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April 6, 2004

Culinary coach

From: Orlando Sentinel (subscription) - Orlando,FL,USA - Apr 6, 2004

By Scott Joseph
Sentinel Restaurant Critic

April 6, 2004

Steven Jayson has been in food service since he was 16 years old, when he had his first and last job in an actual restaurant. It was a position he took for one compelling reason: "I needed to get a job because I wanted to buy a car."

A restaurant was opening near his home in New York's mid-Hudson Valley, and Jayson was hired as a dishwasher. But as business increased, the restaurant's chef pulled Jayson away from the dish room to give him some simple culinary chores -- washing lettuce, peeling potatoes, cleaning shrimp, hardly the duties that would seduce someone into a lifelong profession.

But Jayson really wanted that car, a bright orange Volkswagen Bug. And the restaurant's chef must have seen the potential in him.

"We had a French chef who was kind of from the old school, where you work kind of as an apprentice and learn the trade," Jayson recalls, "which is the way he had come up in Paris. So he took me under his wing, and I worked with him and he taught me the ropes."

Perhaps it is because of the deed Jayson's tutor did for him that he feels a calling to help other young chefs today. This vice president and corporate executive chef for Universal Studios Parks and Resorts is active with American Culinary Federation -- he was its president for several years -- and has operated an apprentice program for them at Universal.

Jayson, 49, tries to instill in young chefs the same principles that he follows: Use fresh ingredients, whether they be vegetables, chicken or the fish, and if the seafood can't be served to the guests within 48 hours of capture, don't serve it.

"He's very creative," say Le Coq au Vin owner Louis Perrotte, "and he has a good balance of taste and proportion." Perrotte, who has worked with Jayson in the culinary federation, says he admires Jayson's ability to stay abreast of trends, such as the current culinary bandwagon of low-carb selections. Jayson has initiated Atkins-friendly selections in the full-service restaurants operated by Universal.

"He's not rooted in the old-fashioned," says Perrotte.

Busy with competition

For eight years, Jayson has run one of the largest culinary competitions in the country, which brings young chefs from all over to Orlando for the Florida Restaurant Association's annual restaurant show.

Under Jayson's direction, 10 kitchens are constructed on the exhibition floor at the Orange County Convention Center. For three days each fall, more than 250 chefs compete in team and individual cooking contests. The tasks range from "mystery box" cooking, where members create a menu from a box of random ingredients, to individual signature recipe development, to ice carving.

The competition takes the better part of a year to organize, and Jayson does it in addition to his duties at Universal, which have him spending long days and evenings visiting each of the 39 restaurants in the two theme parks as well as nine restaurants operated by Universal at CityWalk. He visits with the chefs to discuss new products or menu development, but you also might find him on the line during busy times helping to plate food and expedite service.

"Sometimes I say this is my last year," he says of the competition. "I think I've said that the last three years in a row. About a month after the show is over, I guess, I get caught up on my sleep, I guess, and I say let's do it again."

Besides the competitive aspect, the contests offer a chance for chefs to exchange ideas and techniques. For the young Jayson, "I found them to be a very great way to express myself in cooking what I know," he says. "It was an important part of developing me and making me what I am today. And I wanted to continue that."

He hears the same thing from young participants who encourage him. "They tell me things like 'nobody puts a show on like you, this is the best, there's so much going on, we learn so much, don't ever stop doing it.' "

Support is key

Besides organizing the event, Jayson is involved in fielding a team to compete. During the past few years, he's put together a unique group of chefs to take part in the junior-team competition. Universal Orlando employs a number of disabled people in its food service operations, including a number of deaf cooks. "I got this wild idea one day that, with all the deaf kids here, wouldn't it be cool if we can bring them together and they can win some kind of a medal," Jayson recalls.

So they did -- winning a gold medal in one event. They also took second place overall, losing to a team from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, a frequent contest winner.

Then last year the team won first place.

Efrain Alicea, a deaf chef on the team, has worked at Universal as a pastry chef for 12 years. Speaking through an interpreter, Alicea says he is honored to be working with Jayson, not only for his support of deaf people but because "he's a positive person, he encourages people, he motivates, and I think that's a very important part of his character. He wants people to succeed."

In April Jayson's team will compete at the Southeast regional finals in Atlanta. If members win there, they'll move on to the national competition in July in Orlando.

Jayson says there are a couple of moments in his life that he will always remember. His team of deaf cooks winning its first gold medal is one of them.

Away from the heat

Besides overseeing the food service operations at Universal Orlando, Jayson shares products and ideas with executive chefs at other Universal properties. His duties often require him to travel to the other attractions, which include the theme park in California as well as parks in Japan and Spain.

With all that he has to do on the job, Jayson barely has time to play bluegrass banjo or ice hockey anymore.

"I kind of had to put that aside because the young kids are kicking my butt," he says.

But he still finds time to go bass fishing, preferring the more serene aspects of docks and shorelines as opposed to offshore fishing.

And he likes spending time with his wife, Annie, who worked in food service at Universal until their son, Christopher, was born six years ago.

Jayson also enjoys eating out. His favorite restaurants are Ming Court on International Drive, Positano in Ocoee, Bahama Breeze and Le Coq au Vin.

"I like to go to the simple places," he says.

Does he have any aspirations of having his own restaurant?

"There's a lot of things I've done in my career, and that's probably the one thing I've never done is be an owner," he says. After that first restaurant job and before joining Universal 15 years ago, he worked in institutional settings at hotels. "And there's a part of me that keeps saying I should do that."

The thought lingers, he says.

"But Universal has just been a super place to work. Everybody has treated me with an incredible amount of respect, and they've given me a lot of freedom to make Universal a good cuisine theme park," he says.

For now, he's satisfied with feeding the 30,000 people who eat in the parks every day. And with helping to train a new generation of chefs.

Scott Joseph can be reached at or

407-420-5514. Read his past reviews at

© 2004 Orlando Sentinel Communications