Rick Bayless believes that working in a restaurant has a lot in common with working on a theatrical production.
“The way that we rehearse things, the way that we get ready for service, the way that you’re getting ready for your production every night,” the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo chef says. “It’s not uncommon in a restaurant when you’re ready for evening service to say ‘curtain’s going up now’ and everybody gets into position and then you open the front door or raise the curtain and you start your production for the night.”
Now he’s making that connection even clearer by working with Windy City Playhouse on A Recipe for Disaster, an interactive comedy that incorporates food and cocktail tastings. The show, which begins an open-ended run on October 6 in Petterino’s club space, is set at a trendy restaurant hosting an influencer night. While attempting to impress social media celebrities, the staff is dealing with a host of real crises Bayless experienced over the past three decades, such as hiding a pig from a health inspector because it lacked a USDA stamp of approval: “It was a long, long time ago,” Bayless says. “I think the statute of limitations has passed.”
Bayless worked with Windy City’s artistic director Amy Rubenstein and associate artistic director on the script, meeting weekly throughout the pandemic to turn anecdotes into dialogue. The writers also interviewed the chef’s long-time staff members to get their perspectives and develop the characters.
“In the bleak COVID year, it brought so much joy to me because we would get together and for two or three hours we would laugh and laugh and laugh,” Bayless says. “It was the perfect antidote.”
Audience members will effectively join the crowd of influencers (including “@VeganChic”) trying the new menu at a makeshift restaurant called “The Contumacious Pig,” while tasting six bites designed by Bayless and samples of three cocktails from daughter Lanie Bayless.
“Influencer night is the most difficult night for a new menu or new restaurant,” Bayless says. “When you have a group of influencers in, they always seem to be sort of disconnected from what you want their experience to be. That creates this tension that’s really good fodder for a play.”
The project was inspired by Windy City’s productions of Noises Off — an interactive farce about opening night for an amateur theater troupe — and Southern Gothic — a drama where the audience simultaneously received tastings of food and drinks while the show’s characters did throughout the show.
“In Southern Gothic, we wanted to hit all senses,” Rubenstein says. “We wanted taste, so we made this storyline where the caterer never shows up and so our audience is being served things out of this 1960s kitchen like Spam and Cheez Whiz and Twinkies. That’s cute and funny one time, but how are we going to write that in again?”
Rubenstein knew she needed a chef to elevate the experience, so when Bayless reached out looking for tickets to Noises Out, she proposed working together. Bayless previously co-created and starred in Cascabel at Lookingglass Theatre and Goodman Theatre, playing a cook whose food seems to grant diners magical abilities. Bayless brought a large portion of his restaurant staff to those performances, where they were tasked with presenting 190 hot entrees to the audience in four and a half minutes.
“That was really, really hard,” he says. “(A Recipe for a Disaster) is a little easier because it’s tasting-size portions of things that keep flowing out of the kitchen, course by course.”
Bayless said he was eager to work on another project involving food and theater because it’s something he rarely sees done well. One attempt he recalls is TimeLine Theatre Company’s production of To Master the Art, a play about Julia Child where a performer sauteed an onion in butter on the stage.
“They tried to bring the sensual experience into that just by creating that one smell, but that’s really basic,” Bayless says. “It can be a lot more than that. We have some real fun with the food in this particular show. I’m not going to give any of that away.”
A Recipe for Disaster will start its run on October 6 with tickets available online for shows through December 26 at windycityplayhouse.com; Shows take place inside Petterino’s club space, 150 N. Dearborn.