SeaWorld San Diego is single handedly redefining what theme park food is!
There is much debate going on these days about theme park food. The food industry as a whole is rapidly changing from an over processed machine to something more special. It seems like farm fresh, local, no hormone added, and healthy alternative have been added to most menus except for one place. That place is theme parks. Theme parks today are still living on the tradition that deep fried anything will sell and it will sell great! Some theme parks have started to make a change for the better but it seems to be a slow process for most. To my surprise, SeaWorld San Diego is breaking my knowledge of everything I once knew about theme park food
On a media trip to California, I was invited to come to SeaWorld San Diego to do a food tasting with SeaWorld San Diego’s Executive Chef. Chef Axel Dirolf is a well known and respected chef who has cooked all over the world! He started his training as a chef in Germany and has cooked in countries such as Greece, Fiji, Switzerland, and of course the USA! Chef Axel was also an Executive Chef for the olympics as well as Executive Chef for the Super Bowl XXXIII Pre-game. Axel not only works now as the Executive Chef for SeaWorld San Diego and Aquatica San Diego, he also teaches culinary classes. Axel brings a lot to the table for SeaWorld San Diego, combining his love for European food and the California lifestyle!
Now lets focus on the food! SeaWorld San Diego as a whole has made some huge strides in the right direction when it comes to food. Lets start with the newest restaurant that was made over, Shipwreck Reef Cafe. Shipwreck Reef is offering so many wonderful items that are not only affordable but super delicious. Chef Axel and I started our tour here and I sampled the rotisserie chicken, sustainable ginger soy salmon cooked in banana leafs, shrimp and fish tacos, and some healthy options including home made chips and salsa and hummus. Everything I had was delicious and honestly I couldn’t believe that it came from a quick service restaurant in a theme park!
Shipwreck Reef Cafe also has something that I have not seen much in theme parks. They serve up never frozen, local, farm raised burgers with a toppings bar so you can put as much or as little toppings you want on your burger. Chef Axel explained that the local aspect of the park is one of the driving factors for him. Unlike here in Orlando, a greater portion of their guests are locals. Having a local product in the parks puts pride in the members of the community and helps to keep the guest eating because they are supporting their neighbors! This goes true for the beer found in the park as well at SeaWorld San Diego. Gone are the days of just domestic beer in the parks. All over the park, you could find local craft beer which is rare in a theme park.
Next Chef Axel and I walked around the park and focused on a smaller walk-up style restaurants for food on the go. At SeaWorld San Diego walk up food is very popular due to the shows. The first thing I noticed about these stands was the food itself. When you think of walk up food, you expect to see corn dogs, bad hamburgers and hot dogs that have been baking under a heat lamp since park open. This is far from the truth at SeaWorld San Diego! They have stands that offer chicken nachos where the chicken is put on top of your nachos directly from the grill outside and chopped up in front of you. They also had fresh fruit smoothies with boba, fresh waffles on a stick with bacon and real maple syrup, as well as flatbreads!
Finally we made our way to Cafe 64 which to me showcases what this park and Chef Axel has accomplished! Cafe 64 is in the old location of the Budweiser Beer School. Just like here in Orlando, this building has been repurposed into a restaurant. Here in Orlando, the location is now an all you can eat BBQ buffet, but San Diego has raised the ante with their Hand Crafted Burgers and Local Beer Bar! Upon entering Cafe 64 you retrieve a piece of paper which converts you into a “Burger Master”.
First off, the burgers here are all natural, hormone free grass fed beef. Don’t like beef? Cafe 64 also offers a all-natural turkey, or chickpea patty if you would rather have one of those options instead! Next you have two options: You can either select a burger combination that Chef Axel put together for you, or you can create your own burger! Best part about creating your own burger? You get to name it whatever you want! These burgers are made to order (which normally takes about 7 minutes each) but the wait is definitely worth it!
Need something to wash down your master creation? Cafe 64 offers a ton of domestic, speciality, and craft beers for your liking! Come on now, who doesn’t love a fresh burger just the way you like it and a craft beer to wash it all down on a hot summer day!
As you can see SeaWorld San Diego is changing the face of theme park food on a daily basis. Chef Axel is constantly in the park, talking to guests, and changing his menus to not only fit what he likes but to fit the needs of the guests. I have had the opportunity to spend time with a lot of chefs in my career, but Chef Axel is by far one of my favorites. You can tell a lot about a man by how he speaks and his actions. For Chef Axel, making fresh food great is his life. Throughout the entire park I witnessed Chef Axel in the minds and actions of everyone I encountered. His team all love what they do and make sure they go out of their way to make sure the guest is happy!
I asked Chef Axel if he ever left SeaWorld San Diego what would he want his legacy to be. His answer was simple yet powerful and says a lot about not only the Executive Chef of SeaWorld San Diego, but also the park as a whole. He said every day I strive to make simple yet amazing food. I want to see my guests leave happy and come back not only for the animals and the shows but also for the food. As for my legacy, I would just want the person who comes after me to take what I have done and make it better!
I want to personally thank Chef Axel as well as the entire SeaWorld San Diego team for an amazing day! Check back next week to see my article on Dine With Shamu and a look into just what it takes to make sure this meal comes together!