How do you cheer up a homesick clown?
If you're chef Pascal Tremblay and the clown happens to have one of his mother's recipes in hand, you invite him into the kitchen to help prepare it. The lonely guy mixes wine marinade for the chicken dish, and the aroma brings Portugal closer to a tent village in a muggy Florida city.
The world becomes smaller still when Russians and Aussies and Mexicans get a taste, and a sad clown is happy.
That is Tremblay's special charge as part of the Cirque du Soleil kitchen staff during the run of Quidam, which is playing under the whimsical blue and yellow tent in the parking lot of Tropicana Field. He, along with chef Mikelis Mezceims, pastry chef Marie-Claire Reiniche and other staff, nourish body and soul of touring cast and crew. That's not always easy when tastes of home range from borscht to tacos.
From 7 a.m. until about 10 p.m., the dining room and adjoining kitchen hum. Security folks grab breakfast, the maintenance crew needs lunch and just about everyone, from acrobats to ushers, eats dinner.
What's as remarkable as the convivial atmosphere is the facility. Four trailers on wheels become two dining rooms, a kitchen and a storage room with walk-in cooler. Forget the two-burner camp stove you might associate with a tent; this kitchen comes with commercial gas range, grill, ovens, deep fryer and ample prep space.
For the 150-member circus staff from 19 countries, the facility is more than a workplace cafeteria. It's a living room, Internet cafe, study hall and break room. School-age performers do their homework at round tables. The jilted and the lovelorn commiserate over flavored coffee.
You won't see Fritos, Snickers or Moon Pies, though that's not to say some junk food isn't noshed offcampus. Snackers satisfy cravings with luscious fresh berries, freshly made croissants and muffins, smoothies or maybe a bowl of vichyssoise. Cold soup seems appropriate in the warmth of a Florida November, Tremblay says. Temporary staff such as security, ushers and ticket sellers pay for food. The permanent crew, including performers, technical and administrative staff, eats for free.
"The kitchen is the heart of the village," says publicist Anita Nelving, who hails from Australia. "Everyone mixes here."
Cirque du Soleil provides three nutritious squares six days a week. The tent is dark on Monday, and staff members, who live in executive apartments in Tampa, are on their own. Because most people don't have cars and don't know Bayshore from West Shore anyway, it makes sense to have food service on-site on performance days, Nelving says.
For lunch one day last week, the clown's mom's chicken in wine was joined on the line by Reuben sandwiches on thick slices of fresh rye and bowtie pasta with Brussels sprouts and bacon. Sweet potato roulade stuffed with cream cheese and nuts was the vegetarian offering. New items would be rolled out for dinner. On an average day, 450 meals are served.
The contortionists and acrobats eat the least, Nelving says. The biggest eaters? That would be the technical crew, the hulking guys who haul cable, mats and anything else that calls for brute strength. The Russian performers love salmon, meat, dill and ketchup, and the Australians eat anything, Tremblay says.
"Americans are very open to international food," he says. "And the little girls (the young Chinese acrobats) go crazy when we make dumplings."
Tremblay is a 28-year-old French-Canadian who joined the circus-without-animals to see the world. He worked in restaurants in Quebec City and New York before signing on. The difference, he says, is dramatic.
"In restaurants they serve food to make money," he says. "We serve food to make people happy."
Tremblay has signed on for the 14-month Japanese tour that begins in January, though the kitchen on wheels won't make the trip overseas. One of the tour's Japanese corporate sponsors is providing a more conventional facility, one that can't travel the highway.
In every city where the touring show stops, Tremblay looks for food specialties and suppliers. He learned about Cuban food in Miami and Cajun fare in New Orleans.
Tremblay dumped the first seafood supplier he hired in St. Petersburg because the supplier was delivering frozen fish.
"This is Florida," he says. "We want fresh."
Now, Gulf Coast Seafood in St. Petersburg is supplying the seafood. Clearwater Produce is bringing in the fruits and vegetables. National companies deliver nonperishable items.
The storage room tells the tale of the food. Chipotle tostadas from Mexico, Indian chutneys, Vietnamese fish sauce and Japanese ponzu sauce line the shelves. After his shift on this day, Tremblay was going to scour a Middle Eastern shop in Tampa for sausages and then head to an Indian market in search of spices.
"I've learned more about cooking in the last year than I learned in all the time I've been cooking," Tremblay says.
And class is still in session. The mother of a young Mexican performer is planning to stop by the kitchen to teach him how to make "real" ceviche, enchiladas and tamales.
"This is a good job," he says. "I see the faces of the people who eat the food, and I know they are happy."