Every first and third Sunday of the month at the Lincoln Lodge in Logan Square, two pairs of comedians go head-to-head in a battle that asks not only if they’re funny — but can they cook?
The comedy-cooking competition, Sautéed Standup, is a marriage of joke-telling and food television tropes that aims to set audiences on fire without literally burning the place down. However, during an early iteration, hosts and creators Tad Walters and Nathan Hall confessed that two hotplates and a risotto recipe nearly caused major damage to the then-newly opened live-performance space.
“Our first show, we almost burnt [the venue] down twice.” Hall says. “We melted through two extension cords.”
Sautéed Standup’s rules are simple: Complete a dish alongside your teammate (three servings, one per judge — typically a local chef or member of the food media) while making the audience laugh during a 10-minute stand-up set. The team with the best dish wins. So even if your jokes bomb, you can still go home a winner.
Teams are given an allowance the Friday before an event to shop for ingredients anywhere. At showtime, in true cooking competition fashion, a mystery ingredient is dropped on the unsuspecting contestants. Surprise ingredients have run the gamut from fish sauce and whole butternut squash to caviar; testing various skills and bits of cooking knowledge that would throw off any amateur hoping to remain on plan. With time, budget, and equipment limited — producers provide utensils, an induction burner, one pot, and a saute pan to each team while an air-fryer, food processor, spice rack, and oil are shared — controlled chaos often ensues.
It’s a delightful standout in Chicago’s comedy scene; bridging two communities that have plenty in common but rarely, directly interface. For Walters, kitchens — as opposed to an office with an HR presence — allow for people to relax and to joke around, both in good and bad ways: “Comedy is inherent in working with food,” he says.
Having moved to Chicago from Texas by way of New Orleans to pursue comedy, Walters and Hall (from Ohio) ended up as Second City students and met through a mutual friend. But Walters’s connection to the back of the house, working in the famed comedy venue’s kitchen before taking various classes and continuing his culinary career at restaurants like Cabra, Duck Duck Goat, and now Smyth and the Loyalist, informs Sautéed Standup’s unique identity (his short-lived appearance on the current season of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen notwithstanding). Hall, who works as a lighting engineer, runs the technical and administrative aspects, making sure nothing short-circuits or fails during the show. He also made the show’s neon logo.
After two performances in February 2020, the show and lodge — like all other venues — were shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Walters and Hall used the time to refine the format. They spent the 10 months in lockdown intent on making a comeback. Returning in June of 2021, they moved into the larger Red Room at Lincoln Lodge and brought on additional producers Josh Smith, Katie Kincaid, and Sydney Back to make sure the reanimated competition flowed smoothly, better reflected the diversity of the city’s comedy scene, and provided a welcoming environment and goodhearted trash-talking.
“There has to be conflict, it’s a competition, but it’s an even competition. These [TV] cooking shows, some of them — like Cutthroat Kitchen — are built unevenly if that makes sense. Some of the challenges are so bad and create such an uneven playing field, it’s not even fun anymore,” Walters says.
He adds: “All the tweaks we’ve done, even the little things...are to make sure it’s a product that’s good but is also fair. If you put in effort and you try and practice your dish, you should win or do really well at least.”
During an October 15 show, Sautéed’s hour flew by. The energy stays high even if a comic is having an off night, and there are ample opportunities for attendees to genuinely feel part of the show without heckling or distracting. Things didn’t get too contentious, but it was apparent the comedians were just as passionate about delivering a quality bite as they were a good set. In an unintentional “battle of the burgers,” the pairs delivered fully cooked and well-seasoned patties, but equally failed with the curveball addition of parsnips (this writer maintains the blue team of Emily Schaefer and Cameron Little won on creativity there with an attempt at turning the vegetable into fries). The judges that evening — the Takeout and Substack writer Dennis Lee, Chopping Block culinary instructor Trevor Paulsen, and chef Matt Orlowski of Smyth and the Loyalist — awarded the red team of Collin Unger and Willie Griswold, the win with two of the three votes.
“That’s the dichotomy of people who come on the show — people who try, and people who don’t try,” Hall says. “We’ve had people on the show who don’t care about the cooking at all. They’ll make grilled cheese, but they don’t use butter and the cheese doesn’t melt. They just do a really bad job. They will put cheese and bread in a pan and move it around the pan for 40 minutes.
“Meanwhile these chefs are people who are normally not on stage,” he continues, “and when you’re on stage and you get a laugh, it’s like that first hit of drugs. It’s so funny to see someone do the show for the first time and say something the crowd finds hilarious. There’s this look in their eyes, you can see it. They feel it in their whole body like ‘Oh.’”
Many chefs have repeatedly returned to provide their insight, despite fully knowing what may lie ahead for their taste buds, because of the joy, hilarity, and even absurdity in the role swap.
Chef Rickie Pérez, owner and operator of Logan Oyster Socials — a traveling raw bar presented in his signature Taíno Afro-Caribbean style — has appeared on Fox and Food Network. He’s served as a judge on Sautéed Standup nine times, by his count, including in the very first Tournament of Champions in January 2023. Pérez, widely considered one of the show’s nicer judges, has eaten everything from raw, Kool-Aid-soaked butternut squash to a runny-egg-and-unmelted-cheese breakfast sandwich that ended up being one of his favorite eats during his experience on Sautéed.
Judges, like Pérez, can be harsh. One of the show’s winningest contestants and half of the tournament’s championship duo, comedian Mike Atcherson, says the judges have hurt his feelings with one particularly lasting critique: “I’ve gotten criticized for not having seasoned food so many times, and somehow saying your food’s not seasoned hurts your soul. I don’t know why. Ever since then, I make sure my shit is seasoned.”
With a steadily growing fanbase, the team has considered the possibilities of streaming on platforms YouTube or Twitch and even taking the show on the road. Next year, there are plans to bring it to New York and Los Angeles.
“This is a show that I think could really only exist here or New York or LA because of the culture, the comedy, and food scenes,” Walters says. “There’s a lot of different directions we could take it in. At this point, it’s just seeing what opportunities we get afforded and ones we can create for ourselves.”
Sautéed Standup at Lincoln Lodge, 2040 N. Milwaukee Avenue, held the first and third Sundays of the month; the next show is Sunday, November 19.