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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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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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