About a week or so ago I asked on our Facebook page whether or not there was any interest in a quick review of The Chef’s Guests, one of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s up-charge experiences for this year’s Food & Wine Festival. Though the response wasn’t overwhelming, it seemed that some of you were, indeed, interested. So, for those of you who are on the fence about whether or not to attend the presentation, hopefully this will help a bit. Also, for whatever reason, the park has decided to only schedule two days when The Chef’s Guests will be available: June 15th and 16th. For any of you reading this the week it comes out, that’s this Saturday and Sunday.
Ok, before I get started, I should make a few things clear:
[list style=”3″][li]First off, I believe full disclosure is very important so let me get this out of the way first: I did not pay for this experience. From what I understand, the park wanted to fill up Castle O’Sullivan so the promotional pictures they were taking would look better. Basically, I, along with a bunch of other people, was randomly selected to see an early media showing of The Chef’s Guests.[/li][li]Secondly, please keep in mind that because what I saw on May 31st was technically an early media preview, there is a slight chance that the final version of the experience may be a little different.[/li][li]Lastly, it should be noted that this is being written by someone with a very acute knowledge of cooking. I’ve never been one to experiment in the kitchen, sit down to watch cooking shows, etc. so hopefully you’ll forgive me if I end up butchering the terminology.[/li][/list]
The Chef’s Guests (or the Chef’s Guest according to the in-park signage) is an exclusive upcharge experience that will take place on June 15th and 16th inside Castle O’Sullivan. The experience basically consists of Virginia Willis, a relatively famous chef who has appeared on a few TV cooking shows and has written a couple books, giving a cooking presentation that lasts somewhere around 50 minutes or so. At the end of the demonstration, attendees receive a plate of the food that Virginia Willis prepared in her demonstration along with a few desserts provided by the park. Though I can’t guarantee with complete certainty that the menu will be the same on the 15th and 16th: the night I went, Virginia Willis prepared sweet tea-brined pork steaks which were served alongside grits and collard greens. Following the meal, Busch Gardens offered three desserts: Tiramisu, Pumpkin Caramel Mousse, and Coca-Cola Cake. Before anyone asks, yes, the Tiramisu and Pumpkin Caramel Mousse were identical to what can be bought at the Italy and Canada booths respectively. Additionally, as you’re eating, guests are given the opportunity to ask Mrs. Willis any questions they may have for her about the food, her profession, her books, etc. During this time you can also buy one of her books and get it signed for free. It should also be noted that a glass of wine or a soft drink is included and, though it’s not advertised, seconds seemed to be available by request.
I’m going to split the review itself into three main sections: The atmosphere, the presentation, and the food. Then, following those sections, I’ll roundup what I thought of the experience overall in the conclusion. If you’re short on time and don’t care about my ramblings (I don’t blame you), feel free to skip to the conclusion- it should give you a good idea of whether or not it’s worth your time and money. Also, make sure you don’t miss the pictures at the end of the post! Enjoy!
Now, unless you’ve done Celtic Dyne or Dine with Elmo and Friends, there’s a good chance you haven’t been inside Castle O’Sullivan since at least 2008 when Secrets of Castle O’Sullivan was last performed. For any of the more hardcore Busch Gardens fans out there, myself included, getting to go back inside Castle O’Sullivan alone may be worth the $19. Between the layout, the theming, and the set, it truly is quite a fantastic venue. Now, for anyone who doesn’t know, Secrets of Castle O’Sullivan was set in a castle and, interestingly enough, from what I can tell, most all of the show’s major set pieces are still in place currently. As you may be able to imagine, that set makes for a very interesting backdrop for a cooking demonstration. Regardless, if you can get over the fact that you’re in a theater themed to a dungeon, the setting is quite nice. The lighting was well done, the cooking area setup seemed nice enough, and, even from a little over halfway back in the theater, it was still relatively easy to see what Virginia Willis was demonstrating.
