Pie car manager Matt Loory crisscrosses the country by train, serving meals to the performers and crew with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.
Pie car manager Matt Loory crisscrosses the country by train, serving meals to the performers and crew with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. "We are one big family out here," he says. (Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey photo)

A circus train is a microcosm of the world, and the pie car manager is at the center of the action.

Matt Loory, 23, is the youngest pie car manager, aka top chef, in the history of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which is running its "Legends" show at the Giant Center through Monday.

While working at a breakfast chain restaurant and getting his degree from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando in 2012, he ran smack into the opportunity of a lifetime.

"I got to see the circus train; I got to see the pie car," he says of the interview process. The choice? "Stay in Orlando and go into management or fulfill every little boy's dream and join the circus."

With his family's blessing, he stepped into the center ring and hasn't looked back.

"I had grown up every year going to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus," the Georgia native says. Working with the circus, he adds, will be "a great story to tell my grandkids."

The kitchen: The pie car where Loory and his staff produce most of the 1,000 to 1,500 meals they serve each week is a 110-foot train car with 45 feet of that dedicated cooking and prep space.

"It's the social hub of the train," he says. "No matter where you are on the train, if you want to go somewhere, you have to pass through."

The main kitchen is filled with heavy-duty, marine-grade equipment to handle the load and fit the space. The floor is slatted to allow for easy cleanup, and where a stationary restaurant would boast enormous walk-in fridges and freezers, the pie car relies on reach-in models.

"Putting away a truck with 1,500 pounds of food can be challenging," Loory says, laughing. "We've become 'Tetris' masters."

On some days, the circus offers two or even three shows, and performers might be ducking in for a bite with 10 minutes to spare. The pie car crew runs at top speed to get everyone fed.

"We have to have something that's nourishing and that they can eat quickly," Loory says. "It's absolutely pandemonium between that first and second show."

The meals: As for what the chef and his team put on the table, well, that could be just about anything. The circus family represents more than a dozen nations, and the pie car manager aims to make everyone feel at home.

"People really do enjoy comfort foods," he says, explaining that fried rice, fried chicken and meatloaf are popular choices—but the meatloaf is sometimes an Asian-inspired creation seasoned with ginger and sesame seed and served with wasabi mashed potatoes.

Everything they make, of course, has to be scaled up to serve 150 to 250 people each day, spread across three meals and two pie cars.

"My sous chef and I have designed our own style that we call refined multicultural industrial cooking," Loory says. "What we're doing now, you don't learn in school."

The on-the-job training extends to the various cuisines as well.

"We can't do Italian each week or Cuban each week, so we try to bounce around," he says.

Theme nights: In the last year, they've instituted a circus-wide approach with pre-shows that focus on one country of origin at a time.

"We're trying to invite everyone in and saying we're inviting some dish from your home," he says of getting meal suggestions from the performers. Then the children in the circus school "do a whole research project on whatever country" the pie car team uses as its theme for the meal.

In his off hours, Loory likes to hunt for a great meal in the cities he travels through — or, while traveling, "sit out on the train vestibule and watch the world go by." And yes, he has tried learning a few circus tricks from the various troupers.

"I just started working with one of the clowns. ... He had me trying to climb the ropes; I did not realize how elastic they are," he says, laughing at himself. "I fell flat on the crash pad."

So what's a pie car, anyway?

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus pie car manager Matt Loory offers three explanations for how the train's dining car got its name.

"The first one is just train-related. It's that in the old dining cars on trains, really the only things you could get were coffee and pie."

"Two is that back in the tent days, a lot of the meals they would serve to the roustabouts after loading would be meat pies."

"Three is that 'pie' car is an acronym standing for 'privileged individuals and employees.' ... If you had a little bit of money, you could essentially buy the right to eat in the pie car. That would be better food than the meat pies."

Going to the circus

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey "Legends" show is at the Giant Center in Hershey through Memorial Day Monday.

Shows start nightly at 7:30 Wednesday through Saturday. Additional shows start at 10:30 a.m. Thursday; 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday; and 1 p.m. Monday.

Ticket prices range from $27.85 to $87.85.

For all the details, visit www.giantcenter.com or www.ringling.com or call the box office at (717) 534-3911.

— Reach Mel Barber at mbarber@yorkdispatch.com.