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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.”
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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