Though he’s best known as the chef behind Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and the tortas you eat before catching a flight at O’Hare, Rick Bayless has a flair for the dramatic. Between cooking in his various kitchens and filming his TV show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, Bayless has previously found time to create and appear in two productions of the chef-inspired play Cascabel, with the Lookingglass Theatre Company. And according to an old Eater Chicago story, he’s also a consummate ballroom dancer.
Bayless’s latest theatrical creation is an immersive show that’s accompanied by a tasting menu (six bites, one small cocktail and two pours of wine), staged in a space beneath Petterino’s that’s dressed up to look like a fictitious restaurant called The Contumacious Pig. Written by Bayless, Windy City Playhouse artistic director Amy Rubenstein and local playwright Carl Menninger, A Recipe For Disaster casts the audience as attendees at a restaurant’s “influencer night,” where mishaps abound as the staff attempts to impress the Instagramming masses.
The show opens in the restaurant’s waiting area, where a frazzled general manager (Emma Jo Boyden) and her sous chef boyfriend (Ben Page) contend with an absent chef, a missing pig, an especially demanding influencer (Carley Cornelius) and a surprise visit from a health inspector (Ryan Reilly). Attendees are then seated in a dining room, where the remainder of the play takes place throughout the space—often with multiple scenes transpiring simultaneously, resulting in lots of overlapping, Robert Altman-style dialogue that can be difficult to keep track of.
In between bouts of discourse that’s rife with insidery references to the hospitality industry, the audience is served a series of small dishes that tie into the narrative unfolding in the kitchen. Some of the most unexpected twists throughout the evening arrive in the form of modifications to the menu that guests receive upon arrival, including a “sabotaged” wild mushroom soup that’s been spiked with Malört—don’t worry, a less astringent version of the dish is served in short order. Thanks, no doubt, to Bayless’s guidance, all the food is well-prepared and rather tasty, even if it doesn’t quite add up to a full dinner.
Befitting a dinner theater production, A Recipe For Disaster demonstrates an exceedingly broad sense of humor, filled with exaggerated characters, physical comedy, rapid-fire quips and a bit of innuendo. While the predictable jokes and plot machinations might be off-putting to some, the play’s larger issue is that it doesn’t have much to say. Annoying influencers and nosy health inspectors are reduced to one-dimensional characters, while actors portraying restaurant workers crack uncomfortable jokes about not having health insurance. A Recipe For Disaster often feels like a list of well-trodden restaurateur complaints presented under the guise of satire.
After nearly two years that have tested and reshaped the restaurant industry in seismic ways, it’s strange to watch such a surface-level portrayal of the contemporary hospitality industry co-written by someone who has long been a part of it. The narrative of A Recipe For Disaster ultimately resembles the kind of cooking that the play’s sous chef might scoff at: aesthetically appealing, but lacking the depth and attention to detail that you’d expect from someone with as much experience as Bayless.