Thursday, February 25, 2010

....With the circus, dishing up people chow for 300....

By Emily Tartanella

Inquirer Staff Writer

At the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, now at the Wachovia Center until Sunday, it's not just the lions who are hungry.
But with a staff of more than 300, and dozens of cities to get to, it's not easy to find a way for the cast and crew to eat well on the road. And the circus travels by the renowned, mile-long Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Train - now parked in a separate yard a few minutes down the tracks from the Wachovia Center. Does that mean the acrobats and clowns, trainers and death-defiers must rely on fast food and microwaved meals?

Not if Michael Vaughn has anything to say about it. Vaughn, director of food and facility services for Barnum's FUNundrum, one of the circus' two units, is the man responsible for feeding the circus crew. He manages everything from menus to cooking, as well as overseeing the daily operations of the train's brand-new Pie Car, which provides food for all staff, personnel, and their families.

About the only grub he doesn't have to worry about is what goes to the elephants.

A Baton Rouge, La., native who learned to cook from his grandparents, Vaughn never intended to become a professional chef. Yet he enjoyed cooking enough to accept an offer from a friend at a temp agency to work with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey train.

"I thought it was a joke," Vaughn remembers. His initial commitment was only for a few days, but he was asked back, to join them on the road for a three-city trial run.

"That was 13 years ago," Vaughn says. "And I've been here ever since."

Soft-spoken with a Louisiana lilt, Vaughn knows his way around a kitchen. After starting as a sous chef, he worked his way up to director, a position that placed him in charge of all the Ringling Bros. touring companies.

And that is a big, busy job.

"We're responsible for feeding, and being prepared for feeding, all those people at any time," Vaughn says. And while his job might not be technically 24 hours a day (the food car opens at 7 a.m. and closes anywhere from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.), it's still a tough pace for the man behind the grill, who has to handle classics as well as international requests. "From grilled cheese to filet to salmon steaks," Vaughn says, "you name it, we do it."

His approach to so many palates from so many places is to offer not a dozen different cuisines but rather a broad range of tasty dishes in a menu that varies day to day.

On special occasions - welcoming new recruits, say, or entertaining the media, as he did in a recent show-and-tell - Vaughn can pull out all the stops, from a simple hamburger to honey-seared scallops and Hudson Valley foie gras. He can do roasted pork loin, banana-leaf-baked salmon, filet mignon, and poached quail egg. The daily fare is not that flashy - but he can do flashy.

"It takes a lot to run this show," he admits. "There's always something going on." So grueling was the pace that Vaughn took a two-year break. But he's back.

His workplace, the Pie Car, is an entire train car that's mostly kitchen, with stacks of cans and cabinets stuffed with food. The seating area seems small, and it can get crowded, but Vaughn says there's never been a problem accommodating all. You can eat in the Pie Car or take your meal back to your residential car.

Vaughn stresses the contributions of his seven-person staff, which includes cooks with hometowns from Chicago to Bulgaria. That diversity is essential, because the hardworking Ringling Bros. crew comprises more than a dozen nationalities, and they're all hungry.

Christina Cantlin, a trapeze artist from Boston, knew just where to go after she joined the Ringling Bros. crew. "I'm a big eater," she said with a smile. "So I made friends with someone in the Pie Car right away." She's a satisfied customer.

Vaughn tries to help every newcomer to the train get accommodated, and if that means cooking an old favorite for any new member from anywhere in the world, he's more than up to the task.

He's fielded some odd requests in his time, from Russian crew members who put mayonnaise on every dish, to Trinidadian stilt-walkers who live off ketchup. Under these conditions, a cook has to be able to handle anything, even if that means seeing a finely cooked filet mignon drowned in store-bought condiments.

"I love what I do," Vaughn says. "I love working with so many different nationalities."

But he has a special fondness for the classic Louisiana cuisine he grew up on. "My favorite thing to do is barbecue," he says, "and I love to cook a lot of spicy foods, like gumbo and etouffees." He gets a number of international requests, but his jambalaya is especially popular. "The performers ask for it quite often," he says with a grin.

It might not be the life he had predicted, but Vaughn (who travels with his wife, Danette, and daughter Bree) can't imagine doing anything else. Asked if he sees himself staying on the train, Vaughn smiles: "It seems that way at this point."

And after a life on the move, sharing a train with lions, elephants, and trapeze artists, what job wouldn't look dull by comparison?

Contact Emily Tartanella at
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, through Sunday at the Wachovia Center, Broad St. and Pattison Ave. Shows at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. today and tomorrow, 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets $10-$90. Phone: 1-800-298-4200,