Editor’s note: There was much conversation in July after celebrity chef Rick Bayless announced he wrote a play about restaurants and social media influencers to be produced by Windy City Playhouse. Bayless has theater experience and is a trained dancer. Eater Chicago asked contributor Samantha Nelson, an experienced theater, TV, and film critic, to share her take on the interactive production. Presenting: Eater Chicago’s first-ever theater review.
The Contumacious Pig, one of the city’s most exciting new restaurants, has earned praise for its pork dishes, but tonight is Influencer Night, a chance for chef Maria Pompa to impress the right people and really get her business going. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, it turns out, but fortunately, The Contumacious Pig (contumacious means stubbornly disobedient, so the name means “the pigheaded pig”) is not a real restaurant. Instead, it’s an elaborate stage set for A Recipe For Disaster, an immersive new show presented by Windy City Playhouse in the basement of newly reopened Petterino’s. Rick Bayless, best known for his work at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, collaborated with Amy Rubenstein and Carl Menninger, artistic director and associate artistic director of Windy City, on the script and the food and drink tastings throughout the show. A circus-inspired farce, A Recipe For Disaster takes the chaos of the restaurant industry to a hilarious new level.
Theatergoers, each given a name tag with a fake Instagram handle and seating assignment upon arrival, are encouraged to wander through the space — it’s necessary, in fact, to follow the actors around as they play scenes in various corners and engage directly with audience members. The action begins in the Contumacious Pig’s bar and lobby and continues into the dining room, which has a view of the kitchen and a bathroom area useful for covert conversations. Both sets are truly impressive and detailed, down to the fake reviews on the wall from the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and Eater Chicago reporter Naomi Waxman.
The plot concerns harried general manager Shelley (Emma Jo Boyden) trying to keep up a perfect mask of politeness and confidence as it becomes clear that things are going off the rails. The chef is a no-show and Shelley’s got to persuade the sous chef, Jude (Ben Page), who’s also her boyfriend, that now is his moment to shine. Hippie line cook Iggy (Alex Morales) also tries to help Jude through the stress with a mix of pharmaceuticals and encouragement to “listen to the soup,” though the new kitchen intern, Boris (Ian Maryfield), may possibly be up to no good. Unfortunately, the whole pig they ordered to impress the influencers is missing, and the health inspector (Ryan Reilly) has shown up for a surprise visit. Meanwhile, the influencers, particularly Kiki of @VeganChic (Carley Cornelius), are extremely demanding.
The food and drink are continuous throughout the performance, starting with pre-show cocktails in the lobby bar (not included in the ticket price). It’s worth arriving early to order “Loreen’s Last Shot,” a cocktail designed by Lainie Bayless, Rick’s daughter who is also the beverage director at his River North restaurants. It combines CH key lime gin, aperol, lemon juice, simple syrup, and elderflower tonic, with the bitterness of the aperol and sweetness of the elderflower providing a pleasantly balanced contrast. Lainie also contributes a first-act cocktail, the Chicago Paloma, made even more pleasingly bitter thanks to a bit of Malort. It’s a shame there aren’t more of her cocktails in the show because while the two included wine pairings are fine, her drinks are truly excellent.
Once the last influencer arrives, the tastings begin, with roasted dates stuffed with smoky gorgonzola and cilantro and pita with hummus, za’atar-roasted tomatoes and oil-cured olives. Immediately afterward, the action moves to the dining room. This is a full sensory experience, with Jude and Iggy slicing up onions, sizzling bacon and at one point filling the space with smoke. There’s a remarkable boldness in the decision to serve the audience a purposefully bad Malort-laden soup because the dish has been sabotaged, but it’s quickly whisked away for a proper version that’s satisfyingly warm and herbaceous. There’s not enough food here for a full meal, but all the bites are satisfying, especially the citrusy pasta with chunks of crab and artichokes, and the vegan avocado-chocolate mousse.
The performances also deliver. Circus performer and acrobat Daniel Trinidad is especially mesmerizing as the busser, Felix, who spends the night finding increasingly ridiculous ways to hide a pig.
A Recipe for Disaster can charm anyone, but the gags will likely especially appeal to those who love restaurant industry inside baseball. There are bits about the power of influencers and Yelp reviewers — “they fired all the critics” Shelly explains early on — and Kitchen Confidential-style drama. The stakes and silliness increase as the night goes on, and the processionals of food delivery become ever more elaborate as Jude’s explanations of the dishes become more absurd and incoherent.
If there’s one flaw in the execution, it’s that the ending feels a bit abrupt, with the happy resolution feeling unearned. The writers also don’t seem to know what to do with Kiki’s guest Loreen (Kierra Bunch), who winds up feeling more like a superfluous plus-one than she should.
But those are small blemishes on an otherwise charming experience. A Recipe for Disaster delivers a bold new high-energy spin on dinner theater that’s worth seeing a second time to catch up on the gags one might have missed the first time around. Influencer Night might be rough for The Contumacious Pig, but it’s a truly delicious spectacle for the audience.