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Why Walt Disney Feature Animation opted NOT to make “My Peoples”

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I’m sure that you’re already familiar with that Audio
Animatronic version of Abraham Lincoln which appears in The Hall of Presidents
at WDW‘s Magic Kingdom.


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And maybe you’ve seen that cool, new NextGen version of
Honest Abe which made its debut in Disneyland‘s significantly revamped “Great
Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show
back in December of 2009.


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In honor of Presidents Day, I thought that I’d show you another
Disney version of Abe Lincoln that you may not be familiar with. Which is the
folk art version of our 16th president that was supposed to have
appeared in “My Peoples.”


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All rights reserved

“My Peoples” AKA “Eglin’s People” AKA “Once in a Blue Moon”
AKA “Angel and Her No Good Sister” AKA “A Few Good Ghosts” was the animated
feature that Walt Disney Feature Animation – Florida had in the works right
before that studio was closed for good in March of 2004.

Now as to why “My Peoples” got shut down (More importantly,
why this animated feature was going to feature a folk art version of Abe
Lincoln ) … Well, it’s kind of an interesting snapshot of what was going on at
Walt Disney Feature Animation at that time.


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Inc. All rights reserved

According to Barry Cook, the co-director of Disney’s “Mulan

as well as the creator / director of the “My Peoples” project, the origins of
this proposed production can be traced back to the late 1990s. Which – as you
may recall – was a pretty stressful time to be working in feature animation.

For those of you who don’t recall: As the summer of 1998 was
arriving, Disney Company management was increasingly concerned about WDFA’s
mojo. Or lack thereof. You see, the three animated features that the Studios
had released since the Summer of 1994 – 1995’s “Pocahontas,” 1996’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and 1997’s “Hercules” – hadn’t even come close to
matching “The Lion King” ‘s box office earnings and/or merchandising might.

And then – when you factor in the increased competition that WDFA was about to face in the animation marketplace, what with
the upcoming release of DreamWorks Animation‘s first two feature-length films,
Antz” (which was released to theaters on October 2nd, 1998) and
The Prince of Egypt”  (which went into
wide release on December 18, 1998) – there was increasing pressure on Walt Disney Feature Animation to deliver a hit.


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Thankfully, “Mulan” delivered. The first feature-length
project to be produced primarily by the crew working at Disney Feature
Animation – Florida, this Tony Bancroft / Barry Cook film performed solidly at
the box office. More to the point, critics hailed “Mulan” as the Studio’s best
film since “The Lion King.” Which is just the shot in the arm that Walt Disney
Feature Animation needed at that time.

But as for Barry Cook … As he looked at all of the other
animated features that Disney had in development and/or active production at
this time, ambitious & hugely expensive projects like “Tarzan,” “Fantasia 2000,” “Kingdom of the Sun” and “Atlantis,” Cook couldn’t help but think that WDFA
needed to be doing things differently. Like maybe borrow a page from what Walt did in the early 1940s. Which is — in addition to the big, expensive, labor-intensive projects like “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia” and “Bambi” — you slip a smaller, sweeter, easier-to-animate films like “Dumbo” into your production schedule. That way … Well, you’d be adding some variety to the mix. More to the point, Mouse House managers then wouldn’t have to worry about all of these hugely expensive animated event films becoming massive blockbusters. Which was the only way that these movies were ever actually going to recover all of their production / P & A costs.

And Barry … He thought that he had the perfect premise for a small but sweet Disney animated feature: “The Ghost and his Gift.” Which was a short story that Cook
had written (which – in a phone conversation that he and I had last week –
Barry described as being a cross between “The Canterville Ghost” and “To Kill a Mockingbird“) about these two star-crossed lovers who lived in Appalachia in
the late 1940s. More importantly, how a ghost and three small kids helped to bring
this couple together.


