

I was also hoping that Universal would put some care into the fantastical food from the Harry Potter franchise. Some of my best theme park memories are from restaurants, so I hope it works out.

I wish that he had mentioned what upcoming projects (entrees, decor, etc.) Mythos will be undergoing in order to keep it the best around.

And finally, does anyone know if they have updated the sign outside Mythos yet to accommodate its six year reign?

From Eric Malone on July 7, 2008 at 11:28 PM
I'll definitely make sure to pick up some pumpkin juice and butterbeer, just to see how it tastes. Interesting interview!
From James Rao on July 8, 2008 at 3:30 AM
Nice interview, Robert! Thanks for taking the time to speak with the mastermind behind Mythos, and getting a bit of a scoop on HP.
From Don Neal on July 8, 2008 at 5:51 AM
Excellent read. These are very interesting and would love to see more of these types of interviews. Well done Robert!
From Anthony J on July 8, 2008 at 7:56 AM
Mythos is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, not just in Orlando. I can't visit the Universal Resort without dining here at least once. Thanks for the interview. Really excited to hear about Harry Potter restaurants.
From Robert Niles on July 8, 2008 at 8:09 AM
Hey, post or e-mail names of other people you'd like me to interview and I'll get going on them!
From Don Neal on July 8, 2008 at 8:42 AM
I am not really picky and would love to hear from anyone in the industry. But I'll see if I can think of some specific ones.
From LJ Warner on July 8, 2008 at 10:24 AM
Thank You. That was a great interview. I so rarely get out of Southern California theme parks since most of my vacation time is spent either at county fairs showing my sheep or visiting family in the "off-season" in the northern states. I so hope that the local parks would step up on their food offerings/choices to include GOOD food that I feel is worth the money I spend there. The 2 places I haven't been disappointed with at DLR are Storyteller Cafe at Grand Californian and Rancho Zovala(? I probably didn't spell that right)in Frontierland. I don't know the names of the Chefs in either place but an interview from them would be interesting.
Off the subject of food Jay Thomas at SFMM seems to be very availiable for interviews and appears to realize that sites like this one can help and/or hinder (depending on the situation) an amusement park, maybe you could pick his brain a little.
From Robert Niles on July 8, 2008 at 10:37 AM
LJ,

I talked with Jay Thomas back in May, actually. He was a pleasure to speak with.

And the restaurant in Frontierland is Rancho del Zocalo. Please click over, everyone, and give it a rating and review, if you've eaten there.

From LJ Warner on July 9, 2008 at 12:11 PM
Thanks for the heads up on your interview with Jay Thomas (just read it), I spent most of May away from the computer and the internet so I just missed it. BTW have you had a chance to get back to Magic Mountain?
From Robert Niles on July 9, 2008 at 1:53 PM
Not yet. Soon, though.
From Ben James on July 12, 2008 at 6:51 AM
It's great when your articles are read here and talked about so lively on competing sites. Robert, the Disney-philes at a certain magic site are up in arms about HP Island and the lack or appearance of new competition from Disney.

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