Take Five with Mia Messier, Head Chef for Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem” Show

Crew members touch up the stage for Cirque du Soleil's "Totem'' in San Jose.

Mia Messier was a hotel and restaurant chef in Montreal when she decided to run away with the circus.

Not just any circus, but the worldwide phenomenon known as Cirque du Soleil.

Who can blame her?

Now a veteran of nine years with the Montreal-based entertainment company, Messier has traveled with various Cirque shows through more than 25 countries for anywhere from six weeks to a year and a half at a time.

It’s her job to feed the hungry troupe of 52 performers from 20 countries, along with 68 other crew members, while they’re on the road.

Recently, I had a chance to visit her cafe at Cirque’s “Totem” show, now playing in San Jose through April 15.

The fanciful costumes are all hand-made.

Would you believe this got its start as a piece of white fabric?

Light-weight and stretchy.

A mold is made of each performer's head to create these intricate head-pieces.

I also got a quick peek backstage that afternoon with Cirque publicist Francis Jalbert, as crews were touching up the 2,700-pound turtle carapace that is the centerpiece of this particular show. Behind it, a hydraulic stage is flanked by what look like soaring, solid wood reeds. But would you believe they’re actually inflatable, so as to make transporting easier?

The forest of reeds is actually inflatable.

In a makeshift workout area, complete with weights and an elliptical machine, some of the young Asian unicycle girls were stretching out their limbs in anticipation of two performances that night.

And in the costume department, outfits were being dried with huge blower fans. In this particular show, there are 250 hand-made costumes. Each performer has a duplicate set so that one can be worn while another is being washed. A scanner records each performer’s measurements so that the costumes can be tailored-made to fit each one of them. Most of the costumes start out as nothing more than white fabric, Jalbert explains. Then, they are hand-dyed and hand-painted. It’s a given that the costumes must have stretch to accommodate all the daring maneuvers of the performers. But they also have to be light-weight. As a result, embellishments such as seashells and metal bars are actually made of silicone. Shoes take such a beating, too, that they must be repainted once a week.

With 20 Cirque shows around the world now, the company is a well-oiled machine. Sixty trucks transport the entire show, which not only includes the big tent and stage, but showers for the performers, washing machines for their costumes, and even a mini school with teachers for its youngest performers, as well as children of the adult performers. The cafe is actually comprised of six trucks, opened up to reveal the kitchen, pantry, storage, terrace and dining room, which includes computers and a small library of books for crew and cast to enjoy. At each new city, it takes two days to set up the kitchen — if the weather cooperates.

The performers, stretching out for that night's performance, burn so many calories they can eat what they want.

Messier’s cafe, open from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., turns out 250 meals a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At lunch and dinner, there are always two proteins, two vegetarian dishes, a starch, vegetables, a salad bar, a sandwich bar and desserts. Because most of the performers come from a sports background, they know what works best for themselves. So, don’t look for any diet police monitoring their plates.

Head Chef Mia Messier.

Q. Mia, do you do a different culinary theme every day?

A: Pretty much. The lunch menu is different from the dinner menu, too. The cast likes a lot of variety. So, if it’s always the same thing, I will get emails.

Yesterday was “Korean Day.” Today is “Quebec Day.” We have a lot of people from Quebec, so we try to do Quebec food at least one day a month. The poutine today — I think everyone will jump on that. It’s always like Christmas when we have French fries.

My plate, which includes a sample of poutine.

Q: You had to improvise a little with the poutine (French fries with gravy and cheese curds) today?

A: Yes, we couldn’t get curds from our supplier, so we are using grated mozzarella instead.

In each city, we rely on a supplier to deliver fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and dry goods three times a week.

Tourtiere -- Quebec meat pie.

Pouding Chomeur -- white cake soaked in warm maple syrup.

Q: Do you have to keep to a strict budget?

