Here at Universal Orlando Resort, Mardi Gras isn’t just a celebration, it’s a tradition. For over 25 years, our Food & Beverage team has brought the culinary sensation of Mardi Gras to life in our very own version of the French Quarter Courtyard in Universal Studios Florida. Every year, the team researches, collaborates, and creates food and drinks inspired by the city that’s famous for its culinary scene, New Orleans. This includes everything from traditional Creole dishes like jambalaya and gumbo, to new global-inspired creations like Pernil & Mofongo and Pork Schnitzel Sliders.
This year’s Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval is especially tasty with the biggest spread of food and drink offerings the event has ever had. We’re talking multiple areas throughout Universal Studios, the hotels, and Universal CityWalk with food and beverages themed to international Carnaval celebrations. Here’s a sample menu from Universal Studios to get your mouth watering!
- Puerto Rico (Pernil & Mofongo, Picadillo Empanadas, Quesitos, Pina Verde)
- New Orleans (Crawfish Boil, Jambalaya, Beignets, Muffaletta Sandwich, Cajun Twisted & Cajun Sausage Taters, Tropical Storm Punch, Milk Punch)
- Trinidad & Tobago (Pineapple Trini-Chow, Pholourie, Queen’s Park Swizzle Mint)
- Germany (Pork Schnitzel Slider, Bavarian Pretzel, Vegan Bratwurst with Beer Braised Onions)
- Spain (Leche Frita, Paella Mixta, Charcuterie)
- Brazil (Brigadeiros, Moqueca de Camarao, Stuffed Coxinha, Pineapple or Strawberry Caipirinhas)
- Belgium (Belgium Liege Waffles, Brussels Frites with Roasted Garlic Veganaise)
- Italy (Cannoli, Arancini, Italian Rainbow Cookie, Affogato)
- Colombia (Carnitas Arepas, Limonada de Coco, Coco Loco)
- Canada (Beef Short Rib Poutine, Sugar Shack Springtime Punch)
- The Bahamas (Jerk Chicken, Jerk Jackfruit, Goombay Smash)
- France (Poached Pear Creme Brulee Crepe)
- Cuba (Cuban Sandwich, Dark Caramel Flan, Plantain Chips, Cuba Libre, Cuban Coffee)
The great news is all of these dishes are served as sample sizes, so you’ll be able to try a little bit of everything. If this sounds right up your alley, you’ll want to check out the Mardi Gras Tasting Lanyard options, which you can use for multiple visits (let’s be real, you’ll want to come back to conquer the entire menu).
Not only do I enjoy eating and drinking my way through Mardi Gras, I also love to learn about how it all comes to be. Does the team go to New Orleans to research? How far out do they plan the menu? Do they do tastings to see what resonates and what doesn’t, and if so, how can I sign up?
To answer that last question, yes, they do tastings, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend them. It’s during one such tasting where I got the opportunity to sit down with three gentlemen who could answer all my other questions: Chef Robert Martinez, Jr. (Executive Sous Chef, Research & Development), Chef Ron Cope (Executive Chef, Universal Studios Florida), and Michael Shadeh (General Manager, Special Events).
DENI: Let’s start easy by telling me and our readers a little about yourselves and how long you’ve been with Universal Orlando.
CHEF RON: I actually was here to open Universal’s Islands of Adventure. I was here for about seven years and then I left for about 15. I came back in April 2019. Some have asked me why a theme park? Why not? it’s a fun experience. You walk around, people are on vacation. Everybody is out to enjoy themselves, and you can have fun at work.
CHEF ROBERT: So, I’m going on 19 years now. I was 16 when I started this, and I couldn’t even imagine myself working anywhere else. We’re definitely a team here, and we’re definitely a family. I have my father here, who has been with the company 30 years now. It’s one of the greatest things to be able to work hand-in-hand and open projects with him. And when I’m old on a rocking chair and telling my grandchildren stories, they will be mainly about Universal. There’s no other way to put it. It’s home when I come here.
