Rick Bayless in Cascabel: Star Chef Steps into New Role

AND FOR HIS NEXT ACT…: In March, Rick Bayless steps into a new role, playing the romantic lead in a dramatic production that includes a three-course meal, plus dancing and daring feats by acrobats and contortionists. Which raises the question: Why would one of the nation’s foremost chefs risk his name on such a public tightrope?

Rick Bayless swinging from a hanging pot rack
For behind-the-scenes photos from our photo shoot with Rick Bayless, launch the gallery »
 

Lookingglass Theatre Company’s rehearsal room, located in the historic pumping station on North Michigan Avenue, is cold and cavern­ous. Black velvet drapes line the walls and a two-story ceiling soars overhead. Far below, nine people huddle around a long table: set and costume designers, prop masters, assis­tants, and Heidi Stillman, artistic director of new work for Lookingglass.

Seated in the middle of it all is Rick Bayless. He is wearing not his standard chef’s jacket but whiskered jeans and a body-hugging V-neck sweater, his blue eyes fixed on a spot on the table and his jaw set to the point of steely. Even so, it’s hard to mistake the founder of Chicago’s acclaimed Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco; the host of the 11-year-old PBS show Mexico: One Plate at a Time; the winner of Bravo’s first Top Chef Masters; and the nationwide seller of Frontera-branded salsas, chips, and rubs. Bayless, 58, is one of the most powerful chefs in the United States. He is also the reason everyone is here today.

This month he will attempt something leagues beyond the typical celebrity chef ventures of cookbook writing, product licensing, and food show hosting. He will act. Bayless will star in a limited-run theatrical production at Lookingglass that has been designed by, for, and around him. Titled Rick Bayless in Cascabel, the play is an unlikely mash-up of musical theatre (he dances!), dinner service (he sautés food onstage!), and circus acts (tightrope walkers, clowns!). Oh, yes, and Bayless plays the romantic lead.

It sounds about as improbable as Kanye West designing a high-fashion collection—an endeavor that publicly bombed. One bemused critic has already dubbed the undertaking Chef du Soleil. But Bayless is serious. “I’ve always wanted to be able to do this,” he says. “Food can be transformative. And theatre has the same visceral power. It’s a challenge to try to bring them together, but it’s something I’m passionate to try.” In other words, he is ready to take a risk.

Many hypersuccessful professionals can relate to that feeling: Where do you go once you have arrived? If you’re Charlie Trotter, you announce that you’re closing your namesake restaurant after 25 years to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy and political theory. If you’re Bayless, you put on your dancing shoes. The main difference: Poring over the works of Plato carries little danger of humiliation on a grand scale. In Bayless’s case, the risk level is through the roof. “No one has ever done this kind of thing before,” Bayless admits. And laughs. “Maybe there’s a reason why.”

The logistics are daunting. Cascabel is set in a dusty Mexican boarding house during the 1940s. Bayless plays a chef, simply called the Cook, who tries to seduce his long-lost love—a woman with no appetite—by preparing food for her. Cast in the female lead is Chiara Mangiameli, a willowy 39-year-old flamenco dancer and actress. The 12 supporting players include acrobats, a musical maître d’, and Tony Hernandez, Lookingglass’s circus specialist, as a tightrope-walking sous-chef. Then there’s the three-person cooking staff from Frontera, plus 15 servers, bartenders, and wine captains hired especially for the pro­duction—and don’t forget the juggling clowns.

Why all the kitchen help? The play’s $200-and-up ticket prices include hors d’oeuvres, a three-course meal, and non-alcoholic beverages, with wine available for an additional fee. The meal is identical to the one that Bayless’s character cooks onstage for his would-be sweetheart. Working behind the scenes in a temporary kitchen, the staff will churn out dinner—six nights a week for four weeks—for a 150-person audience seated mostly at communal tables. Theatregoers will consume appetizers of queso fundido with chorizo and forest gelatin with whipped cream, followed by entrées of Hawaiian albacore seviche with chunky avocado and passion fruit and a beef tenderloin with Pueblan mole, black bean tamales, and smoky green beans. (The play runs from March 21 to April 22; for more information, go to lookingglasstheatre.org.)

