Circus Chef Mentors

Executive Chef Erik Carlson sat us down to answer a few questions about his new protege he has been mentoring:  Samantha Hoehne, Senior at Monroe High School and a culinary student at Sno-Isle Tech. Here’s the scoop (or spatula):

1) What do you enjoy most about being an executive chef?

I love the food service industry. I love the duality, that it can be a mainstream art form AND our jobs to feed others. I love the intimacy of feeding people (which is such a personal thing). That being said, my all-time favorite reason  for being a chef is creating new and exciting menu items with such great local resources. We (chefs) are the new rock stars!!

2) What are some key steps to make a menu?

The first step is to know your guests. Second, here at ZinZanni, I do a lot of research. I investigate the era or the main characteristics of the upcoming show and develop the menu to run parallel. Next I  brainstorm, writing what sounds great with no rules. Then I develop the recipes for my menu. This leads up to the big one: tastings and re-writes. Finally, complete the recipes, price them out, and train the staff.

3) What were the steps you had to take to become an executive chef?

In the beginning it was just lots of hard work. After that I chose to go to culinary school. Right out of school I found a chef I really wanted to apprentice with and bugged him until he took me. After five years of working under him and learning tons, I went out and started working with other chefs and developed my style through observation.

4) What do you feel is the most important part of your job?

Each job is so different for each chef. Here at ZinZanni I believe the most important role I play is to design and deliver a menu worthy of a world-class theatre/circus show. On a personal note, I aim to create a unique kitchen experience that is very positive and fosters a high level of creativity and energy for all my team members.

5) What kind of education did you go through?

A lot of my training was from my grandmother actually. She taught me what it meant to really love feeding people. After that I worked through all the positions I could then went to culinary school. Upon graduation I apprenticed under Chef Brian Poor for five years. However, I firmly believe that in our industry a chef’s real education comes from trial and error.

6) What is some advice you would give to younger people who want to become an executive chef?

Understand the service industry first. We work when others play. Being a chef requires a lot of sacrifice and a mountain of hard work. Don’t be afraid of hard work. Pay attention to everyone cooking around as almost every one of them will have some knowledge you do not. Embrace your failures and learn from them. Develop a ‘taste library’. This is the area in a chef’s brain where through time spent they can ‘taste’ a menu by just reading it

7) What do you feel are some of your greatest accomplishments in the culinary world?

Well, I am very proud of what we put out nightly. I think we truly have forged new ground in ‘dinner theatre’. I am extremely proud of my FareStart Dinner, it was a culinary dream of mine to do an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ dinner, and it was amazing! I have had several recipes published that I am proud of too.

8) How does Teatro ZinZanni differ from other restaurants you have worked in?

Well, it is actually closer to a banquet kitchen than a restaurant. Our shows and menus are themed  and have unique design challenges:  a 12-foot slide we send our desserts down or we have to make sure is or plates are ‘danceable’ (each course has a choreographed dance routine with full plates in the server’s hands). We have a 4-month menu rotation that requires a complete re-write with supportive recipe pieces each time.

9) What is the most difficult part of your job?

I am lucky in that I really love what I do. So, I guess the difficult parts are the same as always, lots of personal time sacrificed. I work some very long weeks when the shows ‘changeover’.

10) How do you feel becoming a mentor?

At first, I was very nervous, as this was my real teaching chance. I have always been nervous about being a mentor.  I’ve always felt like the guy who’s cooking. What do I have to impart on others? Upon reflection I realize the 25+ years of experiences have given me some insights, things that are second nature to me, things I thought everyone knew. After meeting Sam,  I felt more at ease. Her disposition seemed great for my first shot at mentoring and I get to help her design menu items, my real joy. Now, I can’t wait to get started because  this will be fun and beneficial to us both.


A Feast Fit for Cleo

The Hail Caesar! Forbidden Oasis menu is  FINALLY here!


Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Caramelized sweet onions, spinach, feta cheese and roasted peppers wrapped in a flaky dough pyramid with a 3 olive tapenade and served with a rich basil cream


Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Egyptian yellow lentil soup with caraway cream and pita strips


Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Arugula and fresh green leaf lettuce with English cucumber, Roma tomato, shaved sweet onion, Kalamata olives, brioche croutons and lemon-tarragon vinaigrette


Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Kurobuta Pork Chop with our own ‘Love Spice’ topped with baked apple-mint sauce and served with roasted garlic –Parmesan mash and local seasonal mini vegetables

Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Halibut with basil and fresh fig chutney, fin herbe couscous and local seasonal mini vegetables

Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Roasted tomato and fennel quinoa stuffed pepper with a fresh cucumber raita, basil-fig tartlet and citrus dressed kale & pepper salad


Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Photo Credit: Matthew Worden

Peach, ricotta and pecan Baklava

Who’s hungry?

