Is it silly to have a bucket list item revolving around vegan food? Maybe so, but that didn’t stop me from spending years drooling over the idea of having Chef TJ cook his famous multi-course vegan meal for me!
In fact, this is a bucket list item for many members of the vegan Disney community. A large percentage of the posts in the Veg Disney Facebook page revolve around people sharing their amazing experiences with Chef TJ or people trying to plan such an experience. I had heard about Chef TJ’s amazing dining experience for years before I finally had a chance to dine with him at Trail’s End. Even after those years of hype, the experience exceeded my wildest dreams.
Getting to Trail’s End Restaurant is a little bit of a hassle. My Google Maps directions took me to the entrance of Wilderness Lodge, where I parked and took a bus to Fort Wilderness. My dad, who met me at Trail’s End, had also needed to take a bus after parking in one of the lots at Fort Wilderness. Luckily, we had both left early enough that we still made it in time for our reservation.
I’ve never heard of anybody getting into Trail’s End without a reservation, so if you’re considering this experience, make sure you start planning in advance. Chef TJ usually works weekday evenings, although for obvious privacy reasons, they can’t give out his actual schedule or guarantee that he’ll be there on the night you go. The easiest way to make a reservation is on the My Disney Experience app, and you can mark your dietary preferences/allergies directly on your reservation.
After we were seated, Dad was told he could go straight to the buffet, where the trays were loaded with home-style comfort food, and I was told that Chef TJ would be out soon to speak to me.
Sure enough, Chef TJ arrived a few minutes later and quickly escorted me through the buffet line to give me a tour of what I could eat, pointing out a few salads and the baked potatoes. He told me to help myself but that he’d be bringing more vegan food to me soon. After making sure I didn’t have any other dietary preferences or allergies, he rushed back into the kitchen.
This is not an experience that you can rush. The numerous posts in the Veg Disney page had informed me that Chef TJ keeps busy preparing food for vegans in 2 restaurants, but that the food was well worth the wait.
My patience was rewarded with a big plate of samosas that came out a little while later. I ate about half, but Dad cautioned me not to fill up too much because we both knew there would be more to come.
When the next course arrived, I was skeptical. I don’t like arugula, balsamic, OR beets, and yet somehow those 3 ingredients together were so delicious that I still sometimes crave this dish. My family reading this is probably shocked, because it is well known that I HATE SALADS. Give me cooked veggies any day of the week, but I will moan and groan the second I have to eat a raw leaf.
After the surprisingly transcendental beet salad, another collection of raw produce arrived, this time in a smoky jar. The presentation on this was so neat, and several of the other restaurant goers noticed the steam when I removed the jar and asked what was up with the food I was getting. It’s not often that people are envious of my vegan food, but this was one of the rare times!
I liked the smoky flavor of the tomatoes, but even Chef TJ couldn’t make me like watermelon, so I choked down the fruit and waited eagerly for my next dish, which ended up being the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. No exaggeration.
I don’t think a single day has gone by that I don’t think about Chef TJ’s nachos. I’d never eaten nachos with anything other than cheese, so the picky eater in me was a little apprehensive when this dish came out with jalapeños and onions (?) and whatever the brown stuff was (it looks like balsamic, but it didn’t really have a flavor so I couldn’t tell).
After my first nibble, however, my worries dissolved. I have tried many cheeses in my life, vegan and otherwise, and this was the best nacho cheese I’ve EVER tasted. I’ve used several different recipes to try to replicate this cheese, with no success yet. I guess I’ll have to go back for another meal with Chef TJ next time I’m in Florida!
At first, I picked around the chips that had veggies on them, but eventually I worked up the nerve to taste them, and they were just as delicious! I would pay the full buffet price just to get a plate of these nachos again. Soooooo goooood!!!
Next up was soup. I’m not sure what kind it was, as I’m not usually much of a soup person. I’d guess it was mushroom, but whatever it was, it was rich and savory and delicious. On my other visit a few months later, the soup was different (broccoli, maybe?) but just as good.
The other difference between this first visit and the second was that on the second visit, Chef TJ also brought out a plate of corn before the main course dish. Not sure what the sauce on this was, but it was some pretty average corn.
By the time the main course arrived, I was not particularly hungry, and I knew that I especially needed to save room for dessert. I nibbled from the gigantic plate of tofu squares, rice, grilled veggies, tomato, and portobello mushroom, and then pushed it away and waited patiently for Chef TJ’s last appearance.
(I was worried this would go to waste since most buffets don’t let you take away food, but I guess Chef TJ’s meal was the exception, because they brought out a to-go box for me, and I ate the leftovers of this dish for several days afterward.)
Finally, even though I knew what to expect for dessert because of all the photos people have shared on the Veg Disney page, I could hardly contain my glee as Chef TJ approached our table with a precarious tower of sweets and a bottle of chocolate syrup, which he poured over the top.
Of course, Dad insisted that Chef TJ lean in for a picture with me and his creation, and he gladly obliged.
Knowing that Chef TJ wouldn’t accept tips, I handed him a personalized thank-you note as he left the table, and then I powered through my tower of cotton candy, ice cream, cookies, and fruit.
I lapsed into a brief food coma before I was able to get up and waddle away from the place that had served some of the best vegan food I’ve ever tasted.
Eating Chef TJ’s food was one of the greatest food experiences I’ve ever had, and it’s one of the experiences I point to when countering the stereotype that vegan food is bland and boring. If anybody out there is wanting to try more vegan food but doesn’t know where to start, I know a guy . . .