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

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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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