When he was a teenager growing up in Baton Rouge, La., African American chef Michael Vaughan found helping out in his grandmotherâ€™s kitchen to be boring. â€œBut, it was part of my chores,â€ the 39-year-old executive chef said.
Little did he realize that the skills he would gain would prove invaluable and open the door to one of the most exciting jobs he could possibly imagine: overseeing the daily meals for more than 300 crew members and performers on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus U.S. Tour.
Last modified on Wednesday, 18 March 2009 17:49
â€œMy grandmother had been a chef for the Sands Hotel and also had been a personal chef to actor Anthony Quinn,â€ Vaughan said. â€œI learned how to cook from her. In Louisiana, everybody knows how to cook, and she started a business by first making these little pies. She sold them at car dealerships and at construction sites and people then started asking her to make lunches. She quickly added on to the kitchen in her house, and she later opened up a restaurant.â€
His grandmother paid him a salary for his help and planted the seed that turned his cooking into a profession. When the circus came to Baton Rouge in 1993, a temp agency called Vaughan to ask if he could cook for the members for a few days.
â€œThey asked me to travel with them to Texas, and I agreed reluctantly. I didnâ€™t know that the benefits included vacation, a 401K and health benefits,â€ Vaughan said.
Vaughan has been with Ringling ever since, except for a period from 1999-2001. Vaughn oversees a staff of six other chefs.
â€œWe have to be prepared to feed up to 300 people, although sometimes the performers may cook in their personal quarters, or they may go to local restaurants when we visit a city. Still, we have to be prepared to feed everyone that includes more than 14 nationalities,â€ he said.
For Vaughan, traveling with the show allows him the chance to check out the foods, restaurants and cultures in the cities he visits.
â€œIn D.C., I love visiting the different museums, and I love the architecture of the old buildings. Also, I really like the upscale soul food restaurant, Georgia Brownâ€™s,â€ Vaughan said.
Vaughan is married to a performer, Danette, who was the first featured vocalist for Ringling Brothers, and the couple has a two year old daughter, Bree.
While he was raised cooking Cajun and southern style dishes, he notes, â€œWe cook everything here, and can satisfy any diet. The crew likes mainly meat and potatoes, but the performers are more health conscious and eat a lot of salads and vegetables.â€
Vaughanâ€™s staff receives a food shipment each week, and whenever possible, they try to buy organic and purchase from local farmerâ€™s markets.
â€œWe also do more than just daily meals. We coordinate birthday parties, black-tie events, galas, and other events,â€ he said.
Vaughan said he is enjoying his â€œamazing lifeâ€ and his position, which comes with a company car and comfortable living quarters. However, according to chef and cookbook author Jacques Pepin, African American chefs still have yet to receive the celebrity status and wealth that many Caucasian chefs enjoy.
However, the non-profit BAC (formerly known as the Black Culinarian Alliance), hopes to change that. Formed in 1998, the groupâ€™s mission is to create educational and professional opportunities for culinary and hospitality professionals of color.
For information about Ringling, Barnum and Bailey Circus, which will visit the Verizon Center March 19-22, visit www.ringling.com.