A Magical Case for Cooking at Disney
ICE alum Jose Rivera (Culinary, ’18) was hired full time upon completing the Disney Culinary Program.
Jose Rivera Berrios grew up in Puerto Rico and served in the U.S. Air Force before enrolling at the Institute of Culinary Education in 2017. After tasting tapas in Spain and bratwurst in Germany during his time in the military, Jose set out to learn about global ingredients at ICE.
“Cooking has been my passion since I was 14,” Jose says. “I enjoy the melody of the ingredients working with each other.”
Like so many culinary students, he traces his interest in cooking back to watching the Food Network. Alton Brown combined Jose’s two passions, science and food, on the show “Good Eats.” When Jose realized he could work with the two things he liked, Disney serendipitously swayed him with the notion that anyone can cook, courtesy of the movie “Ratatouille.”
By the time he was transitioning to civilian life after military service, and starting ICE’s Culinary Arts program, Jose knew how to cook at home and had seen techniques on TV, but says “actually putting them into practice is a completely different beast.” In class, he learned about ingredients that he would never have tried at home, professional standards for temperature and timing, and how to fabricate a fish for the first time.
“Being a student at ICE helped me a lot, especially because I had amazing teachers,” he says. “From Mod 1 to Mod 5, it was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Jose completed a catering externship with Restaurant Associates in Queens, which he credits with helping him understand where he needed to grow and improve in the business. Preparing food in advance of an event, maintaining a certain temperature until it arrived at the designated location, and serving identical dishes to groups of 500 or more people, helped Jose gain a sense of urgency, practice plating and master proper handling.
“Now I have an end goal,” he says. “I want to open my own food truck so that I can bring my flavors to people. I want to do a mix of Puerto Rican cuisine with Japanese plating techniques.”
When ICE hosted a Disney recruiting event on campus, he chose to apply to the Culinary Program for experience working with guests in a fast-paced environment. Within a week of interviewing, Jose was hired and later assigned to Coral Reef Restaurant at Epcot’s Living Seas attraction.
“We were accepted with bright smiles as soon as we walked through the main entrance,” he says of his arrival at Walt Disney World. “They welcomed us to 180 days of pure magic.”
Coral Reef Restaurant's dining room is part of an aquarium, so the kitchen mainly works with seafood, such as salmon, octopus and crab, plus sirloin steaks for surf and turf. Ingredients are imported from all over the world with a list of the sources displayed on a board in the kitchen: squid from Spain for two weeks, mahi-mahi from Ecuador for the next.
“Considering that I like Japanese cuisine, working with seafood is a kick forward to where I want to go,” Jose says. “This is a high-tempo restaurant; we get really busy and that’s what I came here for: to work and to hone my skills in the kitchen.”
After six months of honing his seafood skills in the Culinary Program, Jose accepted a full-time position continuing to cook at Coral Reef. He loves seafood and the company, and hopes to gain experience in other restaurants in the theme park as he grows. After a certain amount of time on the job, Disney employees can even apply to transfer to other companies within the corporation – from catering on a Marvel Studios movie set to cooking on a Disney cruise ship – after passing a test and meeting requirements for approval.
“It’s been really fun so far and I enjoy meeting new people and trying new things,” Jose says. “Since I work at Epcot, there are people from all over the world, so I get to see different nationalities, heritages and traditions. It’s a whole lot of hours and there are a lot of guests, but a whole lot of experiences and benefits come along with it.”
Jose says a theme park can be as busy as a New York City restaurant, but you could serve 500 people before 9 a.m. or 700 people at night in a Disney World eatery.
“You need to get used to that high tempo and the quality of the food has to be 100 percent all the time,” he adds. “This is Disney: guests are going to experience magic from the moment they wake up at their resort to the moment they sit down at night and have a meal. You, as a cook, are part of that guest experience and if you end their night with a wonderfully cooked dish, they’re going to remember it forever.”
Jose is learning to "keep his character" and work at a fast pace with consistency to prepare for his Puerto Rican-Japanese food truck one day.
“I want to show people that the small island in the Caribbean that got hit by a hurricane also has amazing dishes, so people will go there and see that it’s not as bad as it seems on TV,” he says. “I want to show the positive aspects of my little island.”
You can pursue the Disney Culinary Program experience as a student in ICE's School of Culinary Arts.