Cooking for the Circus (Boston Phoenix)
Before the marathon, there is the pasta dinner. The soccer team gathers for pizza. But what to eat when you're the man on the flying trapeze? For the nearly 150-member company of the Big Apple Circus, the answer was, until recently, bologna sandwiches. But when a New York City sous chef decided to entertain a whim — defying not only his fine-dining résumé but his own wedding plans — to serve the circus's thrice-daily meals, the acrobats, costume designers, and groundskeepers traded rubbery hot dogs for coq au vin.
In March, Christian Ortiz became chef at the Big Apple Circus, which is camped on City Hall Plaza through May 15. He dons his chef whites and reports to a spartan tent beside the big top where he provides lunch and dinner each day for up to 160 company members. Breakfast is served at the circus residences, where the food is also prepared, on Northern Avenue.
"I was supposed to get married this week," explains Ortiz. "It didn't work out."
Ortiz worked as a sous chef at Landmarc in New York City when he encountered the job posting on Craigslist. Ortiz says he grew weary serving what he called "$25 cheeseburgers to kids." On St. Patrick's Day, the circus called. They wanted him to run away.
"A lazy man's kitchen" is how he describes the cookhouse he inherited. "I could tell a lot about my predecessor based upon the ingredients: hollandaise in a bag; beef bouillon," says Ortiz.
For the company members who rely on mealtime for sustenance and rest, Ortiz's fine-dining legacy is working out. The previous kitchen offered mostly a subsistence diet of concession-type meats and grilled cheese. Ortiz's menu reboot includes Moroccan quinoa and braised lamb.
"I'm iron-clad stubborn in my ways," says Ortiz. "I know what good food is, and I know what a fish patty is. . . . I don't use fish patties."
An interloper who imposes a sea change of newly laborious practices risks unpopularity. But Ortiz reports that he's glad to juggle the workload. The company members eagerly devour the cooking, and Ortiz says his managers support his methods. Besides, the economics of cooking at home apply here, too. Take a chicken parmigiana recipe: it's cheaper to buy whole chickens at a dollar a pound than prepared food at $70 a pound. Ortiz says he comes in under budget.
"There is no limit to my time," he says. "You'll see me butchering meat at 10 pm." Ortiz estimates that his chicken parmigiana meal calls for about 90 chickens, which he can break down in 90 minutes. "Butchering is a therapeutic thing."
Menu planning is a balancing act between Ortiz's own urge to embellish and the nutritional needs of what he calls a "meat-and-potatoes crowd" who work long, physically demanding days.
"As much as I don't like fried chicken or macaroni and cheese, I'll make them excellent and then win over a bunch of people," he says. On a recent evening in the tent, Ortiz watched members trickle in to scoop roast pork and rosemary potatoes from chafing dishes. At one table, a cluster of lighting technicians slathered butter on slices of bread; nearby, the Bulgarian acrobat Andrey Mantchev fastidiously sliced his meat before rushing away to the evening performance.
"They don't eat like one would in a full-service dining room," says Ortiz. "An eight-ounce portion is okay for you or me, but I make 100 pounds of pasta for lunch."
Ortiz bases meal plans around protein. "You can do a lot with pork shoulder or top round," he says. "I can't do duck confit." His speech is spangled with French culinary terms: mis en place, garde manger, gratin de pomme de terre. "It's a bit institutional," he admits. "It can never be cold and bland. You have to be humble." After one bad day, the circus sprung for lobsters, a failing enterprise: too many struggled with the stubborn shells.
In a day, Ortiz estimates he serves 200 pounds of vegetables, 150 pounds of protein, and 150 to 200 pounds of starch, along with 26 pounds of butter and six gallons of heavy cream.
Purchasing agent Keith Christianson considers the meals a respite, and is charmed by the new chef's cooking. His favorite company dinner is ketchup-glazed meatloaf with gravy.
"We're always on the move," says Christianson. "The meal is the one thing we can always count on every day. Especially when you're taking the tent apart, it's about the only time we get to rest. It definitely keeps us going, and it's something to look forward to. It's probably the one constant thing in the day."
Maintenance supervisor and former acrobat Dimitre Dimitrov knew Ortiz was on the right track when he watched his wife, a former circus singer and dancer who now works in the business office, begin eating company dinners again.
"She is very careful what she's eating, but now she likes the food," he says. "Everybody's happy, and when everybody's happy, the show is going well."
Dimitrov appreciates the dinners as a rarity; Big Apple is one of only two places he's worked in his 33-year circus career to provide the benefit.
"People think circus people are very different, like carnival people, but they're not," he says. "The performers are very professional. They practice very hard to show what they do, to be sure what they do is perfect and satisfy the people who watch."
Michael LeClair is Big Apple's tentmaster, whose job includes the task of constructing and breaking down the big top. He wears a lumberjack's plaid flannel, a work vest, and an outback hat; he shakes hands with weathered fingers and smiles a warm, gappy grin.
"The cook will never please everyone," says LeClair. "People bitch and moan all the time, but it's not your mother's kitchen."
Or maybe it is. LeClair first worked for the circus in 1982, returning on and off through the years. "It's like home, so I always come back," he says. The dinners are an important time to reconnect and recharge.
"You have a roof over your head, three meals a day, and no commute. You can walk out of your trailer and go to work, so that's a big plus," says LeClair. "It's the basics of living and survival. The circus provides that."
This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix, May 4, 2011.