Cirque du Soleil chef finds the art in cooking

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comApril 30, 2013 

SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • WHEN: 7:30 p.m., May 7-9

    WHERE: Savannah Civic Center -- Martin Luther King Arena, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave., Savannah

    COST: $18-$100

If you think preparing dinner every night for your family or planning a large holiday meal can be stressful, try cooking two meals a day, six days a week for more than 90 of the finest athletes in the world, all from inside a 45-foot mobile kitchen.

This is the life of Chef Adam Stefanko and his team from Spectrum Catering who are tasked with cooking for the jugglers, acrobats, aerialists and strongmen of Cirque du Soleil's "Quidam," a traveling show about a bored, isolated young girl who fills her otherwise empty world with lively, imaginary characters and personalities.

The show played in Charleston last month and will run from May 7 to 9 at the Savannah Civic Center.

While the performers' jobs begin when the curtain goes up each night, Stefanko, the head of catering for the show, and his team start their days as early as 5 a.m. to lay out a breakfast bar and start preparing ingredients for the noon lunch service and the 5 p.m. dinner service.

All of their work is done inside a 45-foot trailer outfitted with refrigerators and other types of cooking equipment.

Though for many of the performers food is fuel, that doesn't mean Stefanko and his team are content serving up salad and boiled chicken every night.

"When we write the menus each day, it really gives us a chance to diversify the kind of food we want to do for lunch and dinner," said Stefanko, a 36-year-old Milwaukee native. "We have performers from about 17 different countries so we like to touch on all of that cuisine. We'll do Brazilian or Russian or Japanese."

Stefanko is a classically-trained chef who worked in some of Milwaukee's best kitchens before signing on with Cirque du Soleil about three years ago. He said cooking for the performers has required him to rethink some of what he learned in those restaurants -- like the use of butter.

"It's a huge thing in the culinary world, and especially in French cooking, that fat equals flavor," Stefanko said. "We try to look at it instead as freshness equals flavor. We still use butter in certain dishes, but we'll often substitute olive oil and we'll do a lot more purees and stock reductions."

While on the road, Stefanko said he and his team also try to procure as many local ingredients as possible. For example, during a recent swing through coastal Virginia they acquired local ingredients to make cioppino, an Italian-style fish stew.

"We were able to score fresh fish, squid, mussels, crab and monkfish," Stefanko said. "I've always thought it was important for us to try to work with local people and businesses as we can."

The food, served buffet-style, is color-coded to help performers discern how each dish was prepared -- in other words, whether a piece of fish was grilled or simply steamed.

This system is helpful, in part, because the athletes have different nutritional needs depending on their role in the show.

"The calorie intake from performer to perform is so different," said Jessica LaBeouf, show spokeswoman. "We have jugglers and basemen who have to have a lot of protein and dense foods to fuel them, whereas the aerialists and flyers have to be lean and light in the air so they're meal and caloric intake with be different. It just varies from performer to performer."

Stefanko said he eventually plans to return to restaurants and get out of catering but has enjoyed his time with the world famous French circus.

"The best thing about this job is the relationships you make," he said. "We're on the road all the time and the cities are constantly changing and you really get attached to the people you meet out here but it's all a trade-off. I'm looking forward to a little time at home, too."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue on Twitter.

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