James Beard may have not had as recognizable a catchphrase as “Bon appétit!” or as devoted a following among the housewife set as Julia Child. “We weren’t competitors, exactly,” says Beard, as embodied by performer Nick Olcott, in a tone that implies the opposite.
But the man is still a household name today among the kind of people who buy buffalo mozzarella for a weeknight dinner and cook their way through the Momofuku cookbook in their spare time. (The James Beard Awards, after all, are thought of as the Oscars of the restaurant world.) Round House Theatre’s new play, I Love To Eat, attempts to share the food lover’s zest for life and his complicated biographical story with a broader audience.
It succeeds, largely due to a buoyant performance from Olcott, the sole actor in the piece. Set in Beard’s famous kitchen, where he did everything from entertain celebrities to answer kitchen emergency calls from average citizens, the play patters around in the same meandering style as Beard himself. Olcott will interrupt the making of an hors d’oeuvre to share a story from his past, take a phone call from a distant friend, or even reenact a scene from his long-forgotten television cooking show (of the same name as the play, and the first cooking show to hit the airwaves). Director Leon Major’s structure, often punctuated with percussive kitchen sounds or brief musical snippets, adds a realistic, if sometimes frustrating, sense of chaos to the play. Those cooking show scene reenactments can grow a bit tired, particularly Beard’s extended conversations with Elsie, the cow mascot of the show’s dairy company sponsor.
James Still’s play is peppered with little food facts—did you know the ancient Romans used to flavor their fried chicken with dill and coriander? Or that the world’s first recorded recipe, on a stone tablet, was a poem about beer? Beard’s gusto for great food is accompanied by a refreshing lack of snobbery, though human nature sometimes takes over, and he slips into gossipy mode when dishing with friends. “The potatoes Ana were as hard as a whore’s heart,” he confesses to a confidant about the dinner party he attended the night before.
Though Beard is constantly chattering in the kitchen (“Goody, goody” is his response just about every time the phone rings), I Love To Eat hints at an underlying sadness and loneliness experienced by the chef, particularly in his later years. His friends continue to travel to exotic locales like London and Barcelona, while he remains in New York. He’s struggling with his weight and his health, as well as an inability to maintain a long-term romantic relationship with another man. And he can’t seem to stop thinking about the career he’d always wanted—that of an opera singer—instead of the illustrious one he’s achieved. Twenty-six cookbooks and a smattering of fame can’t seem to make up for an opera house packed with applauding fans, at least in Beard’s mind.
But while I Love To Eat has its melancholy moments, its more joyful scenes are the ones that make a lasting impression. Seeing the genuine kick Beard gets out of helping less experienced folks in the kitchen provides some of the play’s most tender and amusing moments. “It’s not Easter,” he reassures one caller who’s managed to ruin a dish. “There’s no reason to try to raise it from the dead.” Above all, he reminds us that time spent in the kitchen should be fun. Words to live by.
I Love To Eat runs through November 4 at Round House Bethesda. Running time is about 75 minutes with no intermission. Tickets ($26 to $58) are available via Round House Theatre’s website.