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?

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(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

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