The “Yak & Yeti” Restaurant has two things going for it: first, being a guest favorite of Disney’s Animal Kingdom®, and second, having Chef Faithy B. Harris-Dowdell as the guiding hand behind their many flavorful successes!
Chef Faithy is what he calls an anomaly; he’s a Floridian who was actually born and raised in Florida. “It seems that most folks you meet here in Florida are from somewhere else, from up north or out west… not that it matters, there are good people everywhere, and they’re often hungry!”
Born in Winter Park, Florida, Chef Faithy spent much of his time growing up with his grandparents in rural Mount Dora, Florida, helping out on their farm. “My grandfather grew up on a farm in Alabama, and so that is what he did here. He grew all sorts of vegetables and raised livestock, what he called the “natural way” since it was before ‘Organic’ became so popular. I was always helping him with the cattle, pigs, and chickens, and also planting and harvesting the vegetables. He grew a little bit of everything, it seemed, and I loved it, I loved the hard work and I loved the feeling of actually ‘creating’ something… I suppose that is where my drive to create comes from.”
The seeds of Chef Faithy’s desire to cook for a living were definitely planted on that farm, with his grandmother and grandfather. “My grandmother was a great cook, and she was always cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. I spent so much time in the kitchen with her, helping out. My grandfather was also a great cook, especially the barbecue… most every weekend, family would get together at their house, and my grandfather would be grilling. It was such a great time, a great feeling, being surrounded by family… when I cook, it always brings me back to those times, it’s like coming home.”
Chef Faithy remembers watching all the cooking shows on PBS Saturday mornings when he was a kid. “I loved the way Julia Child and Justin Wilson would turn the simplest ingredients into something good, and make it look like fun, too. Cooking with my grandmother in the kitchen or my grandfather on the grill, and watching those shows, that’s what I remember about cooking when I was growing up, but I never thought about cooking as a career until my mom suggested it. A friend of hers had told her about the culinary program that Disney used to have, and she encouraged me to give it a try, and that was how I found the outlet for my passion, to be able to create, to cook good food for people and see that positive reaction… you get the satisfaction that you made something they enjoyed. That’s gold!”
Being part of the Disney Culinary Apprenticeship Program gave Chef Faithy the opportunity to learn a variety of skills in a variety of venues. “Disney World has such a variety of restaurants and eateries, and I worked at so many of them, from the Polynesian Hotel to the Epcot World Showcase, among others. After graduating the program, I worked at the Contemporary Hotel, but I was looking for something different, a new challenge, so I left to join the Rainforest Cafe and eventually became a trainer for their cooking staff, and so I hit the road, traveling to new restaurants and locations. That was a fun and successful time in my life, and lead to becoming the Kitchen Manager at the Rainforest Cafe in Denver, Colorado… and that is where my career really took off!”
Chef Faithy feels a need to help the younger generation of culinary artists. “As a chef, there is a big responsibility to mentor the newer talent, to let them know what is expected, that it is not an easy profession… it takes a lot of dedication to excel at cooking, you’re going to miss holidays and family time, you’re going to be working nights, working weekends, and so you have to be passionate about cooking or you won’t have the dedication it takes to be successful. You have to dedicate yourself to be the best at what you do… that is how you become a success, there is no other way.”
This dedication to success is alive and well at the “Yak & Yeti Restaurant” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom®, and Chef Faithy loves the diversity of the cuisine that is found on the menu. “We have a Pan-Asian menu, and we try to cover as much of Asia as possible with our food choices. Everything is made in-house, from scratch, with a many local fresh ingredients as possible… in fact, it is surprising how much we actually do in the restaurant.”
“Innovation is found by being adventurous, taking a chance, and at the Yak & Yeti, we like to take a traditional dish and then give it a little twist, a slightly different ‘flavor profile.’ We have guests who have traveled from all over the world, and it is is very rewarding to serve them a dish they are familiar with, that maybe they eat at home, and to improve the flavor, so that they are pleasantly surprised by it, and tell us that it is ‘the best they have ever had.’ It is a great experience getting that kind of feedback from people who have come here from every part of the globe… to me, that is true success!”
The next time you are feeling a little adventurous, Chef Faithy suggests that you take a little trip to Disney’s Animal Kingdom® and tempt your taste buds at the “Yak & Yeti” Restaurant… but beware, once you enjoy a taste of adventure, you may not want to go home!