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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

THE "PIE CAR"

Michael Vaughn is head of dining at the Pie Car for the Ringling Bros circus, the place the performers eat. He feeds people from all over the world each day.
By Gail Ciampa
Journal Food Editor
When you hear “Pie Car” is the name of the dining car of the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train, you wonder why, don’t you?
Is dessert all they serve? No.
Did the clowns stock up there for their pie-throwing acts? No. But that’s the most fun question.
Michael Vaughn, who is director of Food and Facility Service for the Ringling Bros. Blue Unit, which was in town last week and weekend, serves as the executive chef of the Pie Car, and he had another answer — and we’ll have to presume he knows.
“Meat Pies” he said. “Years ago the main thing was meat pies.”
It’s not hard to believe that performers and behind-the-scenes workers looked for the hearty all-in-one-meals of a savory pie to steel themselves for another day entertaining the crowds or packing up to move on to the next city.
Today’s Pie Car offers a wide array of food from around the world to satisfy the tastes of the circus’s global community.
While the circus’s Blue Unit was in Providence last week, I met chef Vaughn and dined in the Pie Car there in the world’s largest private train with hundreds of cars that stretch a mile-plus, by all accounts.
Vaughn not only appreciates that Ringling Bros. has given him the job of a lifetime but says he also thanks them for his wife Danette, whom he met there at the circus (she was a former featured vocalist), and their daughter Bree.
Here are five things you need to know about the Pie Car.
•It’s brand new and shiny. Vaughn said it was time to replace the car, which includes a kitchen and diner-style seating for about 25 people at a time. He filled out some specifications and got his dream dining car. It’s cozy and comfortable with cushy booth seats. It includes lots of hidden spaces (under seats, overhead) because, frankly, he has a lot of things and foods to store. Want any kind tea? Hop out of that seat and he’ll find a lovely box.
The kitchen is not unlike what you might see in a diner.
•Vaughn has to be prepared each day to feed the entire show. That’s 300 people, including performers and crew.
On the day of my visit, he didn’t expect many diners, because the train pulled in to Providence the night before and there were no performances. That usually means people go out to eat on their own, and those with kitchens in the train cars in which they live will cook for themselves.
All that changes on days when there are three performances. Then he has crowds coming and going all day. After nine performances in three days at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Vaughn had to restock with an entire semi-trailer truckload of food. In general, he gets two bulk deliveries a week.
In Providence, he ran over to Whole Foods at University Heights to pick up a few things for the Pie Car.
•There is a portable Pie Car Junior set up at each venue (in this case behind the Dunkin’ Donuts Center) to offer food on the go.
•Vaughn heads a team of six that includes positions not unlike those found in a restaurant. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and close a few hours between each. They charge what Vaughn considers minimally with costs subsidized by the ts around $3.50 and a meatloaf or moussaka dinner about $5.
•The menu is varied to feed not just a globally diverse population but one looking at calories differently as well.
There are the “circus fit” eaters, said Vaughn. They’ll watch what they eat, including counting carbs. Depending on the time of day and proximity of performance, they also want lighter fare. “Like, if they are flying,” he said. And he really means flying, with trapeze artists and trampoline performers in the circus.
Then there are the folks on the crew who have hearty appetites and want filling meals, he said.
No alcoholic beverages are served in the Pie Car.
Vaughn asks the performers what food they’d like to be served. If he can bring them home cooking that they want, he’s happy to do it. His menus are chock full of not just home-style favorites such as meatloaf, but also borscht (with the recipe coming from the wife of a Russian performer). On Sundays, there are eight entrĂ©e choices. “It would kill me to hear performers come in and say ‘It’s Tuesday, it must be spaghetti again.’ ”
gciampa@projo.com
From the Providence, RI Journal

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