There's certainly a lot of magic that goes on behind the scenes of any Cirque du Soleil performance. But Paola Muller, head chef and kitchen manager for the acclaimed theatrical production, sees another side of the mesmerizing extravaganza of a show.
Muller and her staff of cooks are responsible for keeping the international cast of Cirque performers fed and energized with a variety of meals that feature ingredients, flavors and spices from around the globe.
"By traveling to (and working) in so many different places we get to work with so many international cuisines," said Muller, who's been with Cirque for nearly six years.
Muller is currently presiding over the kitchen as Cirque's "KURIOS- Cabinet of Curiosities" enjoys its residency in Chicago through Sept. 20. The Cirque tent and its makeshift village are housed in the parking lot of Chicago's United Center.
The chef's kitchen is featured in four connected trailers on the grounds.
A native of Brazil, Muller said she's long been interested in food and coming up with delicious recipes.
"I grew up in the kitchen. My father was a chef and he owned a restaurant during my entire childhood," she said.
Muller works with two other full-time cooks, including her husband, as well as local volunteers from whatever city the troupe happens to be performing in.
"We hire about eight locals from every city we're in," she said. "They could be prep cooks to dishwashers."
Muller is extremely conscious of making sure her menu reflects the multicultural backgrounds of the performers who come from all over including Japan, Australia, South America, Russia and many other locales.
"We want our cuisine to be diverse," she said.
The kitchen staff feed about 110 full-time employees every day. When you add front-of-the-house personnel and occasional family members, that can go up to about 150 to 200 people daily.
At a recent dinner during the Chicago stint, a Filipino dinner was served with a full ethnic menu of Filipino favorites including Filipino chicken, a fried pork recipe and fried fish dish.
"Two of my cooks are from the Philippines so they wanted to prepare a big meal," Muller said.
"We do all kinds of meals," the chef said. "We make a lot of Asian food, South American comfort food, traditional American meals and other recipes."
Every so often, Muller will set up a salad bar for lunch so performers can make their own meal creation. That day a sign hanging above the lunch line states, "You are the chef today."
"We try to keep lunch a little more light," she said. "Dinner is usually a little more adventurous of a meal."
Muller said there are some challenges when preparing meals for a number of performers but the challenges are not ones most people would think of.
"It's not really the cooking aspect," she said. "What's challenging is to train a new local staff," Muller said, adding that the locals have to be trained about two months before Cirque sets up shop in any given city.
"After that, we move on and have to do it again," she said.
The chef said the cooking staff gets to know the performers' likes and dislikes when it comes to food and they always keep that in mind when preparing meals.
"I also have to keep in mind that we have two different types of customers. We have the lean, athletic, performers (who want the healthier foods) and then we also have the big (muscle-bound) guys who work outside all day and want steak and mashed potatoes. So we try to have a balance," Muller said.
Among cuisines popular with the Cirque crowd, Muller said, are Mexican themes, Japanese and Chinese meals, South American fare and Moroccan and Indian dishes.
"The most popular is Mexican," Muller said.
For daily lunch and dinner, there's always soup and a cold sandwich meat bar. And on Sundays, performers will find a big brunch spread.
For more information on KURIOS, visit cirquedusoleil.com.