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“Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast” is a blast for theme park fans

Want to ride the hippest, funniest theme park ride that Jim Hill has been on in years? Then forget about heading to Disney and instead make plans now to visit Universal Studios Florida and check out this recently revamped attraction …

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I’ll say this much for the folks at Universal. They obviously learn from Disney’s mistakes.

Don’t believe me? Then take, for example, all the negative publicity that the Mouse generated due to the awkward way the Walt Disney corporation handled the closure of WDW’s “20,000 Leagues” submarine attraction as well as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

Watching Mickey place his foot in his mouth one too many times may explain why — late last year — Universal actually went out of its way to make annual passholders aware that it would soon be shutting down their “Kongfrontation” attraction. The Central Florida theme park even went so far as to invite APers and the media to attend a special “Say ‘So Long’ to Kong” event — where annual passholders were actually allowed to stay in the park after hours to make their “Goodbyes” to the big ape. They were even given a free gift for taking part in the “Kong” event.

The way that Universal chose to handle its “King Kong” closure — being extremely upfront about their intentions, putting a proactive and positive spin on the whole event by actually inviting APers to come out to the park to “Say ‘So Long’ to Kong” — generated tons of positive publicity for the theme park. Not to mention whetting people’s appetite for the mysterious “Mummy”-themed roller coaster that would soon appear in “Kongfrontation”‘s place.

All in all, the whole situation was handled with considerable style and class … a skill that Mickey really used to have, but seems to have forgotten in his rush to put a gift shop in the post-show area of every single new and/or revamped version of every WDW attraction.

Such was the case with WDW’s controversial redo of Epcot’s “Journey in Imagination” ride. Disney was so determined to add additional retail space to this once beloved Future World attraction that it actually ripped out the last third of the ride track for this whimsical attraction to make room for additional t-shirt racks as well as image capture equipment. The end result was a revamped attraction that was so reviled by WDW visitors that the Imagineers were actually forced to reverse course. They had to go back to Orlando and radically rework the previously revamped attraction.

The third version of this Future World ride — “Journey into Imagination with Figment” — recaptured much of the spirit and fun of the original. (And it’s a real tribute to the talents of David Mumford, that — given the extremely limited resources that this WDI vet was working with — that he was still able to pull together such a fun attraction.) But even today, as guests exit that Future World ride and make their way through Kodak’s retail gauntlet, they can be heard to remark “Well, that was nice … but it’s still not nearly as good as the original ‘Imagination’ ride.”

This message — that you can’t replace an attraction with an inferior ride — has clearly been heard by the folks at Universal Creative. Which is why they just replaced the somewhat dated — but still fun — “Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera” with the outrageously entertaining “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast.”

How good is “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast?” Last Tuesday afternoon, inside of an hour, I rode the attraction three times. The very next day, when Nancy was meeting with reps of the DAVE school (she’s giving some semi-serious thought to taking some computer animation classes in Central Florida), I actually went back to Universal Studios Orlando and rode “Jimmy” six more times. And — each time I experienced the attraction — I caught more witty touches, more wildly funny moments.

Now please understand that I was one of those guys who actually liked “The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera.” Given that I’m a bit of a baby boomer (born in 1959), I’m actually old enough to have seen “The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons,” and “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” on their original network runs (or — at the very least — to catch these programs during their first series of off-network reruns).

So it was always sort of cool (at least for me) to stand there in the pre-show of this Universal Florida attraction and see *** Dastardly and Muttley kidnap Elroy. (I always got a kick out of watching Joseph Barbera — as he made his exit in the pre-show film — pull a Snagglepuss-esque “Exit Stage Right” maneuver.)

Then to enter the main theater and have Yogi Bear pilot our craft through a CGI version of Bedrock, a spooky old castle as well as an out-of-this-world amusement park … was sheer bliss. At least for this baby boomer. I always marveled at the nice job that Rhythm & Hues had done with this ride film. Even though “The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera” was created ‘way back in 1990, I always thought that this Universal simulator attraction had held up nicely. (Would that we could say the same about Epcot’s “Body Wars” ride. But that’s a story for another time …)

Anyway … as they say, “All good things must come to an end.” And — as attendance began to dwindle for “The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera” in the late 1990s — Universal Creative began looking for a way to revamp this attraction. Create a ride that wouldn’t just appeal to bloated baby boomers like me, but could really connect with kids of today.