“Mulan” co-director and “My
Peoples” creator Barry Cook. Copyright
2004 Westlund Productions, Inc. All
rights reserved

Now given that Cook had actually grown up in Tennessee, he knew
this region of the United States — more importantly, its music & style of
storytelling — very well. Which is why Barry was then able to create a series
of beat boards that he used to pitch this project to Michael Eisner, the
then-Big Cheese at The Walt Disney Company, and Thomas Schumacher, the
then-head of Walt Disney Feature Animation.

And while Eisner & Schumacher were admittedly charmed by
Cook’s initial presentation, they both had concerns about “The Ghost and his
Gift.” Michael flat-out told Barry that his story was just too simple &
sweet, that it needed more edge. Whereas Thomas … His main concern with “Ghost”
was that this premise – as Cook had initially pitched it, anyway – wasn’t
crying out to be animated. That this film (in its present form) could just as
easily be produced by the live-action side of things at Walt Disney Studios.

So Barry took the notes that he got from Michael &
Thomas and then thought some more about this Appalachia-based tale. Which then
made Cook think of his grandmother who dabbled in folk art. Who’d taken things
like high heel shoes and glued pieces of macaroni & fabric to them,
thereby transforming those shoes into something entirely different;  truly
unique pieces of character art.


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Barry wondered. If he removed the Ghost & the kids from
his storyline and then made it pieces of folk art which eventually brought
these two star-crossed lovers together … Would that make this story seem that
much animate-able and edgier? At least in Eisner & Schumacher’s eyes?

So Cook quickly sketched up 7 folk art characters: Angel
(the sweet protagonist of our tale, whose body & head had been made out of
an old flour scoop) and Ms. Spinster (whose body & head were fashioned from
of someone’s long-discarded wooden leg & foot) …


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Whereas Blues Man had been built out of a broken mandolin,
Abe Lincoln was made using an old scrub brush & some spoons, and Good O’
was fashioned entirely out of auto parts …


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Cherokee had been crafted out of an old work glove …


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Inc. All rights reserved

While Crazy Ray had been carved out of an old tree stump.


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With these seven pieces of folk art now acting as the backwoods
Cupids that ultimately brought Rose & Elgin (i.e. they’re the human couple at the very heart of “My
Peoples” ‘ story) together, Barry wondered: Would these characters actually be enough to
then put this story premise over the top? Get Michael & Thomas to allow “My Peoples”
to move beyond beat boards into artistic development?

To seal the deal, Cook had a maquette of Angel created …


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… and then had this folk art figurine placed inside
of an empty fiddle case. Which Barry then had shipped to Thomas’ office at
Feature Animation’s headquarters in Burbank. And when Schumacher opened that
fiddle case and saw the Angel maquette, he was immediately charmed and saw the
true potential of “My Peoples.” Which is why Thomas then allowed Barry to proceed with development of
this project .

Which isn’t to say that “My Peoples” had
a particularly smooth production path. Given that Disney Feature Animation already had a
Romeo & Juliet” -themed project (i.e. “Gnomeo & Julliet”) in
development, Cook knew that his proposed animated feature had to seem that much better, had to have
some sort of additional hook if it were to eventually get greenlit  by 
Mouse House managers.

And given that Barry – thanks to his work experience on “Off
His Rockers
,” that hand-drawn / CG combination short that Cook and the crew at
Walt Disney Feature Animation – Florida had created back in 1992 — …


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… he knew that there was considerable cost savings to be had
if all of the “My Peoples” folk art characters were animated via CG while this
film’s human characters were done hand-drawn style.

So that’s how Barry wound up pitching his production plan for
this Walt Disney Feature Animation – Florida project. That “My Peoples” would
be 70% CG and 30% hand-drawn. Which meant that he could then deliver this movie
for a considerably lower price point than – say – “Atlantis: The Lost Empire
or “Treasure Planet.”

As Cook recounted in an interview that he did for Dan Lund
& Tony West‘s acclaimed documentary, “Dream On Silly Dreamer
” :


Copyright 2004 Westlund
Productions, Inc. All rights reserved

“As I told (veteran WDFA producer) Pam Coats: ‘Give us $45
million dollars, leave us alone for 3 years and I’ll deliver you a movie. A
movie that could make a profit. I felt very confident that I could do that.”

