07 December 2008

Walter Meyer: The man behind the meals at Epcot Center

Part of every wonderful trip to Walt Disney World is food. Old favorites and new palate pleasers make the memories of the last trip all the more tangible. In the Fall 1984 issue of Disney News Sandra Hinson introduced the world to Walter Meyer, the executive chef of EPCOT Center. This should whet the appetites of all the faithful heading to MouseFest this week.

There are no exclamations, just a silent frown as two tiny furrows of concentration crease the master chef’s brow. The Cuisinart has jammed, throwing a bowl off its base and splattering the gleaming steal counter and shelves with a thick cranberry-date mixture.

Walter Meyer, executive chef for Epcot Center, quickly wipes away the mess, replaces the bowl, and tries again. The grinding whir indicates the problem is not solved and so the blend is poured out, revealing the culprit – a date pit has stuck in the blades.

In just 24 hours about 400 elegantly dressed guests will arrive at the Liberty Inn in the American Adventure pavilion at Epcot Center’s World Showcase for a nine-course banquet to benefit the 1984 U.S. Olympic teams. Meyer is in charge of all culinary preparations. This fact would set most folks’ nerves into a frenzy, but Meyer doesn’t seem in the least pressured as he removes the culprit pit and continues concocting the fresh fruit sauce that will accompany the pheasant galatine.

After the mixture has simmered on the stove awhile, Meyer finally tastes it for the first time. Hiss tall white chef’s toque nods approval and he puts the fruit sauce into a huge refrigerator. He washes his own pots and pans and then hurries back to the corner of the warehouse-size test kitchen at Walt Disney World’s Food Distribution Center where other preparations for the banquet are under way.

Meyer checks the tenderloins being wrapped for the filet of beef and approves the celery sticks, stuffed and garnished with pieces of chopped walnuts and a dot of green parsley. Over in the bakery, he samples the minardise, dainty confections that will be served with the European blend coffee after the “fantasy chocolate mousse cake” dessert. “I would never stay away from cooking,” the busy chef says as he scurries to another part of the kitchen. “My hands are always directly on the job.”

The executive chef works on until after midnight, catches far fewer than forty winks, and returns at 4 a.m. the next morning preparing for the day of the banquet, preparations which don’t end until nearly midnight. An unusually busy day? Not at all.

Meyer has been on the go ever since he joined the Disney organization in 1977, and the twinkle in his eye is a testament to the fact that he’s enjoyed every minute.

Meyer, who now supervises a staff of 375 Epcot Center food and beverage people, spent years prior to Epcot Center’s 1982 opening doing research and creating recipes for all eating establishments in the area. The quality and variety of the authentic international foods served in the many varied World Showcase eating places helped earn Meyer a place last year in the Honorable Order of the Golden Togue, the elite society of the top 100 culinarians in the United State and Europe.

“That’s what you call an achievement from the industry,” says the 52-year-old executive chef, who has long since left routine competitions to the younger ranks.

Meyer, the youngest of seven children, was born in Dubendorf, just outside Zurich, Switzerland. His father, a skilled woodworker, wanted Walter to follow in his footsteps. However, young Walter wanted to travel, a desire which ultimately led to his becoming a chef.

As he recalls, “I wanted to see the world and the hotel industry was the key.”

Know his high school French would not go far in the world of haute cuisine, Meyer worked for a year after graduation on a farm in the Jura Mountains north of Lausanne, plowing the fields and perfecting his mastery of the language. He then enrolled in the Gwerbe Schule Vocational in Zurich where he specialized in baking and pastry making.

After completing their education, all Swiss men are required to undergo five months of basic army training. Meyer finished his military service in time for employment at the exclusive Palace Hotel in St. Moritz under Chef Eugene Defrance during the 1948 Olympics. For the next five years, Meyer worked the winter season at the Palace. During the summers, Defrance helped placed the young chef in positions in Geneva, Ireland, and Stockholm. The ten years following his graduation saw Meyer serving under the finest chefs in the best kitchens of Europe.

In the late 1950s, Meyer’s wanderlust compelled him to cross the Atlantic, ending up in New York City, where as part of the legendary Restaurant Associates group, he helped plan the concepts for such notable “Big Apple” restaurants as the original Four Seasons, Tower Suite, and Mama Leone’s; plus two other shining stars of New York’s dining scene, no longer in operation, the Forum of the 12 Caesars and La Fonda del Sol. Meyer also served as chef at the Indonesian Pavilion during the New York’s World Fair in 1964.

His career eventually led him to Florida. Meyer was the executive chef at the Lighthouse Point Yacht and Racquet Club in Pompano Beach when Jim Armstrong, vice president of resorts and food administration at Walt Disney World, was beginning his search for a very special chef to fill a very important assignment – planning the menus for Epcot Center. Before long, Meyer was literally up to his elbows cooking and tasting for the new restaurants.

Epcot Center eateries received immediate critical acclaim, and Meyer is now involved in the preparations for new restaurants in Epcot’s Morocco, China, and Living Seas pavilions. There is little time for skiing, vacation travel, or sailing – his favorite hobbies – but this chef who most wanted to see the world seems quite content.

He pauses to count his blessings: “the opportunity to be creative, being involved in new projects, constantly new challenges… time goes flying here.”

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