Of course, given that Universal already had a relationship with Nickelodeon, it just made sense for the theme park to rework the ride film for its Central Florida “Hanna Barbera” facility around that Nickelodeon’s set of characters. Create an attraction that would fly Universal guests off to a whole new set of worlds.

But the key difference between the Disney and Universal approach was that — even though Universal Creative was also working with a somewhat limited budget — they were also still determined to deliver a high quality product. A show that — while still being affordable — would still go out of its way to top the “Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera.”

So how did they do this? By being smart. First up, folks who have previously visited the pre-show and main theater areas of “The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera” will note — as they enter “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast” — that minimal changes have been made to these areas. A new paint job here, a few new atmospheric props there. But beyond that, these spaces are virtually unchanged.

Of course, given that Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius is the star of this new Universal Studios ride, changes to these spaces were really unnecessary. The over-sized screens in the pre-show — as well as the odd flying machines in the main theater — look just like something Jimmy would have cooked up in his secret lab.

That’s the real brilliance of Universal Creative’s approach to this particular show change-out; they didn’t change anything that they didn’t have to change. They spent the money where it really counted … and in this case, where it really counted was creating a balls-out funny new ride film for this attraction.

So how would I describe the ride film for “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast?” Densely fun. Immensely entertaining. This may be the very first theme park attraction that I would truly describe as being “hip.” There are so many great gags buried inside this movie, so many surprise appearances by Nick characters, so many wonderful touches hidden away in corners … that I was still catching new things on my 9th trip through this revamped Universal attraction.

The story actually gets underway on the Jimmy Neutron soundstage on the Nicktoon Studio lot. As the pre-show begins, Jimmy is putting the finishing touches on his latest invention – the Mark IV, a hand crafted two person rocket ship. As Neutron’s nerdy pal, Carl, and his cybernetic canine, Goddard, look on, Jimmy gives the folks in the queue all the backstory they need to fully enjoy “Nicktoon Blast.” As is:

Jimmy reveals that the soundstages and/or free standing sets where “Hey, Arnold!,” “Rugrats,” “The Fairly Oddparents,” and “Spongebob Squarepants” are all located relatively nearby.

The Mark IV personal rocket ship was preceded by several other prototypes. The Mark III (which seems to have met some dreadful fate … when Carl asks Jimmy what became of the Mark III, Neutron’s succinct reply is “Don’t ask”), the Mark II and the Mark I.

It’s at this point in the pre-show that Ooblar, the evil Yolkian agent (who — while masquerading as a typical Central Florida tourist — has managed to sneak on to the Nicktoon Studio backlot) reveals himself. He’s come all the way from Yolkus (the Yolkian home world) to steal the Mark IV. The Yolkians plan to copy Jimmy’s latest invention as the model for a huge new invasion fleet. Which Ooblar and his egg-shaped cronies will then use to enslave the earth.

With a maniacal laugh, Ooblar flies the Mark IV out through the massive hole that he’s just blown in the side of Jimmy’s soundstage. Neutron then turns to the audience members that are standing in the show’s pre-show area and asks for our help in recovering his latest invention. It’s then decided that Jimmy, Carl and Goddard will chase after Ooblar in the Mark II, while we’ll follow along in the Mark I.

Carl doesn’t have all that much enthusiasm for this plan. He turns to the boy genius and says “I thought you said that the Mark I was somewhat unreliable.”

Jimmy’s response: “Well, it’s not totally unreliable.”

That’s the Reader’s Digest version of the pre-show. What my bare-bones description doesn’t do is capture a lot of the snarky wit and left-handed charm that this portion of the “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast” has. EX: Ooblar’s oily introduction, when he calls Neutron “… his old nemesis.” Carl’s response? “I hope ‘nemesis” means ‘buddy.'”