Mind you, it was very canny of Barry to suggest that he
could deliver “My Peoples” for $45 million. Given that – back in 1992 &
1992 – “The Lion King” had been produced for just $45 million. And that Don
Hahn
film had gone on to make $783 million worldwide.

And Coats – to her credit – genuinely went to bat for “My
Peoples.” Doing everything she could to run interference for this Walt Disney
Feature Animation – Florida production, as she tried to keep the executives back
in Burbank out of Cook’s hair.


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Want proof? Here’s an excerpt from James B. Stewart’s 2005
book, “DisneyWar.” Where Pam actually stands up to Michael Eisner in an
animation production meeting. Telling the then-head of The Walt Disney Company
that ” … We
don’t want you to shoot (“My Peoples”) down,” when  Eisner continues to quibble about this particular
project. Saying that this Barry Cook film is admittedly “… cute but it feels
small.”

Well, to counter Michael’s concerns, Barry then went out
and signed a big-name vocal cast for “My Peoples.” Hiring Dolly Parton to voice
the role of Angel, Lily Tomlin to do Ms. Spinster’s dialogue and Hal Halbrook
to perform Abe Lincoln’s lines. Cook – for a short time, anyway – even
convinced James Carville (i.e. the former lead strategist for Bill Clinton‘s
presidential campaigns and now a noted liberal pundit) to do the voice of Crazy
Ray.

Better yet, Barry convinced Ricky Skaggs & Marty
Stuart
to come handle the musical end of things on “My Peoples.” Which meant
that this WDFA production was going to have an absolutely killer score. Which
would then (hopefully) translate into a best-selling soundtrack for Walt Disney
Records
.


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All of the necessary pieces seemed to be falling into
place. With master animator Andreas Deja agreeing to handle Elgin & Rose,
this film’s two hand-drawn starring roles. While Ric Sluiter handled character
development of “My Peoples” CG characters and Andy Harkness worked on this
film’s overall look.

And for a while there, it really did look like “My Peoples”
was actually going to get made. Especially when – on March 25, 2002 – Thomas
Schumacher announced that the Burbank end of Walt Disney Feature Animation
would soon be transformed into an all-digital operation producing only CG
films. With the Studio’s two remaining hand-drawn projects (2003’s “Brother Bear” and the 30% hand-drawn “My Peoples”) being completed by the crew
at Disney Feature Animation – Florida.

Given that hundreds of his longtime friends &
co-workers had lost their jobs as a direct result as Schumacher’s announcement,
Cook tried to stay positive. Tried to keep his team at WDFA-F on track,
focusing on the day-to-day problems involved with developing a brand-new
feature-length cartoon. Rather than obsessing on what was going on in Burbank
at that moment  and what the long
term implications for the staff of Disney’s Florida studio might be.


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“Tom genuinely believed in ‘My Peoples,’ ” Barry stated.
“Which is why – if he had just stayed with Disney Feature Animation – I’m
certain that he would have helped me get this project where it needed to be.
That this movie would have eventually been made.”

Unfortunately, Schumacher exited WDFA in November of
2002. Opting to move over to Buena Vista Theatrical Productions, so that Thomas
could then concentrate on developing new plays & musicals that The Walt
Disney Company could then present on Broadway.

Which is why  –
after a brief power vacuum – Eisner then appointed David Stainton as the head
of Walt Disney Feature Animation in January of 2003. And given how poorly
“Treasure Planet” had performed over the 2002 holiday season (earning only
$38.1 million during its entire domestic run
), Stainton was under orders to
make even more reductions-in-production-costs-and-head-count at WDFA. Which
didn’t bode well for the folks in Florida.