Much of the action at Lookingglass today involves myriad details: What kind of chandelier is needed if cast members are going to swing on it? How high can the tightrope be without blocking the audience’s view? What should the servers wear? When the questions turn to food or Mexico, Bayless—rather than Stillman, the play’s director—supplies the answers. “Nothing costumelike,” he says in response to the last question. “In this time period, all service staff would be dressed in a uniform. Something tailored, nothing peasanty.”           

Hours tick by as the questions—and Bayless’s opinions—pile up. He wants induction burners built into a piece of the set that looks like a stove. He wants a fan system to waft the aromas from the onstage kitchen into the audience. His office has compiled a list of the equipment he will need. “Wouldn’t it be great to have one character or another banging around in the kitchen at different times?” Stillman asks.

“Don’t touch my pots,” Bayless replies. He doesn’t seem to be kidding.

While Bayless’s views are strong, his voice is quiet and his glance indirect. On TV, he has a sweet, subtle charm that sneaks up on you. But it’s difficult to imagine him holding center stage. Is he really capable of pulling this off?

Then Emilee Peterson, the play’s choreographer, arrives. She begins to lead Bayless, Mangiameli, and Lindsey Noel Whiting, another cast member, in a brief dance lesson. She paces out the steps of a mambo, then a bolero.

And everything changes. Happy to be on his feet and moving, Bayless picks up the steps quickly. He has taken weekly ballroom lessons at an Arthur Murray studio for the past five years (current objective: mastering the Argentine tango), and his diligence shows. His movements are dead-on. His Cuban motion—a rhythmic swinging of the hips created by bending and straightening the knees—is effortless. In a silky, seductive way, he has become the Cook of the play: a man of passion and dreams, capable of winning back his old flame.

Peterson cues up the soundtrack from the movie The Mambo Kings and partners with Bayless to begin pacing a routine. “It’s politically incorrect to say ‘lead’ and ‘follow,’” she explains, slipping into his arms. “Now the man must invite someone to join him.”

“I like that,” says Bayless, stepping off to the beat. Though they met only moments ago, he and Peterson already look like a couple. “It’s all about the invitation,” he says. “Because if you don’t give the right invitation, no one will meet you.”

* * *

 

Photograph: Saverio Truglia; Wardrobe and Props: Brynne Rinderknecht; Photo Assistant: Donte Tatum; Hair and Makeup: Jenna Baltes; Digital Retouching: Tim Blokel; pants, suspenders, and shoes on Bayless: Lost Eras Costumes and Props; Retrospecs Eyeglasses: Eye Want; Borsalino fedora and tie on Bayless: Night & Day Vintage; Special thanks to Lookingglass Theatre Company

 


(Left) Levita and John Bayless at their restaurant; (top right) Bayless and his mother in 1968; (bottom right) Bayless (far right) in a 1969 production
 

To understand why Bayless is so passionate about this play, why it makes his bucket list rather than climbing Mount Everest or filling a garage with luxury cars, you have to know something about his Oklahoma City childhood. For 36 years, his parents, John and Levita, owned a barbecue restaurant called Hickory House. Bayless, his older brother, Skip (who went on to become an ESPN personality), and his younger sister, LuAnn (now a special education teacher), all worked there. But when Bayless wasn’t helping out at the restaurant or attending classes, he was acting. He took part in every school and community play he could; as a freshman, he snagged the lead in his high school’s production of Leonard Wibberley’s The Mouse That Roared. “Acting was my whole world,” he says. “Being in front of an audience and making that connection with them—it’s thrilling.”

He always felt driven to do something more, something bigger, something special. When he became interested in photography, he commandeered LuAnn’s bathroom as his darkroom. And when he took a Spanish class, he decided that his family should deviate from its usual rule of vacationing somewhere within a day’s drive in favor of a trip to Mexico. None of the Baylesses had been out of the country before. None had even been on an airplane. But Rick, then 14, got his way. “Let’s say I was a very difficult child with grandiose dreams,” he explains.

“He wasn’t difficult, but he could be very passionate, very persuasive,” amends LuAnn. “He was one of those kids who would just wear a parent down.”

He intended to keep acting at the University of Oklahoma, but during his freshman year his father died and his mother fell ill. To keep the family afloat, Bayless took over Hickory House—and quickly realized that something would have to give. “I just didn’t have the time to do everything, and acting—with all the auditions and rehearsals—seemed the logical thing to go,” he says.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Latin American culture, Bayless started graduate work in linguistics and anthropology at the University of Michigan. He dropped out before completing his doctorate. “I realized I was learning as much about cultures through their cooking as I was learning through their words,” he says.

