Dining Under the Tent
Last night I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at AmaLuna, the touring Cirque du Soleil show currently playing in Oaks, PA at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center. I was given the unique opportunity to learn how the traveling show feeds its performers and crew of 120 people from over 27 different countries around the world. All sorts of questions came to mind, from how do you feed such a large group of people to what do acrobats eat to how do you feed people from such different culinary backgrounds?
To answer these questions I spoke with the AmaLuna’s head chef and kitchen manager Abdel Soriano and chef Jamie Francis. Both veterans of the show, they explained that they feed that many people from that many countries, using a traveling kitchen/dining rig that they move around on two trucks as they showed me around the professional kitchen housed under a canvas roof. Life under the tent must be arduous at times but I saw many amenities to make it comfortable, from potted plants on the tables to a lounge in the corner, air conditioning, a DIY espresso bar, a table of dried fruit, cereal, and other snacks, a funky paper straw dispenser, even bug zappers hung in the corners. Nothing however makes a place feel like home the way comfort food does. I came in minutes before the end of lunch, the marquee announcing the dishes, most of which were long gone: Veggie Rice, Fried Okra, Potato, Pakora curry, Chili Little Corn, Lintel Pahl, Malai Shrimp with Cashews, & Chili Chicken. Jamie explained the kitchen does a different regional theme for each meal. “Lunch was Indian, dinner is Russian, and tomorrow’s dinner is fish & chips", he said with smile. Jamie is English and fish & chips is his personal favorite. With so many countries, they explained “the food from home” seems to be a real comfort. “The Russians love Russian food. The Asians love Asian food…” Soriano told us. It makes sense that in such a globe-trotting and cosmopolitan environment, people would have a special place in their hearts for the food they love. That said, the troupe do try to sample the local fare wherever they go, (they got Geno’s cheesesteaks one night here in Philly). But for the most part, its the food from home that goes over with the greatest success.
The pragmatics of feeding a circus are no less interesting. “We go through 800 eggs a week”, Soriano explained. “[The performers] eat a lot of protein” he added. Four hundred pounds of Chicken, 300lbs of potatoes, and a varying assortment of vegetables, are consumed every week. They can’t bring the food with them as they travel, so they have to source locally. “The performers don’t like the processed stuff, so we make almost everything from scratch”, Soriano told me as I ate his pierogis, Russian crab salad, beef stroganoff, and borsht. The kitchen not only sources its ingredients locally but also most of its staff. Soriano explained that he has to hire locals for each place they go in advance and start the process of setting up long before they’ve even broken down after they wrap in their current location. Mami Ohki, AmaLuna’s publicist and my host on this trip, pointed out that they have eight days from the day they arrive to be set up for the premier performance. The kitchen naturally has to be ready early to feed the crew setting up the stage and other side tents and the performers when they resume rehearsing. Even during break-down, a camp-style kitchen and dining area must be arranged to feed everyone on the final days before the show hits the road.
In additional to the struggle of breaking down after everyone else and setting up before everyone else, is the special premier dinner, a Cirque du Soleil tradition as Ohki explained it. The premier dinner is a special event, more prized by the performers and crew than even the popular Sunday brunch. The dinner is a signal that everything is going well in this new location, a celebration of togetherness in life that is ever changing. The crew and performers are tight knit despite the cosmopolitan nature of the troupe. The performers I saw come into the tent in full makeup wore pajamas or sweats, and were all visibly excited to eat. They would clap hands and whistle when perusing the hot food bar. None of the made-up performers licked their lips for fear of disrupting the delicate lines on their mouths. I asked Ohki how the performers eat in make-up, and she told me they eat very carefully and go to get touched up afterwards. I asked if the performers ate much before the show. Ohki replied that as rule they don’t, especially the aerial performers, who tend to eat like birds throughout the day with a large meal after the final show. As a result she added, “the kitchen must be open late into the night”.
Another tradition is the keeping of the yeast. Chef Jamie has a special sourdough starter that followed the Cirque troupe around for the last eight months. The bread starter is handled with concern during trips as performers and crew take care to ensure it is not lost. I got to try some of “Jamie’s sourdough”, a very sour mealy bread that may be the best bread I have tasted all year! You can see more of his bread at www.instagram.com/amaluna.kitchen.
Life under the big top is not easy but breaking bread together still seems like the fastest way to turn strangers into family.