TAMPA — Chef Chrissy Camba, who's been on Top Chef, scooped stir-fried Chinese broccoli into a serving bowl while kitchen manager Ariel Layug erased the white board and started over: Not tomato soup, smoky butternut instead. Such is life in the kitchen, substitutions and adjustments on the fly. But their kitchen is even trickier than most.
Layug heads up the team that cooks for Cirque du Soleil Volta, which runs through March 18 under the big top erected at the Tampa Greyhound Track. Each day they serve two meals to 124 Cirque staffers, 47 of them performers, as well as some of the more than 180 Tampa locals hired to run the box office, security and other positions. There are vegans and vegetarians, celiac disease sufferers and unrepentant carnivores; Chinese and Russians, Canadians and Japanese; those who eat healthy and those who snarf comfort food to ward away the jitters.
It's like a pop-up restaurant, built and dismantled in a new city every eight weeks. The circus pulls into town, 71 trailers and 2,000 tons of equipment. But, at first, no working kitchen. Layug needs to feed the crew that erects the big top, which takes about ten hours, and the rest of the circus, which takes as long as six days to set up. It's roughing it to start: He sets up a barbecue and folding tables outside, the menu the first couple days running to quick steaks, chicken souvlaki and baked potatoes.
Layug, with a team of three chefs, is the first to arrive at a new venue and the last to leave — the final dinner after tear down the only sacrosanct meal in the circus' run. It is, drumroll, "tear-down spaghetti," a meaty, tomatoey Bolognese that the Cirque family has come to depend upon. It's good luck, a harbinger of great shows to come.
Volta, in many ways, presents even greater culinary challenges. Themed around street sports (parkour, BMX bikes, double-dutch rope jumping), it has drawn a unique set of artists. About a third come from a circus background, a third have performing arts experience with dance and such, and a third are athletes. The internet has provided a new tool for recruiting superstars: many of the parkour and BMX Cirque performers were found via YouTube, fearless iconoclasts caught in action in cities around the world, videos often set to throbbing electronic music.
"This show has really young artists, many who haven't really traveled," Layug said on a break while setting up the kitchen for lunch.
His cooking is a way to introduce unfamiliar flavors and traditions. On Friday this meant delicious Burmese beef curry, accessorized with fried shallots and crushed cashews and exotic yellow split pea crackers. Those who weren't feeling it? There's always the sandwich bar, smoothie fixings, a vegan option, a "clean protein" and something a bit more decadent.
Born in the Philippines but raised in Sydney, Australia, Layug is himself an acrobat (but not at Cirque level, he says). With the artists, fat is one of the most important aspects to monitor carefully —too much or too little can affect performance. And anything super spicy is a no-no. That said, his customers say thumbs up to Mexican food, sushi, sashimi, and poutine (that Canadian oddity with cheese curds and gravy — Cirque is headquartered in Montreal, after all). His kitchen runs through 350 pounds of meat a week, sourcing produce and other foods locally whenever possible.
Volta is one of the first Cirque shows with a clear narrative story, one of self-acceptance, pursuing freedom and a main character with some very blue hair. For Layug, joining the circus is an unusual move for a chef, but one that definitely smacks of freedom.
"What I serve changes every day. In a regular restaurant, you're stuck with a menu."
His only obligation, once every eight weeks, is tear-down spaghetti.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.