He and his grad-school girlfriend, Deann Groen, a Wheaton native, then launched a catering business in Ann Arbor. From 1978 to 1979, they also filmed a low-budget PBS show called Cooking Mexican, with Deann producing and Bayless at the stove.

A year later, Bayless was dividing his time between Cleveland, where he had been named executive chef of a high-profile Mexican restaurant, and Los Angeles, where he was developing menus for a Mexican American chain. In addition, he and Deann, now married, were working their way across Mexico, setting up house in various regions and exploring the cuisine. “It was an exciting and difficult time,” Deann recalls.

From the beginning, Bayless took a serious approach to Mexican cooking—a radical idea for the 1980s. In 1987, when Rick and Deann’s Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico was published, it was the first American cookbook to treat Mexican food as seriously as French or Italian cuisine. In a pioneering marketing move, the book debuted just one month before Bayless’s new restaurant, Frontera Grill, opened in River North. The accolades came thick and fast: The James Beard Foundation named Frontera its restaurant of the year; Food & Wine put Bayless on its list of best new chefs.

And Bayless the superstar chef was off and running. But he kept feeding his love for the stage. “Everyone in our family is passionate about it,” says Deann, who has a master’s in theatre and continues to produce her husband’s PBS series. She often attends opening nights of plays in Chicago, but Bayless can go only on Sundays—his day off from his restaurants—sometimes taking in two different shows in one day. Their expansive home, a former tavern on a double lot in Bucktown, is frequently the site of fund-raising dinners for Steppenwolf and the circus-theatre company 500 Clown, on whose board Bayless has sat since 2008. The couple’s 20-year-old daughter, Lanie, interned at Lookingglass last summer and majors in playwriting and theatrical production at New York University. “I am super-excited for my dad to be doing this,” she e-mailed from New York. “It is totally cool.”

The idea for Rick Bayless in Cascabel began to take shape about two years ago. Bayless had just seen Lookingglass’s production of Hephaestus, billed as “a Greek mythology circus tale,” and had been wowed enough to send a tweet saying no one should miss it. Tony Hernandez, who created and directed the show with Stillman, ran across the message. “I thought, This isn’t the chef Rick Bayless, is it?” Hernandez tweeted back and discovered that, yes, it was. A lengthy correspondence and conversations ensued.

Before long, a theatrical collaboration was in the works. From early on, Bayless talked of giving food a prime role, “so much a character that you have to give it its solo,” he says. “And the only way you can do that is let the audience eat the food. If you just see actors eating but you don’t get a chance to taste it yourself, the food becomes an imaginary thing. It’s like having a character offstage that you never really see.”

The concept was intimidating: a complex dramatic production with the textures and flavors of a three-course meal built into the plot. “The challenge is figuring out how to integrate the circus and food and story in a way that’s compelling and cohesive,” says Stillman, the play’s primary writer. “It’s an unbelievably complicated undertaking, trying to bring magical realism to the stage. It’s an adventure into uncharted territory for all of us.”

Equally intimidating: casting as the lead a man who has never acted onstage professionally and hasn’t held a role in decades. But Stillman is confident in Bayless’s abilities. “He’s very good on his TV show,” she says. “He is used to being watched. He may not be used to playing a character, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his public persona is somewhat [a character]. I think the story is going to put him in a realm where he can blossom.”

Everyone involved will need to be a quick study: The play will have only two weeks of rehearsals, followed by two weeks of tech rehearsals and previews. That’s one week less than for Hephaestus, which included circus acts but no food.

With the cast, kitchen staff, and servers, plus the riggers and additional insurance, it became clear that the play would require underwriting from sponsors. Cascabel’s estimated production costs hover around $300,000, high for a four-week run. The team was able to land financial support from Walgreens for an undisclosed amount. But despite that funding, the lofty ticket prices, and the pull of Bayless’s celebrity, Lookingglass and Bayless expect the play barely to break even.

