Chef Michael Vaughn Talks Ringling Bros. Circus Cuisine

​Yes, dining with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus cast and crew was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so we totally understand if you are seething with jealousy. It was awesome! But instead of keeping our observations to ourselves, we thought we'd let you in on some of the more interesting parts so you can feel like you were there with us in the pie car. (See, you're already learning circus jargon.)

It turns out RBBBC has three touring "units," one "Red," one "Blue" and one "Gold." Funundrum, the show currently in town, is part of the Blue Unit. (The only way to know which unit you are hanging with is to look at the "Greatest Show on Earth" globe. If it's blue, guess what?). The chef for the Blue Unit is Michael Vaughn, a 16-year veteran of the scene.

Working in the tiniest kitchen we've ever seen, he and his staff work to keep the menu rotating constantly, so one day the crew gets bowls of his spicy chicken and sausage gumbo (recipe on Monday!), and on another they're treated to Brazilian chicken stroganoff. On a third, they'll get Bulgarian spinach banitsa (which is pretty much a spanikopita, if you ask us) paired with a slice of moussaka, for example.

The pie car, which comprises eight tables and enough seating for about 32 folks, is occasionally available 24 hours a day to the cast and crew. They don't always eat there all the time, however, because each "house" (that's what the performers and crew call their residential cars) has a microwave and refrigerator, at the very least. Some also have flat tops, crock pots, and barbecues for when the train is parked. And, of course, they often go out to eat. But Vaughn and his staff have to always be ready to serve up to 350 people, sometimes at a moment's notice. It's an exciting job, for sure.

Now you won't get to try any of their meals, but you can see the nourished crew in all its glory while FUNundrum is at the American Airlines Arena (now through January 17). In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, welcome to the interview!

New Times: So, um, what's with the rhinestones on your chef coat?

Michael Vaughn: It was a little joke from wardrobe.

Funny. Let's get started. Did you always want to be a chef?

I wanted the exact opposite. I never wanted to be a cook.

What's your background? Are you professionally trained?

My grandmother was a chef and my grandfather was a chef. My step-great-grandfather was Creole. New Orleans is where I came from. My entire family, with the exception of me, was from Louisiana. I was born in California. My grandmother started making individual pies and visiting construction sites. She set up a kitchen. Lucky me--I was recruited to help. Then she opened up a restaurant because it really got big. She started serving lunches, catering, all kinds of things. So in the end she had two restaurants and the cake and pie thing on the side. I was always asked to help out. That was her way of keeping me out of trouble. She said, you never know, you might end up cooking someday. I said, you're insane!

What did you want to do instead?

My first career path was to be fireman until I fought my first big fire and, I thought, this is not for me.

So how did you get involved with the circus then?

A friend of mine ran a temporary agency. She called me and said, "I need help with something: I need someone to cook because the circus is coming to town." Then she called later and said, "I just want to confirm you're gonna be there." I was like, uh, "You were serious?" So I went. And they asked if I would come on the road with them. I was like, this is very strange. I said, "The circus? You carnival people?" They were very offended by that. I had no idea it was owned by corporation. I had no idea this was a real job where you could actually get salary, and insurance, and vacation. When they said, "You're gonna live on a train..." I couldn't imagine it. I said, "I'll go with you through Dallas and if I don't like it I'm outta here."

It took me two years to soak all this in.

When was all that?
Nineteen-ninety-three. I left for two years in between and ended up with a job I thought was everything I wanted, but I was extremely bored at the same time. I worked offshore. The scheduling was perfect: seven days off and seven days on. I was like, finally, I can have a real life! It was good, but extremely boring. I found the things I thought I disliked [about the circus life] were really the things I loved, like the last minute push. "We're gonna be setting up all night so we need you to feed the entire cast and crew. It's gonna be a load-and-go," which is the hardest day for us, ever. The train gets in late, we set up all night long, into the day, and we open the show that night. Everybody is beat down. Those are the things, I thought, this is insane! But at the end of it, it's the accomplishment of it. You always make it through.

What's the toughest part of this job?

I hate cooking breakfast.


It's all the different ways they want their eggs.

Check back tomorrow to hear about how he creates his menus (hint: there are no menus), which dessert is his biggest downfall, and why he put a Miami bus driver behind the line.

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Riki Altman