Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be in a travelling circus? We get to peek into the lives of the performers and staff of Cirque du Soleil, the world’s biggest and most famous circus.
Also check out Cirque’s mind-boggling recipe for pork carnitas at the bottom of the post.
There has always been a romance and mystery about circuses. Here one day, gone the next. Performing arcane skills and stunts of daring.
As we arrive at the famous blue and yellow strips of the Cirque du Soleil big top, our minds are just as full of expectations and presumptions as many that have come here before us. The difference is we’re about to find out the truth of what it’s like to live in a circus.
However, instead of going to the stage or even behind the scenes in the main tent, we’re taken to the very heart of Cirque du Soleil: the kitchen.
Kooza Kitchen – the heart and soul of Cirque du Soleil
It’s here that cast and crew eat, hang out and relax. It’s the social hub of the circus.
We’re here only an hour or so before the next performance of Cirque’s latest show Kooza. I’m expecting an electric atmosphere full of pre-show tension, nerves and excitement. Perhaps some of the performers will be going over routines or absent-mindedly juggling knives or something.
But as we walk into the simply decorated canteen-style room in the midst of the circus’ 17,000 square metres of grounds, we’re greeted by a quiet, contemplative mood. People are sitting together, chatting, eating. And as time draws closer to final call, still more people arrive but with their stage makeup on.
It’s quite strange to see performers still in jeans or tracksuits – someone’s even here in a dressing gown – with a full face of theatrical face paint nibbling on a banana. It’s fascinating.
Behind the curtain, behind the stove
More intriguing yet, we get to chat to the Kooza Kitchen’s Kitchen Manager, Shane Schipper. An expat Aussie from Mt Morgan, Queensland, Shane has been working with Cirque’s Kooza team for the past 2 and a half years and is keen to share his experiences with us.
Shane and his team of just 3 full-timers in the kitchen prepare meals for the 120 cast and crew every day 6 days a week. There’s never the same thing on 2 days running, and the menus reflect the truly international community working here.
To take the edge off of being away from home for such long stretches, Shane and his team try to give everyone a flavour from home. The menus – 2 per day – are inspired by the 17 different nationalities on board.
Tonight is Mexican night – the number one favourite among the staff. In the self-service counters at the side of the room is a wealth of freshly prepared food catering to all varieties of dietary needs. Above the counter is the menu with green, yellow and red markers next to each item to tell you if it’s healthy or not.
On the menu are things like jalapeño poppers, mackerel achiote, chorizo papas and quesadillas, and it all tastes amazing.
Back of house – the 3rd level of backstage-ness!
After we’ve helped ourselves to as much food as we can eat (we’re stuffed by this point), Shane offers to show us around the kitchen itself. It’s such a unique experience that one of the performers even asks if he can come along too. He’s never seen behind the kitchen before!
We’re surprised by how much space there is back here. Kooza Kitchen is made up of 2 shipping containers that are easily packed up at the end of each tour. One container has the refrigeration and larder store sections. Then there’s a large prep space and sinks.
Then the other container has all the stoves, grills, fryers and other cooking and washing facilities, plus the buffet bain-marie service point. Over all of this goes the fire-retardant canvas roof, and then the walls and doors.
In the stores there are all manner of things: racks of spices and herbs, marinating fish, breakfast cereals, bags of dried chillies, oils, sauces, vinegars… it’s incredible. And because of the breadth of range in the menus, Shane has to keep his stores stocked well.
Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza Kitchen by numbers
Shane also shares some insights into what catering looks like for a travelling circus of this scale.
Apart from the Mexican night being the most popular, the Sunday all-day brunch the kitchen serves is also a much-loved menu. Shane and his team have full cooked breakfast options running all day – 7.30am to 9.30pm – with a cook-to-order egg station.
Everyone comes to eat here – even the 70-odd family members travelling with the circus. The amount of bacon and eggs they get through astounds even Shane!
On a weekly basis, cooking 2 menus per day for 120 staff and crew, plus those who have family with them, the kitchen will use around:
– 800 eggs
– 400kg protein, meat and seafood
– 80kg fresh fruit
– 100kg vegetables
– 60kg potatoes
– 4 boxes bananas
It’s quite the shopping list, isn’t it?
