From Bayless in 'Cascabel' to Achatz at Next, all the tables a stage

There's a hot new trend that artfully intertwines theater and dining, and its curtain is rising in Chicago

 Rick Bayless (center) and  Chiara Mangiameli dance during a rehearsal of "Cascabel" at the Lookingglass Theatre.

Rick Bayless (center) and Chiara Mangiameli dance during a rehearsal of "Cascabel" at the Lookingglass Theatre. (Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune / March 13, 2012)

Most Chicago actors do not bring their own Bunsen burners to the rehearsal room. But then, Rick Bayless — the creator of the phenomenally popular Chicago restaurants Topolobampo and Frontera Grill and a chef who embraced celebrity long before it became de rigueur for anyone in whites — is no ordinary actor.

Moreover, for the next theatrical production at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre, a circus-influenced show called "Cascabel" that begins preview performances Friday and was specially written to star perhaps the most famous Mexican-cuisine chef in the world, Bayless is not only acting but cooking, center stage. The audience will be paying between $145 and $225 (depending on the night and the seat) to watch the show and eat his food.

"So much of my part in the show is about food preparation," Bayless says during a break from rehearsal last week. "I want the mood changes in the story to be accompanied by aroma changes in the room. People have very strong emotional reactions to aroma. My goal is to envelope the audience with a variety of sensual experiences. But the first time I created aromas in the rehearsal room, nobody else in the show could think. People were dropping lines everywhere."

"Rick kept saying, 'The scene's changing, so I'll throw a piece of meat on the grill,'" says Heidi Stillman, a Lookingglass ensemble member and the director of "Cascabel." "It was wild."

"He cooked up these hot chilies for our sexy-contortionist bathtub scene," says Tony Hernandez, the savvy, circus-trained, Las Vegas-based Lookingglass artist who first cooked up the idea for this show (wherein the Bayless character uses food to capture a woman's heart) and approached the chef with the idea. "In the theater, this is a game changer."

That's inarguably true. Bayless is explicitly trying to match texture with text, flavor with fervor, smell with aesthetic sensation; this is not your ordinary rubber-chicken dinner theater. But "Cascabel" is also merely the latest example of the melding of the art, and business, of dining and theater. Strikingly, it's a red-hot trend very much centered on Chicago, where a highly influential group of celebrity chefs clearly have decided their future is theatrical.

And they're all suddenly putting that idea into practice.

Last week, Grant Achatz, the founder and creative center of Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next, two of the most acclaimed dining establishments in the world, was in a New York cab on his way to see a show, "Sleep No More." For the second time.

Staged in three adjoining warehouses on West 27th Street by the British company Punchdrunk, "Sleep No More" is an interactive experience, popular with urban hipsters, who don Venetian-style carnival masks. It's a semiscripted show based on Shakespeare's "Macbeth" but designed to allow mobile audience members to approach it individually, following actors through a dark fun house and creating their own unique experiences, often one on one. As you delve in, you can get a stiff drink to loosen your inhibitions, which is a crucial part of the appeal.

"Just imagine creating something like that with a food element," Achatz said, speaking from the cab. "I'm so inspired by it. All I can talk about at the moment, with my business partner Nick (Kokonas), is our taking over some old warehouse in Chicago and having scenes with actors handing out food."

If that comes to pass — and given that Achatz is in a position to do pretty much whatever he wants it sure sounds like it will — then it will merely be an extension of a theater-restaurant fusion Achatz is already experimenting with, most notably at Next. At that West Loop culinary temple, diners encounter a room with decor that changes to match the menu. This is not the only restaurant with changing scenery; the high-tech but campy restaurant Switch Steak at the Encore Hotel in Las Vegas cycles through totally different looks and soundscapes within the course of every diner's meal, replete with walls that vanish, chandeliers that are sucked into the ceiling and draperies that morph in front of your eyes.

But Achatz's Next, a far more serious dining experience, has taken this integration much further.

One buys nonrefundable tickets for Next (an idea that Achatz says he took from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company), one does not make a reservation. Not only does the neutral room take on the decor of the cuisine, the food evokes a specific time and place — such as turn-of-the-century Paris, or maybe, as was the case with the recent childhood-themed menu (which came with a faux note from one's mother), a specific, memory-laden moment in a diner's personal life.

At Next, the surroundings are really a stage set that changes when the run of the show is over. Waiters are actors all over town, but at Next they're not doing a day job, they're doing what they are required to do.

Achatz says this is only the beginning. "We're working on a collaboration with a cellist, who'll write a score that will be choreographed to the movement of the cooks as they plate up a guest's food," he said. "We like the idea of having a member of the front-of-house team recite a poem that is indicative of what a guest is about to consume, without actually telling them what they are eating," he says. "With each new menu comes a new theatrical idea."

There have long been theatrical ideas at Homaro Cantu's Moto and its newer sister establishment, iNG, acclaimed West Loop locales for experiments with theater and food. The Chicago-based chef was one of the first to actually serve up food that was pretending to be something else — one might read, say, "hot dog and fries" on the menu and be brought a dish that precisely resembled such an iconic dish (with all its attendant emotional stimuli and decoration) but was in fact made of something else entirely. Just as an actor transforms into a character — the moment of art in dramatic theater, you might say — so the food at Moto has long played roles other than itself.

Cantu, whose interest in the theatrical properties of food goes well beyond earning a place in show business, argues that such transformations might actually be the answer to problems of nutrition. "We need to figure out how to create the unhealthy foods we know and love — you can't change our desire for that — and just make them out of healthier ingredients," he says. "That's the holy grail."

That said, Cantu well knows he is in the competitive business of entertaining his guests. "Restaurants are getting a lot more entertaining," he says. "It's all changed these last two or three years. You know, theater has not undergone the kind of paradigm shift you see in restaurants. I can still see the same 'Romeo and Juliet' I could see 50 years ago. But once more of the systems in a restaurant are automated — which is coming — more chefs will be able to innovate theatrically."

There are, of course, some 4,000 restaurants in Chicago, and these experiments are only taking place in a high-end handful. But top-tier restaurants are looking more and more like long-running shows — plenty don't even last as long as "Wicked" in Chicago before they need reconceptualizing. Lest they grow stale. The buildings in which they operate are looking more and more like theaters constantly in need of a new show. And chefs like Bayless, Cantu and Achatz are the trendsetters.

"People keep calling Alinea a molecular gastronomy restaurant," Achatz says. "But I think that's a misnomer. That has kind of run its course. The next thing is to take dining and make it more theatrical, so it becomes more of an emotional experience."

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