Just about any chef will tell you that planning the menu can be the most challenging but enjoyable part of the culinary business, and a perfectly planned meal can be served to as many as can fit into the restaurant… or convention hall… or amphitheater… or themed attraction… in theme parks around the world… which means that Chef Steve Jayson, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Universal Parks and Resorts, is planning very diverse menus for a variety of venues around the world for only about, say, tens of millions of guests each year!
Chef Jayson’s adventures began as a part-time job with “money” as the means to an end, “I was 16 years old, living in upstate New York, and I had just gotten my driver’s license, so I wanted to get a job and make enough money to buy a car. A restaurant opened up just down the street, and I started working there washing dishes… but it wasn’t too long before I was promoted into the kitchen, and I have been involved with the kitchen ever since!”
Finding a love for cooking and creating things in the kitchen is a common theme with many aspiring chefs, and often intuition is their guide. “I loved working in the kitchen, and as I grew and traveled, I heard about Universal Studios planning to open a theme park in Orlando, Florida… I was intrigued and thought ‘Why not?’ So I applied and was hired while the current attraction was just a field with dirt in it and I helped to create everything it is today, which is really unbelievable, when I think about it… everything that has been accomplished with the culinary program at Universal and how it has grown world-wide… it just amazes me.”
It can be quite an adventure, designing the culinary needs of a major theme park, and Chef Jayson marvels at the task, “Universal in Orlando started as one theme park with a number of great restaurants, all themed around the type of food for each area of the park, and I wanted to come up with really fresh and authentic cuisine. Then, the park evolved to “Islands of Adventure,” “CityWalk,” and now the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” with even more amazing things on the horizon… it is so exciting to see the guests try all the great tastes and foods while enjoying such world-class attractions!”
Chef Jayson is quick to point out that the size of the challenge is what determines the amount of your individual growth. “Self discovery is no small journey, which means every experience that you have, everything you learn, becomes a reservoir to draw from. I didn’t realize it at the time, but coming to work at Universal in Orlando was the culmination of all my life experience, I was able to use everything I had learned up to that point, to apply it in all those different areas that we were developing, and not only here but around the world. I have been able to travel, to collaborate with such diverse people, and continue to spread the spark that was started right here in Orlando.”
When asked to describe what traits an Executive Chef must possess, Chef Jayson smiles and shrugs his shoulders a bit, “Artist? Mentor? Administrative person? A chef has to be all three. Cooking is, by definition, a creative process, an artistic expression, which you are always innovating, by making new items, new dishes, improving on past experience to entice your guests to keep coming back, to fulfill their expectations. At Universal, we want to stay cutting edge, not only with the rides, shows, and other attractions, but also with the food that is offered. When you think about it, the culinary experience is one of the most intimate and direct ways to connect with the guests… you don’t get much closer than someone’s stomach!”
Administratively, there are a lot of moving parts to making culinary progress. “A chef is both a historian and a futurist. We reach back in time, look at how things were originally done, how they were made, and then bring them into our modern world to create something new for tomorrow, some new taste, some new experience. Like being a conductor of an orchestra, there are so many pieces that need to be harmonized, day by day and moment to moment, and you have to keep the music playing while trying to avoid all the sour notes. And to do that you have to lead, to be that mentor, to supply the light on the path for others to follow. Greatness is a culmination of many efforts; not to say that I am great, but I do believe in it, that it can be achieved, that it is worth the work… you set the goal high, accept the risks involved, and take the necessary steps to achieve it!”
When asked what advice he may offer an up-and-coming chef, Chef Jayson quickly responds, “Do it! Just jump into it, immerse yourself… a young person, just getting into this industry today, if he or she really applies themselves and has the drive and determination to make their mark, they will absolutely love it. They may not love the work, the long hours, the sacrifices, but they will love what they are doing… and that is what makes it a career rather than just a job.”
And what goals are still on his horizon? “The future for Universal Parks and Resorts is endless! You can look around the world, the things we are planning, or just recently opened, and I am involved with making the culinary programs and experiences as great as they can be, as our guests expect them to be… or even better, to surpass expectations. The future is going to be busy… but also a fantastic adventure!”
From washing dishes to impacting the culinary experiences of millions of people every year, Chef Steve Jayson proves that the desire to “Dream Big” is definitely a Universal one!