Cirque du Soleil Chef Inspires “Kurios”-ity About Ethnic Cuisines
Cirque du Soleil’s performers have always traveled as “family,” including the truly awe-inspiring, spectacular Kurios Show, currently in Los Angeles. And so Brazilian Executive Chef, Paola Müller, heads up the kitchen like a traditional home – aiming to please and to have her charges eat healthy. “I’m like ‘mom,’” laughs the youthful chef with a lighthearted laugh. But like a “mom,” she takes her job seriously. She is also as determined to be a connecting force between the troupe and the cuisine of the city Cirque visits is key for Paola. “I’m the bridge between the troupe and the local cuisine of each city we visit ,” she reports proudly. I search out the best of what’s is authentic and try to introduce the local food in my dining room so I can steer the performers to the best, especially if its their first experience.
“The Cirque kitchen and adjoining canteen tents are the first to go up when we arrive and the last to go down when the troupe leaves,” she explained. “It remains the central meeting place, the gathering place for most meetings.” And the dining room is the hub of it all.
And to make a home, ritual is important. “No one could ever imagine the chef serving anything but BBQ for the first meal in the canteen after the set up, which takes a week, and for the ‘teardown’ or ‘demontage,’ which takes three days,” Chef Paola and on-site publicist Kim chorused. “We leave out two barbeques and two burners for this special occasion. Everyone loves it.”
The “portable” kitchen is actually comprised of three sections that are in the form of train cars that can be transported on trucks. The sides fold down to make the floors of adjoining sections: the main kitchen, a walk-in refrigerator and a pastry and pantry section in the back with a baking oven. The tent is located close to the show tent so performers can eat during the show. Below you see the end section; the floor becomes the side of the van. The wall to the right fronts the kitchen and the storage sections.
Breakfast is served at 7:00 AM, which starts the daily continual flow in the canteen. “We count on three meals per person even though 0ne of the long standing habits, confirmed by Chef Paola, is that “people grab dishes for two meals at the same time.” “The fixings” for sandwiches and salads are always available both when the kitchen is open in and between meals. Salad bar and a sandwich counter. Hours are from 9:00 AM to 9:30 PM.
Paola’s typical day begins at 5:30 in the morning when the staff arrives and baking starts at six. Each staff member works a 40- hour week with time off during the season when the show is “dark.” The kitchen feeds the cast of 110, 150 with family members. “We have one chef on duty in the morning and two at night during night-time performance days, and the opposite when there is an additional matinee performance,” she added.
What are the favorites of all of these performers? Reports chef Paola, “Chef Arial’s Pad Thai, Sasha’s Vegan Ramen Soup and as for me, whatever is Brazilian!” She grinned, “although I’ve become quite famous for my tortilla soup. The three sit down ‘at the end of the week and plan the upcoming menus.
Naturally, calories don’t count, and we’ve seen the most petite acrobat ladies nonchalantly consume entire platters of pasta. But its still surprising to find out that Nutella Swiss chocolate still ranks first as the all-round company favorite. “And I can never make too many cookies,” laughs Paola. “It’s a good thing that we bake everything in-house because our time to do this at least limits the number we can bake every morning. Otherwise no matter how many we make, they would be gone! And they always love bananas,” she added, nodding to the basket of bananas on top of the counter.
Still, the most amazing habit is that almost all the performers “except those who hang upside down” eat just before the performance. The rest of the troupe can dine at the canteen until 11:00 at night.
As is tradition in the kitchen, even if the circus considers itself a family, the culinary team is professional, with everything prepared from scratch. and And the aim is to “please their customers,” even on a strict budget,” Paola chuckles. A former chef told us his method, “All we have to do is look in the trash bag to see if we have a flop or not!” Chef Paola told us, “In my dining room, performers come up to me all the time and tell me how they want a dish prepared specifically – and they know they I will do it for them. Still, each cook has a different style, “and I see when I introduce a new cook with a different style, the performers have to get used to it.”
Chinese, Mexican and “of course,” Italian are the most popular cuisines in the Cirque kitchen. We have to do carbo loading, too, which I keep in mind,” said Paola. “And I do desserts only at dinner; it’s just too little consuming. “It’s not their health, it’s my health when it comes to serving desserts, just like the cookies! Paola laughed. “They would eat as many as we make. And I don’t do a lot of soup,” she smiled, “because in Brazil you only eat soup when you are sick or in the winter months to warm up.”
The daily menu is hand printed in block English, no longer French, replacing the bistro-style blackboard. French used to be the common language from at least a decade ago, but Russian and English are just as much these days. Chef nodded in approval, “The Russians eat everything. The same with the Thai male performers. Other people, though…” Here her smile had the tone of someone rolling their eyes. “Asians will eat the whole fish, but otherwise, otherwise… some people will say, “not the head!” while others come to me, begging for “the head.”
After six years on the job, Chef Paola now has a trained eye out for the best, most practically priced wholesale vegetable, fruit, dairy,meat and seafood suppliers to Cirque, looking to shop locally as much as possible. Cirque still is considered by vendors to be a very prestigious account because of the high volume and on-time payments. She gave us an insider’s view on who was working out and who was not at the moment. “Shopping in Costa Mesa and Los Angeles made it easier this California trip because we used pretty much the same vendors for both,” Paola said.
A consideration of lighter and heavier dish options adds to Paola’s planning, depending on the type of performer act and also the seasons. “We only have one celiac,” she reported, “although a lot of people think it is is fashionable to be a vegetarian or gluten-free.” One of the perennials that can be dressed up are the veggies and the chicken below.
The energy of Kurios is visible — burning up hundreds of calories an hour – even before you go into the tent; performers do an entire animated dance running up and down right on the outside of it for the audience as they enter.
Once inside the performance is astonishing. The boundless movement, with so much of it in the air, makes the athleticism mind boggling. And the audience seemed to roar their approval rather than applaud – and it seems in keeping with the energy of the performers. The Eastern Europeans below burn the most.
We asked one of the fashionable performers if we could photograph her, and inquired about what she ate. The modest Eirini Tornesaki turned out to be Greek and turned out to be the lead singer with a glorious voice (that’s her below with the gramophone hat — shades of the film, Brazil!). “I eat very healthy, lots of vegetables, and one of the bet things that I do now is a 12-day cleanse every year,” Eirini reported with great enthusiasm.
Just as the BBQ ritual always takes place on the opening day of the kitchen, and after the tent is pulled down – in part to reward the workers – coffee is perpetually on a side counter holding BUNN type burners –with powdered milk and sugar. Chef Paola invited us to help ourselves, “But don’t expect good Brazilian coffee,” she laughed merrily. After seeing my hesitation at the powdered milk next to it, she waved toward the fridge, and said to help myself.
There unexpectedly (especially after working and also covering so many food events through the years) was probably the biggest and most representative change. On the fridge shelf sat every kind of health conscious milk on the market from almond to soy, but not one ounce of cream or the caterer’s mainstay, half and half.