Mickey's Favorite Chef

Keith Keogh had hoped to pilot Monorails, but cooking has taken him a lot farther. FOOD AND FANTASY

KEITH KEOGH, at 19, hung up his track shoes at Seminole Community College and went to investigate this new park Walt Disney was building in Orlando, Fla. He excitedly applied to be a motorman on the Monorail, but accepted the only job still open - working in the kitchen.

Mr. Keogh still remembers. ``I cried every day for the next two months. I was in the kitchen peeling onions!''

If anyone had told him then that one day he'd say, ``I have the best chef's job in the world,'' he would never have believed it.

Today, Keogh is executive chef for Epcot Center, that sprawling section of Walt Disney World that includes Future World and World Showcase. Some 45,000 to 65,000 meals are prepared and served each day at Epcot, and Chef Keogh's shopping list reads like the telephone book.

``It is the best chef's job,'' he says, and smiles. ``I supervise the food, menu, and presentation. Additionally, I can do food research, study nutrition updates, list new recipes in our computer bank, travel, and every four years participate in the International Culinary Olympics, in Frankfurt [West Germany].

``Each day I go to work at Disney World, where my office is in the shadow of the Geodesic Dome. Now, that does spell out some kind of culinary magic.''

In the past 16 years, Keogh has gone from peeling onions to graduating from the Disney School of Culinary Arts. He has been Chef de Cuisine all over the park - from the Polynesian Hotel to the Contemporary Resort to the Golf Resort Hotel. Then in 1983, he was selected to join the task force opening Epcot Center.

Today, there are 11 nations represented at Epcot, each with its own distinctive cuisine. As Keogh explains, ``Each country selected the native dishes it wished to serve, then we had to order the food. We had to be sure that the vinegar the French chef needed and the herbs the Moroccan chef required would be available on a regular basis.''

For instance, the China pavilion has an exotic menu, and when Keogh checked out the ingredients he found there was a variety of spices. ``We use no MSG [monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer] at Disney World, and the spices from China were loaded with them. I had to convince the chef not to use them, and then a representative of the studio had to go to China and convince the manufacturers to omit MSG in the spices they were sending here.''

Keogh is constantly upgrading recipes so they are nutritious and lower in sodium and cholesterol. In fact, there is one chef who has been assigned to checking recipes in their computer bank to make entr'ees more fat free.

At the Coral Isle Restaurant, which is part of the Living Seas pavilion and aquarium, the menu is 90 percent seafood and 100 percent fresh, he says.

``At the Coral Isle, you dine while looking through glass walls where fish are swimming. We serve margarine, butter on request. But the spread is always in a unique form. Remember, it is Disney World,'' he says.

What he means is that some of the margarine is molded into a four-inch high figure of Mickey Mouse. (Keogh notes that this fact occasionally causes children some concern when parents want to butter their roll with Mickey's foot.) Pats of margarine have Mickey or Minnie's face imprinted on them, ditto the butter balls. For the small fry, there are Belgian waffles shaped like Mickey's head. ``There's always room for fun in this job!'' Keogh says.

In October, the Wonders of Life Pavilion, presented by a life insurance company, opens at Epcot. Keogh is working on the menu for the food bar, named ``Desserts & Things.'' ``We'll have waffles made with whole grain flour, topped with fresh fruit flown in from wherever it's summer, and a variety of treats, high in flavor, lower in calories. I've been testing recipes for months.''

The Culinary Olympics are to the food industry what the Olympics are to sports. Last year the Disney team, competing in the regional category, came home with 13 gold medals, two silver medals, and three grand prizes. Keogh received a gold medal, as did executive chef Reimund Pitz and Sous chef Cheryl Smith, who received their golds for perfect scores.

In 1992, Keogh will be the manager of the Culinary Team, USA, and Disney World will be the home and practice headquarters.

Keogh, Vickie, his wife, and their two small children live a 30-minute drive from the park. They have a large kitchen, but Vickie is the cook. When Keogh comes home, his chef's hat stays at the park.

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