 

Photography: Courtesy of Rick Bayless

 

Rick Bayless and the play's creators
Rick Bayless in Cascabel creators Tony Hernandez (left), Bayless, and Heidi Stillman
 

It’s just after five on a Friday, and an evening crowd is moving down Clark Street, mostly headed to one destination: the single doorway that leads into Bayless’s two signature restaurants. It can take up to four months to get weekend reservations at Frontera Grill or Topolobampo, but early comers swarm the desk of the maître d’, hoping to grab an empty table. Bayless used to spend more time on the floor chatting up customers, but he cut back after his staff told him his presence slows down service. Still, he is in the restaurants’ kitchens six nights a week, usually until ten o’clock.

Upstairs, the Frontera headquarters is a maze of cubbyholes and offices. An onsite kitchen mirrors Bayless’s home kitchen perfectly, with the same black refrigerator, FiveStar oven, knotty pine cabinets, soapstone counters, and cutting-board island. That way, if he needs to pose for a photo or to film a pickup for his TV series, he doesn’t have to trek across town.

Wearing a spotless white chef’s jacket, Bayless slips into an office barely large enough for a conference table and starts talking. Maybe because he’s on his own turf or maybe because the dinner hour is approaching and his restaurants are filled to overflowing—whatever the reason, he is animated tonight, giving direct eye contact, making jokes. And when he discusses the play, his enthusiasm fills the room.

Cascabel is about a chef who, years ago, fell in love with this woman,” he says. “It didn’t work out. She became a flamenco dancer. He makes this food, hoping it will awaken her and awaken him, too. It’s a story of food as a catalyst, something that can open doors for us.”

Bayless realizes that this play is a risky move. “I’m a perfectionist. I hold myself to high standards. I’m nervous—of course I’m nervous—but being in charge of the state dinner at the White House [as he was in 2010] was scarier. At least, that’s what I feel right now,” he says with a lopsided grin.

Cascabel could cause Bayless to lose prestige, lose money, or make an outright fool of himself. He knows this. He also knows that the connection between food and theatre, between Bayless cooking and Bayless acting, might seem to some like a stretch. But not to him. “I like the ephemeral,” he says. “Theatre is ephemeral. And cooking, by its very nature, is an ephemeral art. The only way you can completely appreciate cooking is to consume it.”

And the only way to perform is to do it. Bayless has taken acting classes as an adult, although not recently. Learning his lines for TV is a snap, he says, but working in an ensemble is a new and potentially rattling experience. To stay calm, he takes yoga classes three times a week. He weight-trains. He meditates. And he concentrates on the tasks—all of the tasks—in front of him. “No matter what I’m doing, I want to do good work.”

On the question of whether Cascabel is a one-off or the beginning of a whole new stage in his career, Bayless remains mum. He does say he isn’t leaving cooking behind. He sees this play as an expansion of his existing role—a chance to enrich and blend his passion for food with his dream of a life in the theatre. “Right now he is so focused on this, it is hard to think of him doing another [theatre] project,” his assistant, Jen Fite, writes in an e-mail.

Bayless is more comfortable talking about his other plans for 2012. Those include adding a hen house, chickens, and beehives to his backyard garden. “I hear it will take years before I’ll be able to get honey,” he says a tad wistfully. But that’s OK. He is willing to wait.

It’s now 7:30 p.m., which means Bayless will remain in the restaurants’ kitchens for hours yet. Then he will head home. It was there, at his custom dining table that can seat 25, where he cooked dinner for Lookingglass’s board in an effort to convince them to greenlight Cascabel. As the board members ate, he told stories about the tastes and the characters he imagined; he talked about how food can both stir up the past and awaken us to new possibilities in life. He wasn’t talking just about the Cook character, either.

“It’s the kind of thing that food does so regularly in our lives, yet we don’t think much about it,” Bayless says. “It can tie us to a culture or a person; it can remind us of a place. Those are all memory centered. But food can also center us in the present and even open us up to the future. It can make us live in the moment and dream of what is next.”

 

Photography: Saverio Truglia; Wardrobe and Props: Brynne Rinderknecht; Photo Assistant: Donte Tatum; Hair and Makeup: Jenna Baltes; Digital Retouching: Tim Blokel; pants, suspenders, and shoes on Bayless: Lost Eras Costumes and Props; Retrospecs eyeglasses: Eye Want; Borsalino fedora and tie on Bayless: Night & Day Vintage; Special thanks to Lookingglass Theatre company

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