Food fit for a circus clown: Behind the scenes in Ringling Bros. kitchen

Chef Michael Vaughn with Ringling Bros Circus
Chef Michael Vaughn, who cooks for the greatest show on earth, serves Scallops Masala dusted with Indian spices.

This chef doesn’t cook for peanuts. But he rounds up plenty for the diverse dishes he makes for the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey circus troupe.

Its new show premiers at the St. Pete Times Forum Tampa Jan. 4 – 8. The performers arrived last month because its red and blue teams practice at the fairgrounds. Dragons, the name of Ringling Bros. new show which honors The Year of the Dragon, is the 142nd edition of The Greatest Show on Earth.

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I met chef Michael Vaughn who feeds about 200 hungry entertainers living in some of the 61 train cars parked just outside of town. Chef Michael says he likes the adventure. “It’s definitely the greatest show on earth. We are the world’s largest city without a zip code,’’ he adds.

The 16-year saw-dust veteran may have learned to cook in the south but his cuisine spans several continents.  His international mix of patrons come from seven continents, including Uzbekistan, Uruguay, Russia, Mongolia and Paraguay. Michael invites the animal trainers, trapeze artists and others to bring him recipes and teach him about their special dishes that personify their home country.

Indian spiced, Scallops Masala, and a rich sausage gumbo with chicken and andouille that is served as a stew without rice, are favorites. There is a Brazilian bonbon called brigadeiro, which  is named for a famous brigadier.  Sous chef Mark Guzman makes a Peruvian, shrimp-filled ceviche, marinated in grapefruit juice and served with tortilla chips.

Michael designed every inch of the $1 million aluminum Pie Car with its dining car. The car gets its name from the propensity of clowns who used to toss the whipped cream treats around the place.

“It’s the one time it pays not to be popular,’’ quips Michael.

The 10-by-90-feet Pie Car holds refrigerators, cook tops, cupboards and diner-style seating. It is filled with circus memorabilia and plenty of flat-screen televisions.

When the train rolls into a new city, Michael is ready for the troupes, creating 2,500 to 3,000 homey servings each week. Seating on board holds about two dozen diners and some get food to go for their “house,’’ the name for the residential cars.

The chef knows his customers’ likes and dislikes, explains Melinda Hartline, regional public relations manager for Fled Entertainment/Ringling Brothers. “They love hamburgers,’’ she adds. The clowns are known for their big breakfasts of M&M pancakes. Some performers have the appetite of performing pachyderms but are so athletic they can enjoy all the carbs and fried fare they wish.

Ringling Bros chicken, shrimp and andouille sausage gumbo
Chicken, shrimp and andouille sausage perks up a spicy gumbo.

To keep meals inexpensive, Michael shops the local farmers markets for deals and the circus helps keep costs low.

Michael says his work is a labor of love. There are long hours but he gets plenty of satisfaction. He was born to be a chef, as two grandparents were. Although he was born in California, he lived in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. His grandmother knew her lunches would please construction workers and she took Michael along to help her.

She always said, “You never know… you might end up cooking someday.’’

Grandmothers are always right.


He hammered his way to the top: Congrats to brand new Iron Chef, Geoffrey Zakarian.

Zakarian won the coveted top spot last week, as I predicted, in Kitchen Stadium’s on The Next Iron Chef.  He creamed his opponent with his smart use of the “secret’’ ingredients salt cod, crown roast, candy canes, Clementine’s, squash, salt cod, Brussels sprouts, and cider, along with three surprise challenges (cranberries, an ice-cream machine, and a cocktail). (More about this Iron Chef episode)

Check out Zakarian’s new place in South Beach, the Tudor House restaurant.

What Did You Think?


  1. His BR and NOLA pedigree would make his food very interesting, especially his use of Indian spices. Did you get any recipes? Good job Mary, what did you get to taste?

  2. Mary D, Scourtes

    I loved his Indian spiced Scallops Masala, gumbo with chicken and andouille and the ceviche, marinated in grapefruit juice. Yum.

  3. Get the recipes! They sound wonderful!

  4. The ceviche marinated in grapefruit juice sounds so original and appetizing! I’ll try it soon on guests…


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