Or that wonderful moment when Carl tries to explain to Jimmy why he so quickly handed the Mark IV’s remote control over to Ooblar after the Yolkian had threatened to “hurt” the nerd: “I think he used one of those alien mind meld things on me.”

(Truth be told, Carl is probably my favorite character in “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast.” Certainly, this heavyset nerd has the lion’s share of the best lines in this Universal Studios attraction.)

With a quietly whimpered “Mommy” from Carl, we’re now on our way into the main theater in “Nicktoon Blast.” As I mentioned earlier, the ride vehicles here look pretty much as they did back in the day of “The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera.” A new paint job here, a vacuum cleaner canister hot-glued there. But beyond that, it’s pretty much the same set-up.

But as for the ride film itself … picture the old “Hanna Barbera” ride film on steroids. With dozens of cartoon character cameos whizzing by at light speed, with gag piled upon gag upon gag … you’re going to have to ride “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast” at least twice before you catch even a 10th of the jokes that the folks at Universal have crammed into this revamped attraction.

But here (without spoiling too many of “Jimmy”‘s numerous surprises) are a few highlights of this new Universal attraction:

Just seconds after we blast off out of Neutron’s soundstage, our rocket zooms through the streets of Nicktoon Studios. You really don’t want to blink during this section of the attraction. Otherwise, you’ll miss the quick-as-a-bunny cameo appearances by the cast of “Rocket Power,” “Rocco’s Modern World,” “The Wild Thornberrys” and even “Ren & Stimpy!”

Our next stop — after we sideswipe the slime tower (which unleashes a brief water effect inside the theater) — is the street where “Where’s Arnold” is filmed. As Jimmy, Carl, and the audience continue their pursuit of Ooblar, we interrupt a stickball game. (Watch as Goddard makes an amazing mid-air catch.)

From here, the trio of rocket ships just manage to squeeze through the rapidly closing doors of the “Rugrats” soundstage. The next thing we know, we’re flying over, around and through the Pickles’ homestead. With Angelica — who suddenly finds herself tethered to Ooblar’s ship — cussing out the members of the audience, calling us “dumb diaperheads.” (Keep a sharp eye out for Tommy, Chuckie, Phil, Lil & Dill … as well as the next door neighbor’s dog, who has an unfortunate run-in with a fence.)

After blasting through the wall of Tommy’s bedroom (and dumping Angelica unceremoniously on the bed), our rockets zoom over toward the soundstage where “The Fairly Oddparents” are filmed. Only this time, the doors to that soundstage aren’t open. But that doesn’t stop Jimmy, Ooblar or us as we blast through the wall to discover …

“Fairies!” Carl squeals. Sure enough, Cosmo and Wanda are flying alongside Neutron’s rocket ship. “Jimmy appeals to Cosmos, crying “Help us!” Cosmo mis-hears Neutron’s request as “Elvis,” which is why he changes Ooblar into an egg-shaped Elvis Presley. This transformation causes Jimmy to bring his rocket ship up short, which causes Carl to smack his forehead on the side of the vessel. The nerd moans “Oh, my achin’ head.” Cosmo once again mis-hears this request (“Bacon Head”), which is why Carl’s hair suddenly learns into fresh, crispy bacon.

Elvis Presley. Fresh, crispy bacon. Do I have to draw you a map? It’s a bizarrely funny moment that you’ll certainly never see in a Disney theme park, as Ooblar hungrily pursues Carl as the nerd squeals “Please don’t let him eat my head, Jim!”

To help Jimmy, Carl, and Goddard defeat Ooblar, Cosmo lends his magic wand to the panicked nerd. Carl waves the wand at the Mark VI, screaming “Go away!” In a burst of fairy dust, Ooblar and his ship do disappear. Jimmy then reminds Carl that “We have to follow that ship.” “Sounds like a wish,” says Wanda. With a wave of her wand, she sends Jimmy, Carl, Goddard and us to …

Yolkus! The Yolkian home world that Nicktoon fans may be familiar with if they’ve already seen the “Jimmy Neutron” theatrical feature and/or caught the recent Nickelodeon TV special, “The Egg-pire Strikes Back.” As the Mark II barrel rolls over this bleak planet, Carl reminds Jimmy (and the audience) that they “… don’t exactly like us here.” As a sly nod to various Lucasfilm projects, as our rockets zoom down toward the Yolkian capital city, Carl says “I got a funny feeling. And this time, I don’t think it’s gas.”