A: We do filet mignon and lobster. We have a lot of variety. But yes, we do have to be budget conscious. If I go crazy one week, I tweak it the next and it’s like, ‘OK, we will have only water and potatoes next week.’ (laughs)

Greek salad.

Portobellos with tofu.

Q: What are some other favorite dishes?

A: They jump for sushi or sashimi. That is definitely the most popular.

Q: Anything you avoid making because you know it won’t go over well?

A: I try to not make very heavy foods. I also try to avoid cabbage and beans. Those are not too pleasant on stage. (laughs)

If we are doing Mexican food, I will always have one mild dish for those who don’t like spicy. We always have a lot of steamed or grilled vegetables and fish, too. I take suggestions, too. One woman in the show wanted stuffed squid, so she brought me a recipe for it, and I made it.

Q: The cafe is open six days a week and closed on Mondays?

A: Yes, on Mondays, the performers go out to eat or they might cook in their apartments here.

Q: So, this must be a huge change for you from working in a regular restaurant?

A: Yes, every day is different here compared to a restaurant. And we travel all over the world. We were just in London, and before that in San Francisco. We go to San Diego next. Everywhere we go, we try to follow the cuisine of the city a little bit, too. Like we did Irish food for St. Patrick’s Day here.

Q: When you’re finally back home in Montreal, what do you crave most?

A: Soups from Chinatown. Montreal smoked meats. And of course, bagels.

More Behind-the-Scenes Cafes: 49ers Training Camp

And: The Original Facebook Cafe

And: Lucasfilm in San Francisco

And: Jia at Google

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Date: Thursday, 22. March 2012 5:38
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: "Take Five'' Q&A, Chefs, Enticing Events, General, Google/Tech/Corporate Cafes, Restaurants

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11 comments

  1. 1

    Wow! What a great opportunity to visit the set and talk to the chef who feeds those amazing performers.

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing.

    Velva

  2. 2

    What a fun job to go around the world. I would be so bad at it, though, because I’d be busy wanting to try the local food and not be back in the kitchen cooking! LOL.

  3. 3

    They eat really well! That’s pretty labor intensive that they have to repaint the performers’ shoes…I’d imagine there’s tons of repairs on their costumes each week too.

  4. 4

    What a great interview! How challenging to cook for so many and to have to come up with such a variety of dishes!

  5. 5

    Amazing experience!! I’ve never been to the Cirque du Soleil here in Orlando. I think it’s time :)

  6. 6

    My kids wanted to see this show when it was in SF, but now in SJ? I didn’t know! Costco was (or still is) selling the ticket and my kids just love that preview on the TV screen and request to stop the cart right in front of it. I thought it’s still too young for 5 and 3 year olds though right? We love Cirque du Soleils and seen most of it in Vegas. I think my kids are just like us. I really, really enjoyed this post Carolyn. As a big fan, it was nice to see how the performers eat. I felt like I can actually happily eat the food at the cafe as there are so many variations! Your job is really cool Carolyn!

  7. 7

    I want to run off to be in the circus too now! :D I love CdS,the things that they can do are amazing :) And great questions Carolyn-interesting that they do filet mignon and lobster!

  8. 8

    Wow, what a job!! I wonder if the “cool” aspect of the job ever wears out…but I’ll bet it’s a constant creative process trying to come up with fun things under strict dietary policies and budgets.

  9. 9

    I love Cirque de Soliel and I try to get to as many shows as possible. What an incredible job – doing what you love, traveling the world and being surrounded by the beautiful and talented! xx

  10. 10

    Waw: how cool for you to see backstage & that intervieuw was great & so apart! Lucky you!! Thanks for this lovely post & the food & the costumes look fabulous!
    Everytime, they come to Belgium with a new show, My husband & I go to see them! they are amazing!

  11. 11

    What a process to set up in each city! I just saw two Cirque shows in Vegas last month, and I’m imagining how complicated traveling versions would be. Sounds like everyone eats well while on the road though!

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