As stated in the introduction, I honestly couldn’t care less about cooking. I enjoy good food, but I’ve never been particularly interested in the art behind it. With that in mind, if I hadn’t been given free tickets, I would have never paid for The Chef’s Guests- not because it looked bad, but because it didn’t look like something that I would find particularly interesting. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised. The demonstration was well done and, even though I didn’t particularly care about the subject matter, I still found it relatively interesting. I will say, however, that towards the end (particularly when she started reading out of one of her recent books), the presentation did start to feel a bit drawn out. I imagine that if the food was served prior the reading section of the show, that minor complaint would be completely erased. Again though, this is from someone who couldn’t possibly care less about cooking. To be honest, the fact that I wasn’t bored to tears speaks volumes about how well done the presentation actually was. Well done, Virginia!
For me at least, this was, by far, the highlight of the event. When I saw the menu I was a little disheartened as I have never been one to particularly enjoy collards and have always detested the texture and flavor (or lack thereof) of grits. And, for the record, having grown up with two parents from the south, trust me, I’ve tried my fair share of both. Anyway, amazingly enough, I thoroughly enjoyed both the collards and the grits- something I’ve never been able to say about either of those foods in the past. Additionally ,though it didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, the main dish (sweet tea-brined pork steak) was delicious as well. Though the southern theme of the meal clashes horrendously with Castle O’Sullivan and the rest of the park, I can honestly say that this was probably one of the best meals I’ve eaten in the park and, that alone, in my opinion, is worth the $19 entry fee- especially when you factor in desserts and drinks.
Speaking of desserts, I suppose I should talk about them as well. I tried both the Pumpkin Caramel Mousse and the Coca-Cola Cake but opted not to sample the Tiramisu because, believe it or not, I’m actually one of those strange people who hates chocolate. Anyway, I enjoyed the Pumpkin Caramel Mousse and, though it’s far from my favorite item offered in the park for the Food & Wine Festival, it’s something I’ll probably end up purchasing again from the Canada booth in the future regardless. Next up is the Coca-Cola Cake. This, needless to say, was a very, very strange addition to the menu. I’m fairly certain it was shoehorned in as part of the Coca-Cola sponsorship of the experience. Quite honestly, I hated it. Additionally, it seemed that the general consensus among the people at my table seemed to be similarly negative and, judging by all the partially eaten pieces of Coca-Cola Cake on other guest’s plates, it seemed to be anything but a hit. I’d try to describe its flavor but honestly, I don’t have any idea what to compare it to. To put it simply, it was exceedingly bizarre- especially after all the delicious southern food I had just consumed. With that criticism out of the way, I should close this section by pointing out that though the Coca-Cola Cake was, in my honest opinion, horrid, that shouldn’t overshadow the rest of the simply superb food that is offered as part of “The Chef’s Guests” experience. As stated above, the main course is absolutely fantastic and the other dessert I tried (the Pumpkin Caramel Mousse from the Canada booth) was remarkably good as well.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a single major complaint about The Chef’s Guests. Sure, I thought the presentation felt a tad long and the Coca-Cola Cake was a letdown, but both of those small gripes are easily overlooked when everything else about the experience is considered. Additionally, not only is it an enjoyable experience, but it’s also one that, for what you get, is extremely reasonably priced. For a main course of that caliber inside the park, you’d easily spend $12 or more. When you add the drink and the desserts, the food you get alone is well worth the $19 entry fee. Toss in an almost hour long presentation from a professional chef, the upscale atmosphere of Castle O’Sullivan, and full table service and that $19 begins to look like pocket change. If you’re going to be at the park this Saturday or Sunday and have the time to spare, I highly recommended checking out The Chef’s Guests. It truly is fantastic.
If you have any questions or comments about The Chef’s Guests, feel free to comment below or, better yet, check out The Chef’s Guests thread on the ParkFans Forum, here