I go to a lot of theatre but I have never seen anything like this. In August 2014 my wife and I went to see Chef Rick Bayless‘s play Cascabel produced by Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater and created in collaboration with Heidi Stillman and Tony Hernandez.
Joyful, humorous, thoughtful, beautiful, romantic, a feast of a play, and the meal was all of the same. I’m old enough to remember when dinner theatre was hot, but it was never like this. This was dinner theatre on fire.
If you are not familiar with Chef Bayless, the James Beard Award winner is one of the most highly regarded in the nation for his food at his Chicago Restaurants Topolabampo, Frontera Grill, and Xoco. This food he cooks bears no resemblance to the Mexican American food at your neighborhood joint. For years, he has researched Mexico’s finest recipes and ingredients and applied his well honed sensibilities to honoring them in Chicago. For several seasons, his Emmy nominated PBS series “Mexico: One Plate At A Time” has educated us on the range of flavors and styles south of the border. He emerged victorious from Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. He has nine cookbooks and a line of Frontera salsas, sauces, and chips. He is also respected for his charity work and leadership on issues important to the culinary world. Now we can add playwright to his resumé.
Cascabel is the romantic story of a lovelorn cook played by Bayless himself. He toils at a Mexican restaurante named Cascabel and his magical food stimulates hunger for more than food and produces ecstasy on and off the stage. The staff knows Cook (not Chef) is so lonely “his love had no place to go so it went into the food”. The story is a bit reminiscent of the film “Like Water For Chocolate”, but the romances are depicted by Cirque du Soleil type dancing, acrobatics, tightrope walking, and climax with an extraordinary pas de deux on a floor to ceiling pole.
Best of all, the audience gets to eat the meal served onstage, and it is superlative. The evening begins with a mean margarita whose rim is dusted with cascabel chili powder, a scoop of guacamole with fresh peas and crabmeat, a slice of pork belly painted with a unique barbecue sauce on a toast point, and a sphere that looks like a tiny white egg with a yellow yolk that is really a gelatinous bauble filled with corn soup. Then comes a salmon ceviche with passion fruit, jicama, and guacamole “A dish to fall in love to, or in love with” says Cascabel’s maitre d’. The entree was a slice of beef tenderloin with the best mole negro I have ever tasted, “a dish that makes you fly” and that is exactly how the actors respond to it. Unlimited wine and beer were nice touches, too. Throughout the play, Bayless is actually on stage chopping and cooking, and the aromas wafting trough the theatre are seductive.
There’s tango, flamenco, slapstick, and an unparalleled celebration of food. I am not the first to observe that restaurant dining today has become a form of theatre, both showy and temporal in that when both art forms are done, all that remains is the memory and good feelings.
In the play, the woman who owns Cascabel pines for her lost lover who cooked for her the most wonderful mole, so she refuses to eat mole ever again, even when Cook prepares it for her, so mole is not only the star of the meal, it is pivotal to the plot.
As Bayless explains in his books, mole is the national dish of Mexico, and varies from region to region, and even kitchen to kitchen. It is really a sauce that can be spooned over food, although meats are often simmered in it, a relationship that elevates both.
I have no hope of replicating the ethereal silky mole Bayless made me fall in love with that night, so I have studied his books and created one that I think comes close and is perfect for incorporating into countless BBQ and grilling dishes.
Published On: 8/25/2013 Last Modified: 4/16/2021
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