From here, it’s a slapstick-filled sequence. With Jimmy flying after Ooblar and both of their rockets wrecking havoc on the city. In addition to the broader, more obvious jokes (As in: When Ooblar flies through the Yolkian Bowlarama and accidentally mows down a bunch of bowlers in “Perfect Strike” fashion), pay attention to the smaller, subtler touches (EX: The film titles at the Yolkian multiplex: “Yolk Story II.” The egg-shaped newsboy hawking papers with Jimmy’s picture on them, crying “Rocket boy returns!”)

Our ship stays close behind Jimmy and Ooblar’s rockets. We zoom into the Yolkian throne room where the King of Yolkus reveals that we’ve fallen right into his trap. “How good to see you again, Neutron …” the King cackles. And — in an inspired lift from “The Wizard of Oz”- – the egg-shaped monarch turns to the audience and says “… and your little friends too!”

And — speaking of friends — the King of Yolkus re-introduces Neutron to another old acquaintance: Poultra, the Godzilla-sized three-eyed chicken that seems determined at eat Jimmy, Carl, Goddard, and us. We rocket out of the palace and just miss being crushed by Poultra’s Buick-sized feet. (There’s some real nice use of in-theater effects here. Every time one of Poultra’s feet strike the ground, our ride vehicles jump. Every time Poultra breathes fire at us, smoke comes surging out from under the screen.)

We escape Poultra only to have the Mark II’s engine flame out. As Jimmy — in the midst of a brain blast — tries to quickly jury-rig a fix on his rocket, he asks Carl to take off his pants. But the nerd has had enough. Wailing “I wanna go home!,” Carl waves Cosmo’s wand over his head and …

WHAM! We’re now high over the Earth’s surface. As our vehicle follows Jimmy’s rocket as it freefalls back toward Florida, Neutron says “Uh oh.” Carl’s response: “I was kind of hoping that ‘Uh oh” is a piloting term.” We now zoom down toward the miniature ocean in the backmost corner of the Nicktoon Studio lot, where we splash down into …

Bikini Bottom! Home to Spongebob Squarepants and all his crazy aquatic friends. We’re zooming over the Jellyfish Fields as Patrick points us out to his porous pal. “A rocket powered jellyfish!” Spongebob squeals. With that, Squarepants is in hot pursuit of the Mark II. With jellyfish net in hand, Spongebob flings himself off of a cliff. He then lands on Neutron’s ship and crams his net over Jimmy’s head.

Neutron cries “I can’t see!” With that, our wild ride through Bikini Bottom begins. Jimmy’s rocket ship spins out of control around Spongebob’s house. (The end result: Squarepant’s pineapple-shaped house ends up getting cut into large ring-shaped pieces. Which are immediately float down into a gigantic canned pineapple can.) While this is going on, our vehicle flies through the window at Squidward’s house, interrupting his clarinet practice.

From here, it’s a trip through the heart of Bikini Bottom. With Squarepants happily greeting his friends as he whizzes along on with Jimmy’s rocket ship. “Hello, Mrs. Puff! (Watch as the much beleaguered driving instructor “puffs” with surprise when she spies Spongebob) Hello, Sandy! Hello, Larry! (And perhaps my favorite line out of the entire attraction) Hello, secondary characters!”

As actual bubbles drift down from the ceiling of the theater, Neutron’s rocket flies through the front door of the Krusty Krab. As Mr. Krab and a handful of customers cling to Squarepants (who’s now waterskiing in the wake of Neutron’s rocket ship), Jimmy pilots the Mark II right into a metallic drain he spies at the bottom of the ocean. “Aw, barnicles!” Spongebob cries as he, Mr. Krab and all of those Krusty Krab customers are knocked off the rocket ship and left behind in Bikini Bottom.

