February 22, 2020

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey executive chef, Matt Loory

Chef Matt Loory received the expected gift from one of his customers on his birthday last Aug. 8: a pie, smack in the face.

Loory is the executive chef of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which has rolled into town on the mile-long train the cast and crew lovingly call the “silver snail.” He presides over the train’s 110-foot-long kitchen, known as the “pie car,” as well as the show’s mobile food unit. “But if it’s your birthday, the clowns will hunt you down and they will pie you straight in the face,” said the jovial Loory, who at 23 is one of the youngest pie-car managers in the circus’ 95-year history.  

So on his birthday last August, he said, “My head was on a swivel all day.” But, then Oscar the clown popped him with a whipped-cream pie. “I gave him a big hug, we took a couple of pictures, ate a bunch of the whipped cream and washed off the rest,” he said with a laugh.

For Loory — who will also appear as a contestant on the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen on July 20 — a pie in the face is just one of the perks of having run away to join the circus after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando, Fla., in 2012. While he’s cooking for some 300 members of the circus — now in the Los Angeles area with Ringling Bros.’ “Legends” show — he can watch the scenery of the country whiz by. Sometimes the circus’ mobile food truck is parked next to roaring lions and tigers, braying donkeys and even kangaroos, who, Loory said, make no noise at all but tend to strike hilarious poses as they lounge in their cages.

Loory’s customers include trapeze artists, the Chinese National Acrobatic Troupe, a big-cat trainer, the Thundering Cossack Warriors and even the ringmaster, Johnathan Lee Iverson, who presides over the show wearing a coat adorned with dazzling crystals.

But, eating in costume is not allowed. “If you’ve got a giant marinara stain on your yellow leotard, it’s definitely going to stand out when the spotlights hit you,” Loory said.

His pie car churns out up to 1,500 meals a week, even though the space is as narrow as 2 feet wide in some areas. For just $6 — free on days when the circus performs three shows — his clientele can procure a full meal and a drink. During an interview at Staples Center, where the circus was performing recently, Loory said that day’s menu proffered such fare as tilapia fritters and barbecue chicken.

The chef’s signature dishes include Asian Meatloaf, infused with sesame oil and ground ginger and topped with a Thai sweet chili sauce; and Chicken Caprese Roulade, a chicken breast stuffed with a puree of sundried tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil and basil, drizzled with a balsamic vinegar glaze.

One of the challenges of cooking for Ringling Bros., Loory said, is satisfying the performers who hail from 18 different countries. He’s whipped up beef stroganoff for the Cossack warriors, chicken fried rice for the Chinese acrobats and a picadillo of spicy ground beef, potatoes and veggies for the Brazilian performers. 

But his most popular item is simple: “It’s just a good, old-fashioned American cheeseburger,” he said.

Loory, who hails from Orlando, never set out to be a chef, or to join the circus, even though he and his family attended Ringling Bros. performances every year from the time he was 3 until he was 22. But he did grow up enthusiastically cooking Jewish food, standing on a chair to roll matzah balls, for example, when he was just a toddler. Throughout his childhood, he also helped his mother prepare brisket, noodle kugel, mandelbrot and more. Loory attended religious school, became a bar mitzvah, taught Hebrew school at two synagogues and spent a high-school semester abroad in Israel. 

Initially, Loory aspired to go into television (his grandfather was a vice president of CNN), but after working a variety of food-related jobs, he applied and was accepted to Le Cordon Bleu.  

After graduation, he received an email advertising a cooking job with the circus, and Loory was intrigued. “I thought it would be a great way to travel — and to have some great stories to tell my grandchildren one day,” he said. During his subsequent job interview, he was hired on the spot, and within six weeks he was promoted to pie-car manager.

Because the kitchen is open 24/7 when the train is moving, Loory soon found himself working days that could begin as early as 5:30 a.m., for breakfast prep, and last until 1:30 a.m., after the final show of the night. He also learned a thing or two about cooking in a kitchen that rattles and lurches to and fro: “They had warned me not to boil water,” he said, “but I decided to cook Hungarian goulash because I was the new guy and wanted to show off. But, I wound up wearing more than half of it!”

He also learned various theories of how the pie car got its name: Lore has it that the circus used to provide only inexpensive, but filling, meat pies for its cast and crew; another theory is that “pie” is an acronym for “privileged individuals and employees” — people who could afford to eat in the more upscale train car rather than the humble chow tent.

Loory — whose onboard quarters consist of one-sixth of a train car — manages to practice some of his Judaism on the road. Last Passover, he led a seder for the circus’ seven Jews, and on Yom Kippur, he attended services at a synagogue in Kansas City, Mo.

His dream, he said, is to open a kosher-style restaurant that is a deli by day and serves up Jewish holiday-related fare at night. But for now, he’s in no hurry to leave the circus. “Here, every day is a simcha,” he said.