Dining With Denise Neil

What will Cirque du Soleil performers eat in Wichita? A Kansas pig

Cirque du Soleil’s traveling chef Kathryn Irwin carves brisket for Cuban sandwiches she’ll serve to the Cirque do Soleil cast and crew.
Cirque du Soleil’s traveling chef Kathryn Irwin carves brisket for Cuban sandwiches she’ll serve to the Cirque do Soleil cast and crew. The Wichita Eagle

If the lobby of Intrust Bank Arena smells vaguely of roasted pork as you enter to watch the Cirque du Soleil show “Toruk – The First Flight” this weekend, you can thank chef Kathryn Irwin and her sous chef, Mark Wright.

Chances are, the lithe, athletic acrobats and dancers about to take the stage – and the bulky, hard-hat wearing construction crew members that put the stage together – already have.

Watch a preview of Cirque du Soleil's "TORUK - The First Flight," set to open at Wichita's Intrust Bank Arena on Thursday. (Courtesy: Cirque du Soleil)

Irwin and Wright are among the most popular members of the 100-person unit that travels from city to city to put on “Toruk,” a spectacle of a show – as all Cirque productions are – that is set in the vibrant blue world of James Cameron’s 2009 film “Avatar.” They’re the leaders of a crew of five cooks hired to go everywhere the show goes and set up a mobile restaurant of sorts that keeps the 40 artists and 60 technicians who put on the show fed and happy.

“It’s for consistency,” Irwin said of the show’s decision to send the kitchen along with the show. “We get to know the artists and technicians, so we know what they like to eat. It makes it more homey, and it makes them more comfortable that they can come ask us for things.”

The traveling chefs are responsible for providing lunch and dinner every day for a large group of people from 18 different countries with different cultures, different tastes and different dietary restrictions. Every day, the chefs say, is a balancing act where they try to keep the technician from Hungary who wants a schnitzel happy along with the Chinese dancer who requests an occasional meal of boiled chicken feet. (Tip: Trim the toenails before cooking, Irwin says.)

Nearly all of the cast members, though, can agree on some meals. They love taco night, when a chocolate fountain sometimes is turned into a queso fountain. They love build-your-own burger night, and they love mac and cheese.

Very few of them are interested in braised greens, Irwin reports, nor do they care for squash and zucchini. They gobble up meals made with chicken breasts, but if the chicken is served bone-in, there’s always lots of leftovers.

On every stop, the Cirque chefs make a point to hook up with some local food vendors so they can create a few locally sourced meals, too.

When she arrived earlier this week, Irwin asked Google to direct her to an Asian market. She found Kim Son Asian Market at 960 E. Pawnee, where she loaded up on the ingredients she’ll need to create a build-your-own pho soup night for the cast and crew.

She also Googled “butcher” and found Schane Gross, owner of downtown’s Douglas Avenue Chop Shop, who sold her a whole hog that will be the centerpiece of a “Pig Pickin’ night.

While in Wichita, the cast and crew will also enjoy some orange tilapia, Cuban sandwiches made with roasted brisket, and seared tuna. If they don’t like what’s on the menu, they can visit a mobile salad bar, a sandwich station, a juice bar and a coffee bar. Lunch is served every day from noon to 3 p.m., and dinner is on from 5 to 7:30 p.m.

The chefs work in a little room in the bowels of the arena, where on each stop they unload their pots, pans and ladles, unpack their spice cabinet, roll in their grill and unpack their sous-vide machine. When the show closes on Sunday, they’ll pack it all back up and put it on the trucks for the next stop.

Life for these cooks, like for the performers, is unusual. They’re always on the road. Irwin, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, has been on the road since April. She doesn’t even have a physical home. Everything she owns is in storage. Same for Wright, though his stuff is at his parents’ house, and he’s been on the road since the tour started a year and a half ago.

Though Irwin has worked in several restaurants, she said she likes the always-changing nature of her Cirque job. She’s been to so many cities, she stopped keeping track a while ago and often can’t remember where she is when she wakes up.

She also likes the friendships she’s developed, both in the kitchen and out, with so many different types of people.

“I’ve learned a lot about cultural diversity for sure,” she said. “What’s offensive to you is not offensive to someone else and vice versa. And I’ve learned to be respectful. Never say, ‘Oh gross’ to something someone wants to eat.”

Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Toruk – The First Flight’

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Intrust Bank Arena

Tickets: $46 to $130. Available online at www.selectaseat.com, by phone at 855-755-7328, or in person at the Intrust Bank Arena Box Office, 500 E. Waterman.