From there, we find ourselves right back where we started. The Mark I and II come up through a drain in the floor of Jimmy’s soundstage. It seems like the attraction is over. Until the King of Yolkus arrives! Snatching the remote control out of Neutron’s hand, the evil Yolkian turns toward the audience and orders that …

No! I can’t do it. I can’t spoil what is truly the most surprising, truly delightful moment in “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast.” Where your ride vehicle does something that you’d never expect it to do. Something you’ve never, ever experienced before … unless, of course, you’d been to one too many really cheesy weddings.

Let’s just say this moment in the show is fall down funny. And that — with this one particular ballsy bit of business — Universal has seriously raised the bar for all motion-based theatrical theme park shows. Disney’s going to have to come up with something really stunning if it ever hopes to top this show-stopping moment in “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast.”

So how does it end? Well, let’s not forget that Carl still has Cosmo’s magic wand. With a wave of the wand, Carl cries out “High powered laser dealie!” A lethal-looking green laser now ricochets around the theater over the heads of the audience before it strikes the Yolkian King. Reducing the ruler of Yolkus to … well … a pile of yolk.

With the villain finally defeated and the Mark IV returned to where it belongs, Jimmy thanks for the audience for taking part in his adventure. Meantime, in the background, Carl (who — according to the mythology of the “Jimmy Neutron” TV show — has always been obsessed with llamas) is using Cosmo’s magic wand to quickly conjure up a herd of llamas. In what is perhaps the most bizarre gag in a truly bizarre theme park show, keep your eye on the righthand side of the screen. Where — just before the steel door closes and Neutron says “Gotta blast!” — you’ll see a very special llama make a surprise appearance.

I know, I know. This is an incredibly detailed description of the “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast” show. But — strange as this may seem — this description really only touches on about a 10th of the gags and crazy things that happened in this new Universal Studios attraction. You’d have to watch “JNNTB” at least a dozen or more times before you could safely say that you’ve seen the whole show.

And let’s not forget about the fun to be had in the post-show area: the Nicktoon Control room. Where you can use your very own video camera to shoot some on-location footage at Bikini Bottom. Or that neat Chalkzone area. Or the various interactive attractions to be found here. The whole “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast” experience — from the silly film clips that run in the exterior queue to the revamped gift shop — is a winner. At least to my way of thinking.

And you want to know the best part? Universal DIDN’T use the revamping of the old “Hanna Barbera” facility as an opportunity to increase the size of the ride’s post-show gift shop area. That store — which now features a wide variety of Nickelodeon-themed merchandise — remains exactly the same size … another clear sign that Universal learns from Disney’s mistakes.

You want my advice about the very best way to experience “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast?” First ride inside one of the in-theater vehicles that swing and sway in sync with the ride film. THEN get back in line for “Nicktoon Blast” and — this time around — opt to sit down front in the stationary seats. That way, you have a better chance to catching some of the quicker cameos that the other Nicktoon characters make in this ride film. Not to mention that you’ll be in a primo spot to watch the rest of the audience as they …

NO! Must be strong! Must not totally blow the big surprise in “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast!”

You know the best part of this whole situation is? “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast” is the first of three truly strong major new rides and shows to make their debut at Universal Studios Orlando. Later this month, “Shrek 4D” also debuts. And that film — particularly the Central Florida version with its elaborate witty queue — is a real winner.

Not to mention the “Mummy”-themed roller coaster that Universal will be unleashing on the public next year, which will skillfully mix show scenes, elaborate special effects, thrills, chills, and a finale that’s sure to …

No! Must not spoil that ride’s surprises either.

Let’s just say that — for the past year or so now — Universal has been taking advantage of all the lessons that they’ve been learning from the Mouse’s mistakes. So don’t you think it’s finally time that the Walt Disney Company to start learning from Universal Studio’s successes.

Your thoughts?

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse‘s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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