The kitchen gypsies of Kooza

Cooking for a Cirque du Soleil troupe is an international challenge.

click to enlarge WORLD CLASS: Ballina and her international team of chefs in the kitchen at KOOZA. - Photo by Shanna Gillette
Photo by Shanna Gillette
WORLD CLASS: Ballina and her international team of chefs in the kitchen at KOOZA.

What fuels the bodies that contort so effortlessly night after night in a Cirque du Soleil performance?

Four chefs and a sparse, locally sourced crew power the kitchen behind Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza, in St. Petersburg through Dec. 16. They hail from Argentina, Quebec, Austria and France. Inside a portable kitchen and dining space, they serve 300 or more buffet-style meals a day, with menu variations galore.

All four chefs design the menus on a rotating schedule, serving the needs of over 130 cast and crew of 23 different nationalities. Imagine recreating Mom’s home cooking, but Mom is from 23 different countries.

"I try to do something close to their mother's," says Kooza kitchen manager Agustina Ballina, who is from Buenos Aires. "But Russian food is very complicated. I tell them, I am not a Russian grandma! Tomorrow night is Korean."

Asian cuisine is big with the Kooza crew, who just finished a long stint in Japan.

"I love Korean, Japanese and Thai food," Ballina says. "Everyone loves my curry and, of course, my Italian food."

Menu items are split up by colors. Green is healthy, yellow a little less, red is probably fried.

"That way they can decide what they want to eat based on their diet and training schedule," Ballina says. "My empanadas can be yellow, but they are never green."

There is always a cold bar of salad, fruit, yogurt, juice, bread, and veggies.

"Some performers have very specific diets that change weekly," Ballina says. "But on Sundays we make heavier meals like pizza."

Ballina handles all the supply orders, and makes a point to order local meat, fish and vegetables at each stop.

She knows about Mazzaro's Italian Market and Cassis Brasserie, but upon hearing about Oceanic, Ballina is ecstatic.

"Hey! Hey! They know about an Asian market in Tampa. We are going tomorrow!" Ballina yells to the other three chefs.

[Editor's Note: A CL visitor later in the week witnessed the moment when the Canadian chef, David Lariviere, presented Cirque publicist Mami Ohki, who is Japanese, with noodles he'd found at Oceanic. She was so excited she hugged him.]

"We just came from Texas and I was so done with ribs and meat," Ballina says. "Now I am all about your seafood here. The mahi-mahi and snapper only need a little salt and pepper — so clean and delicious."

In every city, the crew arrives ahead of the performers to set up. Ballina and her chefs spend two days erecting their mobile kitchen, hiring new temporary kitchen staff and training them, and after that it's trial by fire.

"Then two days before the show is over, the kitchen is broken down again," Ballina says. "Then we cook campfire-style for two days."

Ballina has been with Cirque du Soleil for over three years and loves being on the road.

"You have to have an open mind, but I love traveling," she says. The last time her family joined her during the tour, her mother helped make the crew homemade empanadas, over 700 in total.

"Guest chefs are always invited," Ballina says.

Publicist Mami Ohki recently helped Ballina make Japanese dumplings for everyone.

"We don't want to get bored with food here," Ballina says. "And we don't."

Read more about what goes on behind the scenes at Cirque du Soleil.

Scroll to read more Food News articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.