Review: Catching Up With Disney Chefs in Chicago

I absolutely love when we get to publish posts like this. Disney chefs are often incredible stars in the culinary world, and it’s always fun to see where they’ve been and where they’re going! You don’t always expect the chefs behind a theme park kitchen to be trend-setters, but Disney hires only the best… . Welcome Werner Weiss from Yesterland with an interesting review of a recent cooking event in Chicago highlighting two folks with connections to Disney!

I had the pleasure of attending all five of the F.I.T. City Cooking Demos at the “Good Health is Always in Fashion!” event on August 26, 2011, at Macy’s on State in Chicago.

Macy's on State retains numerous references to when it was the flagship store Marshall Field's

The five featured Chefs — Ryan Hutmacher of the Centered Chef; Tom Douglas, who has ten restaurants in Seattle; Meg Colleran Sahs of Terzo Piano at the The Art Institute of Chicago; Randy Zweiban of Province in Chicago; and John State of Seasons 52 in Schaumburg, Illinois — all did a great job. The demos were all interesting and entertaining — and smelled good. Macy’s employees served samples of each Chef’s dish to the audience. The demos and samples were free.

You may wonder why this event should be of interest to readers of the Disney Food Blog. It’s because two of the participants have strong ties to Walt Disney World!

Pam Smith

The demos were hosted by longtime Epcot Food & Wine Festival host Pam Smith, performing the role that’s familiar to anyone who has attended culinary demos at Epcot.

Pam introduced each Chef and then interacted with the Chef to keep the presentation meaningful and interesting for the audience. Even regular Epcot Food & Wine Festival guests may not realize that Pam has an impressive resume that goes well beyond being a skilled emcee.

Pam Smith in a familiar role with an unfamiliar microphone.

Here’s how the “Good Health is Always in Fashion!” brochure described Pam Smith:

Pamela Smith, RD
HOSTESS/EMCEE of Culinary Demos

Pamela Smith, RD, is a nationally-known dietitian, energy coach, radio host, culinary consultant and best-selling author, and serves as nutrition and wellness Adviser to building a Healthier Chicago. She has worked with many individuals, organizations and corporations, such as the NBA’s Shaquille O’neal, NBA teams such as the Orlando Magic and the LA Clippers, and culinary development teams at Walt Disney World, Darden Restaurants and Hyatt Hotels and Resorts.

Pam has hosted all culinary events for all fifteen years of the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival and crafts fresh, innovative, and tasty menus and recipes for some of America’s best restaurants, with a focus on delicious wellness — great food that is great for you. She has authored 14 books, including her best-selling Eat Well, Live Well, The Energy Edge and When Hormones Go Haywire. Her daily “Tips for Living Well” may be heard on 800 radio stations nationwide.

John State with Pam Smith

Chef John State and Seasons 52

Although I enjoyed all of the demos, my favorite was by Chef John State, who is now the Executive Chef Partner at Seasons 52 in Schaumburg, Illinois. State prepared Lemongrass Salmon Salad.

While Chef State has a strong Disney connection, which we’ll discuss later in the article, Seasons 52, the growing “seasonally-inspired dining” chain, has its own strong Disney connection. The Corporate Executive Chef for Seasons 52 is Clifford Pleau, who put Disney on the map as a serious destination for foodies when he launched Disney’s California Grill in 1995.

Chef John State, Executive Chef Partner, Seasons 52

George Miliotes, the Master Sommelier for Seasons 52, also came from Disney.

The first Seasons 52 location was on Sand Lake Road in Orlando. It continues to be highly popular among Orlando locals and visitors. (If you have a car, it’s well worth the drive from Walt Disney World.)

Delicious sample of Lemongrass Salmon Salad

Here’s how the “Good Health is Always in Fashion!” brochure describes John State:

John State
A trailblazer in fresh, seasonally-inspired cooking, John State brings more than 20 years of experience to his role as Executive Chef Partner of Seasons 52 in Schaumburg. His celebrated style and recognized achievements in the restaurant industry, together with a keen focus on guest satisfaction, position him perfectly to introduce Seasons 52 to his hometown of Chicago.

Most recently, State was Executive Chef at Restaurant in the JW Marriott Hotel, Grand Rapids, MI. A sought-after guest chef on radio and television, he also hosted collegiate cooking classes and was active in a variety of local charity events. State’s prestigious credentials and his flair for forward-thinking cuisine make him a natural leader of the culinary team at Seasons 52, Schaumburg.

Macy's Culinary Studio, 7th Floor, Macy's in State

What the biography above doesn’t say is that John State had an illustrious decade heading the kitchens at two Disney Signature Restaurants. State launched Flying Fish Café in 1996. Some of his signature dishes, including the Potato-wrapped Red Snapper, are classics on the Flying Fish menu. After Cliff Pleau left California Grill in 2002, State held the top culinary spot there until 2006. State is one of only four Chefs who have held that post at Disney’s California Grill.

Audience watching Chef John State's cooking demo

I had a terrific day at Macy’s on State. But the absolute highlight was when Pam Smith announced that a new Seasons 52 restaurant will open in spring 2012 at Oakbrook Center in Oak Brook, Illinois — just a few miles from our house.

UPDATE from WERNER WEISS: A Disney Food Blog reader asked how I found out about the event in Chicago that included Disney’s Epcot Food & Wine Festival emcee Pam Smith and former Disney Signature Restaurant Chef John State.

I was trying to find information about Disney’s culinary demos at Epcot two days before bookings began, when DIsney still had not released any details. I went to Pam Smith’s website ( ) to see if she had anything, and that’s where I found the link to the F.I.T. City event at Macy’s on State.

As one of America’s largest metro areas, Chicago offers many food and wine events of all kinds, from multi-course wine dinners to culinary demos by well-known and not-so-well-known chefs. However, I’m not aware of any website or mailing list that tracks such Chicago area events in a single place.

A big event, Chicago Gourmet, is coming up this month: has culinary demos at their FamilyFarmed Expo ( ). They also offer Localicious ( ), an event along the lines of Disney’s Party for the Senses, but smaller, less expensive, and stressing local foods and wines.

The Chicago Botanic Garden has its weekly outdoor Garden Chef Series during warmer months of the year:

The Binny’s chain offers wine events:

Many Chicago area restaurants offer wine dinners and other other special events, including Vie ( ), Zak’s Place ( ), and Mon Ami Gabi Oak Brook ( ), just to name a few.

I would imagine that metropolitan areas throughout America (and throughout the world, for that matter) all have food and wine events of many different kinds. From a Disney Food Blog angle, the story here is that it’s not necessary to wait for the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival if someone enjoys culinary demos, wine seminars, wine pairings, and wine dinners. It’s just a matter of using Google to track down such events.

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