Chef’s Corner

The lights dim, the music begins its thud-thud, the tantalizing fragrance of sweet summer berries wafts through the air… your senses have been welcomed. You have entered another world, a world I call home: Teatro ZinZanni. I am Erik D. Carlson, Executive Chef, and the creator of the food for your otherworldly experience.

Photo credit: Amaryllis Images

Chef Erik Carlson. Photo credit: Amaryllis Images

The decision to run away and join the circus came easy for me, and in 2011. I jumped in with both feet and never looked back. And let me tell you it has been one wild ride! I am excited for a chance to share with you the view from the kitchen. The best place to begin is with a little bit about myself, and my inspiration to make it all flow together under the hoods of the kitchen and to bright lights of the tent.

When asked what genre I fall into within the large world of chefs, I’d say perhaps somewhere between the crazy kid in a candy store and a seasoned cook who lives and breathes in extreme kitchen conditions. I began at culinary school, where I learned French basics at South Seattle Community College. After graduation I spent time apprenticing for some ground breaking local chefs such as Brian Poor and Emily Moore, then working my way around the Seattle area.

My tutelage is not a fancy pedigree of fine dining houses and prix fixe menus; please don’t hold it against me. Instead I spent the last 30-years working in environments that taught me about restaurants and food culture, instilling a constant wonder at all the fantastic foods available around the world, especially here in the Pacific Northwest. Admittedly this makes me a food geek but by no means a foodie elitist. The dishes I create come from a comfortable, unpretentious place that our guests will love and relate to with gusto.

Here at Teatro ZinZanni, it is my privilege to create a new menu every four months for each new show. I start with a general synopsis of the upcoming show. Inspired by a theme and a time period or locale, the real fun begins with homework, homework, and more homework. It is a very exciting place for a chef to be! That kid in the candy store reference. Using the unbridled freedom to take guests on a gastronomical journey, as a character would in our show, I tinker with ideas silly and strange. The culmination is a menu designed with fun in mind, offering up a unique way to approach dining that is slightly divergent of the norm.

Photo credit: Matthew Worden

Photo credit: Matthew Worden

There are, however, some interesting challenges here at Teatro ZinZanni that needs to be taken into account. How does one make sure the dessert doesn’t fly off the plate as it shoots down a 12-foot slide? How will the food rest on a plate when our excellent service staff “tango” it to your table? In the end these challenges only make it more fun, more Teatro ZinZanni. I cannot imagine doing anything else anywhere else.

That’s my spiel my friends. Moving forward, I will use this forum, as a bit of a window in to the world that is our Teatro ZinZanni kitchen. With some humor, some insights and a few recipes too, join me in our culinary travel down this rabbit hole of love, dinner and chaos.


Chef Erik D Carlson

25 Things You Didn’t Know About Jen Ayers

1. Outside of work I aspire to travel the world, live on a beach and sing songs with my family and friends around a fire pit.

2. If I could be any animal, I would be a house cat.  I’d be independent but still get me some love.

3. The last movie I watched at home alone: Vito – an HBO documentary about gay rights activist Vito Russo.  In the theater with my son: Madagascar 3.

4. The last book I read was I Survived The Killing Fields by Seng Kok Ung, also known as Sam Ung, owner/chef of one of my favorite International District restaurants – Phonm Penh Noodle House.

5.  Bali, Indonesia is one of my favorite places!

6. If I could have dinner with three people (alive or dead) I’d dine with John Lennon, The Dalai Lama and Rachel Maddow.

7. My first job was a counter girl at my neighborhood Dairy Queen. I ate a large Heath Bar Blizzard every day on my walk home.

8. Random, senseless violence scares me.

9. Favorite food: Raw fish with lots of wasabi, spicy curry, Snappy Dragon’s Mandarin chicken wings, guacamole and my grandmother’s lasagna.

10. I can’t resist buying soft socks, gardenia scented lotion and rose candy.

11. I’ve always wanted to try mountain climbing, bungee jumping and experiencing an African Safari.

12. Something crazy I’ve done? Skydiving and quitting a “good job with benefits” to go out on the road with my band.

13.  I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin right across the street from my best friend.

14. How would I describe my family? Passionate, loud, outspoken and lovely.

15. My favorite novel is Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

16. A good day for me is fresh berries, beignets and a latte for breakfast. Then a hike, walk or bike with my family – some time lounging in the sun and playing in a water feature. A sushi dinner al fresco with live music followed by a walk along the beach at sunset.

17. If I could have any super power, it would be to have super hearing abilities or invisibility powers – whichever would best enable me to be a fly on the wall.

18. I have a secret obsession for 80’s butt rock and the Bee Gees!

19. In Seattle, my favorite spot is any place that gives me a view of mountains and water in the same glance, minus power lines. Seward Park works.