MICHAEL: I’ve been here for 19 years. The funny thing is, when I was younger, my family would come down to Florida for three or four weeks at a time, and we would go to all these other places. We didn’t know about Universal. I got a little bit older and we were like, hey, let’s go try this Universal thing. And I tell you that visit to this park changed my life because I had such a great time. We moved down here, and I got a job at Universal and the rest is history. Part of the reason that I’m still here is the people. It’s just such an amazing team… why would you want to leave that?
DENI: The food and drinks seem to evolve every year. Can you talk me through that evolution?
CHEF RON: Back in the beginning, it started out kind of small. You know, there were three or four food tents with a couple of offerings. We had the main Cajun dishes like gumbo and po boys. Now, there’s more variety. Like the po boys for example. They go back a long ways in the event, but we started with just chicken and sausage. Now there are more of a variety of those. Even our portion sizes have evolved. We kind of looked and said, we want everybody to try everything. We try to reinvent ourselves and give new experiences to our guests.
MICHAEL: When it comes to the drinks, we traditionally have a vodka drink and a rum drink. Drinks that people are familiar with. This year, not only do we have a variety of spirits, the flavor profiles of those drinks are diverse as well. We also have a selection of international wines and beers this year. Several of these will also be paired with our amazing cuisine and this is the second year that we’re doing this.
CHEF ROBERT: Universal Orlando Resort has always been on the cutting edge of anything that we do, whether it’s a ride, or whether it’s the new restaurant concept and our special events. We are blessed to have amazing leaders who encourage us to create, to continue pushing the envelope as far as we can. We no longer believe in theme park food, that doesn’t exist. We’re just good food. We always want to see what else we can do. How else can we spark an emotion?
DENI: What’s the creative process like developing these dishes and drinks? Do you go to New Orleans to do research?
CHEF ROBERT: Yeah, we’ve all traveled to New Orleans in the past. This year it’s come down to a great team effort. We were really excited to go beyond the borders of traditional New Orleans cuisine and explore other cultures connections to the Mardi Gras celebration. We wanted to make sure that we were authentic to those cultures and share those experiences with our guests. We have a lot of great partners who we brainstorm with, we sit down, we think about how we could engage our guests, and how we could make ourselves different from last year. Ron took a certain piece, I took a certain piece, and then we brought it all together. I think this year out of all the years has been one of the most successful ones.
CHEF RON: I came back to Universal in 2019 and went through Halloween Horror Nights, which was where Robert and I started our partnership. With Mardi Gras, Robert does a lot of the research and creative development with his team. I have my team, which develops the dishes and menus for the Universal Studios park. Everybody had a couple of ideas for the event and we put them all together. So, it’s kind of nice that everybody has a little bit of ownership to it.
DENI: With the brainstorming, do you guys ever look to see what guests are saying about what they want to see at the event?
CHEF ROBERT: Yep, every event. We do it all the time.
CHEF RON: They tell us what they think.
DENI: Yeah, I know they can be pretty vocal. Do you ever add anything during the event or make changes?
CHEF ROBERT: There was one year we didn’t have the Twisted Taters during Halloween Horror Nights, right? We heard about that and the next day they were back. We have to keep our ears to what’s happening online. It’s part of our industry, and it’s really important.
DENI: To wrap things up, why should our guests make our Mardi Gras celebration a part of their vacation?
CHEF RON: It’s an immersive experience. You know, especially if you have kids, the parade floats, and the beads. It’s a great environment that everybody can have fun in no matter what age and plus, if you’re in the park that day, it’s included.
MICHAEL: We really put our heart and soul in the food and beverage, especially this year. I think our guests will really want to come and try these international options. They need to know that we really work hard to deliver a quality product for them.
CHEF ROBERT: Yep, I think they both hit it right on the head.
This year’s food and drinks are incredible with the team going above and beyond to provide new and unique options, along with those classic favorites. Which dish are you looking forward to trying? For me, it’s tradition to get the jambalaya, but I will definitely be hitting up the Columbia booth for some arepas.
Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval begins Feb. 6 – May 2. Click here to see what else is new at this year’s Mardi Gras celebration and get your tickets, hotel stays, or vacation packages for your upcoming visit.
Must be 21 years and older with valid identification to purchase or drink alcoholic beverages.