The kitchen has 4 full-time members of staff, including Shane Schipper. They also hire 9 local staff in whichever city they’re in. Sometimes, if they’re good enough, these locals are offered permanent jobs with Cirque du Soleil.
Skip to the bottom of the post if you want Shane’s secret recipe for his pork carnitas – the crowning glory of the Kooza Mexican night!
Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza
It’s time for the show itself and my goodness! what an amazing performance. I’ve been fascinated by Cirque du Soleil since I first saw a film about them years and years ago.
Mrs Romance took me to see my first live show – Varekai – in 2005, which was amazing. But Kooza is something even more spectacular.
High wire tightrope walkers (and also bike riders!), contortionists, the Wheel of Death and some genuinely funny, non-creepy clowns. The whole show is incredible – from the costumes to the logistics of making it all happen.
Kooza was first performed in 2007 and has since run in 52 different cities in 17 countries on 4 continents. The performance we enjoyed was show number 3,204, but it was so good it could well have been the first.
After the show
After the show, we go behind the scenes. Backstage of Cirque du Soleil is truly fascinating. There’s a trampoline, a gymnastics floor, weights (check out the 100kg one-hand dumbbells!) and props to practise with.
It’s also here the performers get changed, put their makeup on – yes, they do their own makeup – and wait to go on stage. There’s also a costume section here where any changes and repairs are done.
We get backstage quick enough to meet a couple of the performers before they whip their makeup off and get changed. Many of the performers are already out the door before most of the audience has left, they’re that quick. They’re keen to get home, which by the way isn’t in tents onsite. Everyone stays in apartments and hotels around the city.
It’s all so interesting seeing how everything comes together and works. And when it’s time to move on, everything has its place. Every crate and box has a number, every item goes somewhere. It’s like a goliath camping trip where all 120 members of staff are involved.
Everything – from the huge 5-tonne big top and the Kooza Kitchen to the stilts, props, costumes and musical instruments – has to be packed away into the 60-odd truck containers as the circus moves cities. What would have taken around 5 days to put up gets put away at ‘tear-down’ in 2 days. It’s an incredible operation.
We feel very privileged to have been able to see into this window few others have witnessed.
Shane Schipper’s pork carnitas recipe
Here’s what you need:
– 16kg pork shoulder
– 1/2 cup salt
– 2 tbsp chilli powder
– 2 tbsp cumin
– 4 tbsp Mexican oregano (regular coriander will work, but Mexican oregano has a hint of lemon to it)
– 2 tbsp marjoram
– 3 habenero chillies – chopped
– 2 tbsp all-spice powder
– 3 chipotle chillies – chopped
– 2 tbsp fresh thyme
– 6 bay leaves
– Onions, carrots, celery and garlic
– 3 oranges cut in half
– 2 cups vegetable oil
Here’s what you do:
1. Mix the dry ingredients to make a rub.
2. Wash and dry the pork shoulder, score the fat with a knife to give the rub somewhere to hide.
3. Apply the rub to the shoulder and allow to sit and absorb the good stuff for 24 hours.
4. Sear all sides until golden.
5. Place in a tray of chopped onion, carrots, celery and whole garlic cloves. Add 3 oranges cut in half.
6. Add a cup of water and 2 cups of vegetable oil.
7. Cover tray with foil and start in a hot oven – 200 degrees Celsius – for an hour then drop down to 130dC.
8. We place our pork in a slow oven overnight; the night team puts it in and then 8 hours later, the morning shift pulls it out to cool.
9. Once cool enough to touch, remove the liquid from the tray and reduce it in a pan, skimming fat as you go.
10. Pull apart the pork with 2 forks.
11. Finally, fry the shredded pork on a hotplate to give a crispy texture and finish with a little of the reduced liquid.
12. Serve with corn and flour tortillas, coriander, guacamole and pico de gallo (see below).
– 40 ripe avocados – smashed
– Juice of 10 limes
– 2 bunches coriander – chopped
– 6 red onions – finely diced
– 10 tomatoes – deseeded and diced
Pico de Gallo
– 10kg ripe roma tomatoes – deseeded and diced
– 6 white onions – finely chopped
– 1 bunch coriander – chopped
– 5 jalepeno chillies – finely chopped
– 3 teaspoons kosher salt
– Juice of 8 limes
Have you ever been to a Cirque du Soleil performance? What’s the biggest dinner you’ve ever had to make? Tell us in the comments!