20.  Hmmm, the top two countries I would love to visit, Peru and India.

21. My favorite song?  Just one?!  Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and The Cars’ “Moving In Stereo” into “All Mixed Up”– I consider these two Cars classics ONE tune. There is no separating them even though many radio DJ’s sometimes do. Shame on them! Question #21½? What’s your biggest pet peeve? When someone (or my iPod), plays “Moving In Stereo” and neglects to follow it up with “All Mixed Up”.

22. I’m most proud of being a mother and having learned how to belt out a killer rock scream without damaging my vocal chords.

23. I’ll have a Cazadores Reposado margarita with agave and fresh lime juice on the rocks with salt. Unless it’s “wine-thirty,” in which case I’ll take a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand.

24. The heel of a loaf of crusty white from the Columbia City Bakery, to me, is the coolest thing since sliced bread.

25. How did I decide on my profession? It was probably the day I sang along to the AM radio in the backseat of my Dad’s red mustang with the windows down, the sun shining and my head hanging out the window in the breeze.

See Jen in Return to Paradise until January 27th!

And the Winner Is…

Do you know this man?

This dashing gent in a chef coat is Erik Carlson, the culinary wizard here at the tent. This is also his game face.  He has been masterfully crafting our menus, ensuring that our fantastic feasts are a feat of the imagination for over a year.

Last weekend at The Bite of Seattle, Chef Erik participated in a battle of whisks, a.k. the Bite Cook Off!   He went head-to-head (spatula-to-spatula?) against Stumbling Goat Bistro’s chef Joshua Theilen.

This was the first ever Bite Cook Off!, an event which tests a chef’s quick wit and culinary prowess.  This year also featured guest host Thierry Rautureau from Chef In The Hat (we are in love with him).  Contestants are competing for a $200 donation to the charity of their choice and the coveted title of “Bite Cooks Master!”.  During this challenge the chefs are given a box filled with three mystery ingredients to merge into a delicious dish.  Simple right?

Wrong.  Chefs have just 30 minutes to prepare this epic feast.  30 minutes!!!   From learning the ingredients to hands-up you’re finished meal just 30 minutes!  This is just like the series Chopped!  So stressful.

The competition was fierce, friendly, and a heapin’ helpin’ of fun.  The judges, selected from the audience, had a big decision on their plates.  After some intense deliberation, the judges crowned Chef Erik “Bite Cooks Master!” for his delectable dish.  Huzzah!

If you happen to visit Stumbling Goat Bistro (which is simply scrumptious with delightful cocktails to boot) or see Chef Erik under the big top (where the cuisine is always fabulous, thanks to Chef Erik and his stellar team), congratulate them both on a job well done!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mouth-Watering Goodness!

Celebrated Northwest chef Tom Douglas designs our dinner menu for Teatro ZinZanni, and the new menu for Radio Free Starlight is so decadent we just had to share!


Smoked Salt Spring Island Mussels, Brie, marinated artichoke hearts, shaved red onion, and cucumber spears. Drizzled with light Balsamic vinegar.


Carmelized Sweet Onion Soup, seasoned with thyme, sage and Italian parsley in a beef-based stock. Festooned with Beecher’s Pike Street Gruyere toasted crouton.


Crisp arugula and red butter lettuce, lightly dressed in classic red-wine vinaigrette, sprinkled with Laura Chenel chèvre and toasted green pistachios and topped with roasted red baby beets.

Main Course

Northwest prime cut beef from the Double R Ranch in Okanagan, slowly roasted to medium rare perfection and dressed with a savory merlot demi sauce, served over olive-oil and herb oven-roasted celeriac and seasonal vegetables.


Broiled Steelhead topped with sautéed capers, cherry tomatoes and lemons, set atop a chive-potato croquette and finished with nutty brown butter sauce. Served with seasonal vegetables.


Medley of Mushrooms, Cauliflower, Chard, and Beecher’s Flagship Cheese in a savory Custard, with a side of Garlic-fried Chick Peas and crisp Green Beans, garnished with Tomato Confit.


High Frequency Molten Chocolate Cake with a dollop of crème Anglaise.


Tasting Time

With the opening of Hearts on Fire just a week away, Teatro ZinZanni’s waitstaff and crew were treated to a training and tasting of the new fall menu and Wine Flight this afternoon. Up first was the appetizer, a classic Tiropeta stuffed with Ricotta and Chevre, Marinated Olives with Roasted Fennel, Greek Oregano and Marcona Almonds matched with Jailance Renaissance Brut (France, NV). Back by popular demand is the Creamy Butternut Squash Soup, this time paired with Covington Cellars Viognier (Washington 2009).

To read more about the upcoming menu designed by celebrated Seattle chef Tom Douglas, visit the incoming menu page on our website.