Meet Busch Gardens' food dude

A kitchen virtuoso is adept at baking for the elite, the common man, even picky animals. He and his staff cook up a storm, from scratch.

Published February 17, 2006

NORTH TAMPA - Michael Craig has baked birthday cakes for U.S. presidents, created life-sized gingerbread houses and assembled a gigantic dessert aimed at reviving California's image. His resume includes heavy-duty jobs all over the country, beginning with the highly accredited Culinary Institute of America in New York and including top positions at Marriott in Los Angeles and the Orlando World Center.

This meant nothing to Karnaudi, a Busch Gardens elephant that put a foot through a beautiful cake Craig assembled for his 15th birthday last year.

The gingerbread shell required 80 pounds of flour, 50 pounds of sugar, 40 pounds of eggs and many hours. The cake was decorated with blue and white icing and sugarcane candles. But the effort seemed only to annoy the birthday boy, who stomped through the shell to get to the good stuff - bushels of fresh fruits and veggies inside.

Fortunately for Craig, most of his creations are for humans, who are a little easier to please. As the head baker for Busch Gardens, he has perhaps one of the country's more interesting culinary jobs, keeping millions of park patrons, private event guests - and yes, sometimes animals - fed with baked goods every year.

Many have never tasted Craig's favorite chocolate truffle cake, his tiramisu or his cinnamon rolls, which are all served in various spots (like Sultans Sweets) throughout Busch Gardens. Waffle cones, pizza, cotton candy, hot dog buns and barbecue sauce are more commonly sampled. They originate in the park's kitchen, too. Most of the food is baked or prepared fresh daily as the kitchen activity begins as early as 4 a.m.

"I wish people knew all the stuff we do here, because I think we have a good product," said Craig, who lives in Meadow Pointe. "I think it's hard to match the quality. Almost everything we do here is from scratch."

Since taking over as Busch Gardens' head baker seven years ago, Craig, 47, has doubled the park's variety of foods to about 100 items. His staff of 30 churns out up to half a million pizzas, 10,000 carrot cakes and 15,000 dinner rolls per year.

It's fairly easy work, Craig said, and it's the best job he has ever had. It's a position he stumbled onto after finding himself unemployed in Orlando right after his daughter was born. As a military veteran in the Naval Reserve, he was about to take a job with the Postal Service. But at his wife's urging, he dropped his resume off at a job fair and was interviewed and hired as Busch Gardens' bakery manager.

Craig had the kind of catering experience that the park's kitchen needed, and some unusual baking stories to add to his repertoire. At the Orlando World Center, he baked cakes for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who each happened to be visiting as guest speakers either on or around their birthdays.

"That was a little bit exciting knowing who it was going to," he said.

When Craig worked for Marriott at Los Angeles International Airport after the infamous Rodney King riots and a couple of earthquakes, he was asked to make a cake for a party (put together by California's tourism industry) aimed at boosting the state's image. He crafted a chocolate Golden Gate Bridge, marzipan cacti and surfers, little barbells for Muscle Beach and brown sugar sand along the coast of an 8-foot cake. It took 60 to 80 hours to make, Craig said, and was perhaps his most photographed cake.

Working for Busch Gardens, Craig has made lots of wedding and specialty cakes, including a Anheuser-Busch beer can birthday cake for a Busch family member who turned 21. At home, he recently made a special peanut butter icing cake for his daughter, Chelsea, who turned 7.

Oddly enough, home-baked cakes are a rarity around the Craig household. "I usually buy my cakes from Publix," he said.

But there are other perks to having a culinary expert in the house, said Craig's wife, Cheryl, who is a nurse. He does most of the cooking, specializing in grilled steaks and seafood.

"Everybody at work thinks I'm so spoiled," Cheryl Craig said. "I remember the first time I made chili for him. I was really nervous. It was kind of intimidating."

But through several moves, she came to appreciate her husband's career and even helped him run a bakery and deli in Louisville, Ky., for a brief time.

"You really have to be a perfectionist," she said. "You can't just slop (a cake) in there. It all has to look the same, with even edges and cuts, things you never think about."

Mrs. Craig also loves his chocolate truffle cake, or just about anything he makes with chocolate.

"He could put chocolate on a piece of cardboard and it would taste good," she said.

As a Busch Gardens baker, Craig has practically done just that.

For a white rhinoceros' first birthday last year, Craig smoothed a layer of orange-colored white chocolate over a special cake, which was served to the hungry female named Malaika.

Malaika, like Karnaudi the elephant, couldn't have cared less about Craig's decorating skills. She promptly scraped off the icing and knocked over the carrot candle to enjoy the real treat underneath - a delicious bale of hay.

Emily Nipps can be reached at 813 269-5313 or nipps@sptimes.com