Jayson, 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:
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