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“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that David was a bad
guy. I just don’t think that he never got ‘My Peoples,’ ” Cook said. “

Which is why – while Stainton was calling the shots at
WDFA – “My Peoples” went through a number of title changes (In “DisneyWar,”
David is quoted as being really enthusiastic about renaming this film “Angel
and her No Good Sister” because that title then suggested ” … automatic
conflict”).

On Stainton’s watch, the main plot of this animated
feature also received a pretty significant rewrite. Now it wasn’t just
enchanted pieces of folk art that were helping Elgin & Rose with their
romance. But – rather – pieces of folk art that were now possessed by
mischievous mountain spirits. Hence “My Peoples” late-in-the-game title change,
“A Few Good Ghosts.”


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Inc. All rights reserved

And then the production team began to get increasingly
erratic story notes from the execs back in Burbank. So one week, the folks in
Florida would be told “Stage that scene indoors at an old-time movie theater …”


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And the very next week, these same allegedly-creative
executives would then say “You know, maybe this scene would play better if it
were set outdoors at a drive-in movie?” …


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And the crew in Orlando would then have to create all-new
artwork in order to accommodate this sudden story change.

Mind you, all of this extra effort & aggravation
would have been worth it if “My Peoples” had actually been completed.  But in the end, though David allowed Barry’s
film to officially go into production in May of 2003, this project was only up
and running for a brief six months. In November of that same year, Stainton
abruptly pulled the plug on this combination hand-drawn / CG animated feature

because … Well, for a variety of reasons, actually.

Some folks will tell you that it just came down to the
fact that “Chicken Little” had far better name recognition than “My Peoples”
AKA “Angel and Her No Good Sister” AKA “A Few Good Ghosts.” Which is why Disney
then decided to press ahead with production of that Mark Dindal movie rather
than continuing with Cook’s film.


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“Which is kind of ironic. Given that Disney then didn’t allow
Dindal to make the movie that he originally wanted to make either. Mark’s an
old friend of mine. We started at Disney together in visual effects animation.
We both worked on ‘Tron,’ ” Barry remembers. “And after they okayed production
of his animated feature, the Studio then made Mark make all sorts of changes to
Chicken Little. They made him get rid of Holly Hunter as the voice of Chicken
Little because some VP suddenly decided that ‘This character should be a 10
year-old boy.’ All sorts of stuff like that. Mark had a really tough time on
that project.”

Another factor in Disney’s decision to abandon “My
Peoples” came because there were a lot of executives at Walt Disney Studios who
seriously underestimated the appeal of bluegrass music.

“Which again is kind of ironic., ” Cook laughed. “Given
that Disney was the company that had distributed  “O Brother, Where Art Thou?‘ domestically in
2000. And given the soundtrack
for that Coen Brothers film – which was just
loaded with great bluegrass music – then went on to win a Grammy as Album of
the Year
and then become one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time. But –
by the time 2003 rolled around – people at the Studio had entirely forgotten about that. Which just goes to
show you how short memories in Hollywood really are.”


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Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved

Still others will tell you that the decision to shut down
production of “A Few Good Ghosts” in November of 2003 (and then the entire Walt
Disney Feature Animation – Florida studios just four months later) wasn’t
Stainton’s doing. But – rather – Eisner’s. Who – as he did with ABC back in
1999 when Michael ordered that that network move its corporate headquarters
from Manhattan to the Disney lot in Burbank – was just looking for ways to consolidate
power. Put all of WDFA employees in one place under one roof so that they could
then respond that much quicker to any & all of Eisner’s commands.

Whatever the real reason for “My Peoples” ‘s shutdown, it
was then up to Barry to pick up the phone and break the bad news to all of
the voice actors that he’d signed to work on this Disney Feature Animation
-Florida production.


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“I think that the toughest call that I had to make was
the one to Charles Durning. You see, when we hired him to do the voice of Old Man
McGee, Charles just went on and on about how thrilled he was to get this part.
How he’d always wanted to do a voice for an animated character in a Disney
film. And now I had to call Durning and tell him that the Studio had decided
that it didn’t want to make that movie anymore?,” Cook remembered. “Yeah, that
was a tough call.”

