Behind The Menu: Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Chef Justin Watson

More and more, food is becoming a larger part of the overall theme park experience. From food festivals to “one-of-a-kind” menu items, you can rarely visit a park these days without taking part in some sort of culinary masterpiece. In fact, many parks around the country are hiring their own executive chefs. We wanted to go “behind the menu” at a few parks, and find out a little bit more about some of the people behind your favorite theme park fare.

This week, we’re profiling Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Executive Chef, Justin Watson.

C101: Tell us a little bit about your culinary background.

Chef Justin Watson: I came from the restaurant and resort side of the industry, with stops at notable establishments like Equinox in Vermont, The Wauwinet on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts and the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. I also held positions at both Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg and the Woodstock Inn and Resort in Vermont before joining the Busch Gardens culinary team in 2012.

C101: Cumulatively, how long have you been a chef?

JW: It depends on how you define a chef. I started working in professional kitchens when I was 15 years old, so I have been in the industry for 25 years.  As far as having a title of a chef, I received a Chef de Partie position in May of 1996 so a little over 20 years as a “chef”.

Banana Nut Crepes from Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s 2017 Food & Wine Festival

C101: How did you make the decision to become a chef in the theme park industry?

JW: I was executive chef at Kingsmill Resort, once owned by Anheuser Busch, and through that connection with Busch Gardens had helped with some demonstrations at the park.  I developed a relationship with the leadership team during that time, so when the food and wine event arose we reconnected.

C101: When creating a new menu or item, where do you draw inspiration from?

JW: Most of my inspiration comes from previous experience in the industry. Our menu development is a collective process with input from all of the leadership in culinary.  I review periodicals to see what is upcoming and trending, as well as look at old recipe books to find inspirations from menu items of past.

Tandori Chicken from Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s 2017 Food & Wine Festival

C101: Do you put your personal touch on Busch Gardens’ menus? 

JW: Creating menus and menu items are very much a collaborative effort.  With so many people involved, from purchasing the ingredient to cooking and plating the final dish, it is critical to get the input and buy-in from everyone involved.

C101: What’s your favorite food item at Busch Gardens?

JW: That’s like asking, ‘Who is your favorite child?’  I would have to say the items we make from scratch are my favorite as a whole: The fresh dinner rolls from baker as they are just coming out of the oven, the hand rolled cannelloni or eggplant parmesan in Marco Polo’s Marketplace,  the sliced brisket after smoking overnight at Trappers Smokehouse to name a few.

The Outdoor Smoker at Trapper’s Smokehouse at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. (Photo: Attraction Chasers)

C101: How do you feel about food becoming a bigger part of the overall theme park experience?

JW: Thanks to the Food Network and numerous reality chef shows, I feel the public is better educated on food today than they ever have been. This has led to more interest and demand for an elevated culinary experience of which we are happy to capitalize on.

C101: What’s the most rewarding part about working at Busch Gardens?

JW: For me, personally I love the testing of new recipes and concepts. The conundrum of being an executive chef is that the higher you get in the field the more administrative duties and less kitchen time you get. I love that I still get to have hands-on work with food on a regular basis.

A Busch Gardens Team Member prepares a Pretzel at Beste Brezeln und Bier. Photo: Attraction Chasers

C101: What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

JW: I have been spoiled for most of my career working in kitchens with a professionally trained culinary staff with lots of experience.  Given the nature of the theme park industry, generally our entry-level team members tend to have minimal experience, and for many this can be their first job.  When I create new menu items, I have to keep that in mind and make them executable for all skill levels.

C101: What advice would you give to home cooks or anyone wanting to get into the amusement industry on the food side?

JW: Put in an application. This industry is like none other I have worked in.  There are so many working parts that unless you see it from the inside there is no other way to learn it.

C101: We are a roller coaster website – do you ever get to ride any of Busch Gardens’ coasters, and what’s your favorite? 

JW: I too love coasters, but I must confess unless I have family come into town I rarely make the time to enjoy them. I know once my children are older they will drag me on them more often.   Similar to the favorite food question, it is difficult to answer, but for a smooth comfortable fast coaster I love Apollo’s Chariot and for my top thrill coaster I love Griffon with the beautiful view of the James River while I hang at the top before the plunge.

Thanks to Chef Justin for his time!

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