Click here to see a slideshow of dishes from Hong Kong Disneyland by photographer Matt Miller.
HONG KONG — The orange slice of carrot — carved into the iconic shape of Mickey Mouse — gets your attention.
But the taste highlight of the dish served at the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel is another American classic: Nebraska beef.
Disney executive chef Rudolf Muller uses ribeye and prime tenderloin from a Swift packing plant in Grand Island to create premium beef dishes in the Crystal Lotus restaurant at Hong Kong Disneyland. In fact, for the past two years, the theme park has featured Nebraska beef in its high-end dining operations.
“We do like the U.S. beef,” Muller said.
But while Disney represents a high-profile marketing success story for Nebraska's beef producers, it's only a tantalizing reminder of the much larger market still just out of reach in nearby mainland China.
China currently blocks U.S. beef imports, which prevents American producers from tapping the country's 1.3 billion consumers — a potentially huge market. With a growing middle class, a diet that is shifting toward more animal protein and limited ability to boost its domestic beef production, China could become one of America's top five overseas markets for beef.
If Chinese beef consumption rose to just one-fourth the U.S. level, China would need 17 billion more pounds of beef. By comparison, total U.S. beef exports last year were 2.8 billion pounds.
Industry experts estimate that the U.S. could sell $200 million in beef to China in the first full year of access if the ban is lifted. Nebraska, as a top beef state, would be a prime beneficiary of those exports — as would Iowa, Kansas and Colorado.
“There's a tremendous amount of market that will open up to us,” said Ann Marie Bosshamer, executive director of the Nebraska Beef Council.
So far, however, countries like Australia have been the ones profiting from the rise in Chinese beef imports.
Americans in Shanghai and elsewhere in China lament their inability to buy a corn-fed Nebraska steak in a Chinese restaurant or store — although they also acknowledge that some U.S. beef does reach China through shadowy gray channels.
Robert Griffiths, who heads the U.S. consulate in Shanghai, said there's clearly a potential market for U.S. beef. But in response to a question from Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman during his trade mission to China last summer, Griffiths couldn't offer any assurance that China's ban would be lifted soon.
“It's a tough slog,” Griffiths told Heineman and other Nebraskans attending the trade mission.
Since 2003, China has been closed to U.S. beef because of concerns raised by the discovery of a Canadian-born cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called mad cow disease.
Other countries also blocked U.S. beef imports following the 2003 scare. Since then, U.S. beef products have been declared safe to trade under international scientific guidelines, and most nations now accept them.
But China remains a holdout, raising concerns that its ban is based more on protectionism than food safety.
U.S. officials complain that China has been unable to provide a science-based rationale for import restrictions. The two nations continue to negotiate on this issue.
“It's really a non-food-safety issue,” said Stan Garbacz, Nebraska agricultural trade representative.
Said Bosshamer: “It's a game of patience.”
But even if the U.S. clears China's legal and bureaucratic hurdles, there's no guarantee that Chinese consumers will immediately embrace American beef.
Chinese consumers currently eat about one-tenth as much beef per capita as U.S. consumers. In China, consumers prefer fresh beef slaughtered closer to market. Their meat consumption tends to be price sensitive, leaving beef at a disadvantage compared with less expensive meats.
And while American consumers value tender, grain-fed beef, Chinese consumers aren't necessarily looking for the same tenderness or marbling.
At Hong Kong Disneyland, which caters to an overwhelmingly Asian clientele, the Swiss-born Muller has to take those preferences into account — even though he personally prefers the higher fat content of grain-fed beef.
Depending on a given restaurant's price point, Disney sometimes looks elsewhere for cheaper cuts. For example, Muller said, he sometimes uses beef strip from Australia or tenderloin from New Zealand to serve at banquets or buffet lines. And inside the theme park itself, Disney opts for beef loin from Brazil in lower-cost restaurants.
Still, U.S. beef — especially when exchange rates are favorable — isn't too costly for fancier restaurants like the Crystal Lotus in the Victorian-themed Disneyland Hotel, which resembles Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa in Orlando.
Hong Kong Disneyland became a showcase for Nebraska beef because of promotion efforts in Hong Kong by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and the Nebraska Beef Council. As a result of those efforts, for example, a culinary school in Hong Kong uses Nebraska beef exclusively in training its students.
In addition, the Nebraska boosters host events where local chefs are invited to taste some of the state's beef products.
Garbacz said Disney's Muller, former president of the Hong Kong Chef's Association, was courted over several years. Eventually, Muller and Disney agreed to a monthlong promotion of Nebraska beef at the resort's restaurants in December 2010 — and the relationship has continued.
Some of the beef offerings would seem right at home on a steakhouse menu in Kearney or Omaha, such as a charbroiled prime sirloin served with Bearnaise sauce.
But Muller also serves Nebraska beef in a more Asian way — featuring it in smaller servings as part of an eight-course meal: a few bites of pan-fried peppered beef served with spring onion buns, for example, or slices of ribeye with a spiced rice flour pasta.
Bosshamer said that's a lesson that U.S. beef marketers must heed in the China market, once it opens. Consumers may want smaller quantities of beef in their hot pot recipes or thin slices in other dishes.
“They're not going to be buying ribeye steaks at every single meal,” she said.
Catering to Asian tastes is what Muller has done over several decades working in the region's restaurant business. He has been Hong Kong Disneyland's top chef since before the park opened in 2005.
When Disney conducted market research to find out what its Hong Kong customers would like to eat, Muller said, many Asians initially said they would be happy to have typical American-style food as part of their Disney experience.
But when they were told what that might mean — spaghetti or hamburgers, for example — their opinion changed.
After a long day at a theme park, Muller said, people of all backgrounds tend to want familiar “comfort food,” and Asians and Americans have different ideas of comfort.
Asian diners also have high expectations, he said. “We have to provide excellent food, because that is what the people demand.”
The Asian difference also shows up in the food carts and counter service restaurants in the theme park.
Choices at the Comet Cafe in Tomorrowland include “Chaozhou Fish Ball Noodle Soup” and “Braised Mushroom, Bean Curd and Marrow Cucumber with Rice.”
At a similar Tomorrowland restaurant at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe sells Angus burgers with guacamole, bacon and cheese, BBQ pork sandwiches and chili dogs.
But in other ways, Hong Kong Disneyland resembles its counterparts in the United States, from the souvenir shops lining Main Street to the Space Mountain ride. It offers the same Disney “core content” of popular movie themes and beloved characters, set in an immaculately clean park with fantastic attention to detail.
Built on an island with lush, green hills, the Hong Kong park is smaller than others in the Disney empire. But it has continued to expand over the past seven years with new attractions — most recently Grizzly Gulch, an area patterned on the American West and anchored by a roller coaster called “Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars.”
On sweltering tropical afternoons, a Mickey's Waterworks Parade with costumed characters and colorful floats sends cooling sprays of water over the crowds along Main Street.
Half of those park guests come from mainland China, which will soon have its own Disney resort. Shanghai Disney is expected to open there perhaps by the end of 2015, yet another aspect of the development boom in China's wealthiest city.
The Shanghai resort, a joint venture between Disney and the Chinese government, is slated to have two hotels, an entertainment and shopping district and a theme park with a unique Enchanted Storybook Castle. It will be the largest castle Disney has ever built.
As Disney expands into China, Nebraska's beef industry can only hope that it will have the same opportunity.
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