Barry also had to reach out to Hal Holbrook, the voice of
Abe Lincoln for “My Peoples.” Who – as our 16th president was going
to be portrayed in this proposed Walt Disney Feature Animation production – was
going to be a very comical character.

“Just like the Teddy character in ‘Arsenic & Old Lace

is crazy and thinks that he’s Theodore Roosevelt, our folk Abe
wasn’t going to be the real President Lincoln. He was just an old scrub brush
with spoons for ears that thinks he’s president,” Cook explained. “So we were
going to have him do crazy President-Lincoln-kind-of things like emancipating
the chickens out in the barnyard.”


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But that said, “My Peoples” Abe Lincoln character was
also going to be this movie’s voice of reason. He was the one who’d be advising
caution when all of the characters wanted to go rushing after Angela. Who – after learning that Elgin
had created this particular piece of folk art in order to tell Rose of his love
for her … Well, Angel decides that she just isn’t up for playing the role of
Cupid and then runs away from home.

And given that Holbrook had already played Honest Abe in
Sandburg’s Lincoln” (which was this 6-part mini-series about our 16th
president that NBC aired back in 1974) … Well, Hal gave a wonderfully warm
& thoughtful performance as this cartoon character. In fact, it was during
one “My Peoples” recording session that Holbrook did something that
brought Cook and the rest of his team in the booth to tears.

“Before he got started, Hal said ‘I gotta warm up as
Abe.’ So then – in his Lincoln voice, entirely from memory – Holbrook performed
the Gettysburg Address,” Barry recalled. “And to hear those words in that voice
was just so moving.


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And speaking of moving … As if the sudden shutdown of “My
Peoples” AKA “Angel and her No Good Sister” AKA 
“A Few Good Ghosts” wasn’t bad enough, Cook soon discovered that there just
 wasn’t any room for him at the new
Burbank-based version of Walt Disney Feature Animation. So after 22 years at
the Mouse House, Barry moved on.

“Which was tough. I mean, it’s a hard lesson to learn
that — while you may personally be loyal to a corporation – it’s impossible
for a corporation to then be loyal back to an individual. Enormous multinational
companies just aren’t built like that,” Cook continued.

But Barry took all of that story-telling expertise that
he picked up during his two-plus-decades of working at Disney and then took it on the road. For most of
2009, Cook was over in the UK., where he worked with the folks at Aardman
Animations, Ltd
. as the co-director on their upcoming  Holiday 2011 release, “Arthur Christmas.”
Which is already getting some terrific buzz thanks to its very funny teaser
trailer
.


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Animations, Ltd. All rights reserved

But as for “My Peoples” … Well, Cook continues to have a
soft spot in his heart for this aborted WDFA-F production. Which is easy to understand. Given that Barry associates so
many great experiences with this nearly-made movie (like the time he got to go to Ricky
Skaggs’ house and watch this country star perform in his home recording studio)
that it’s hard to now dwell on what might have been.

But that said … Given that the Walt Disney Feature
Animation management team that actually pulled the plug on “My Peoples” is no
longer in power
in Burbank  … More to the
point, given that the crew that’s now in charge of Walt Disney Animation
Studios
have begun circling back on feature film concepts that Schumacher &
Stainton couldn’t quite make work (EX: “Reboot Ralph.” That
console-game-character-who-escapes-from-his-vintage-cartridge-only-to-then-discover-that-it’s-now-a-MMORPG-world
film that’s currently in active development at WDAS. Whereas – back in the late
1990s / early 2000s – this project was known as “Joe Jump”).

So if “Joe Jump” can be rebooted … Wouldn’t it stand to
reason that a sweet, sincere and deliberately-low-cost project, one that’s
deliberately aimed at the heartland of the country and combines CG &
hand-drawn animation, deserves another look-see?


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Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Well, here’s hoping that – someday soon – John Lasseter has his people take
another look at “My Peoples.”

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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General

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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