The idea for something that also isn't exactly cabaret is this: Respected chefs are invited for a week to cook a meal and discuss the preparation of it, while performers book-end the proceedings and occasionally interrupt with, well, saucy songs. The concept gives new meaning to the phrase "dinner theater" -- and, for gourmets, that may be very meaningful indeed. For theatergoers, it isn't likely to have much allure.
Maybe the thing to write about first is the food, but since you're reading this on a theater website and not a food website, that coverage will be brief. (Since the theater elements are mediocre, that coverage will be brief as well.) On the night I attended, there were two chefs: Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, authorities on Latin cooking. They've trained in France and have also been, well, seasoned stateside. Because I don't feel that I'm sufficiently grounded in cuisine art (let alone Cuisinart) to size them up myself, I brought along my pal Alfa-Betty Olsen, who (with Marshall Efron) was the Soho Weekly News restaurant critic back in the day. A-B knows about eats.
She and I agreed that the swordfish ceviche was piquant with its chunk of fish flesh, tomatoes, and blend of spices. (We could see samples of the dish being readied, thanks to a camera placed over the counter on Beowolf Boritt's luxurious kitchen set.) The skirt steak with corn salad was also moist and light, although the folded tortilla wasn't. Neither of us went for the capirotada (bread pudding to you) because it was dry as a blotter and served in a coffee mug that was difficult to maneuver. We loved the rioja that sommelier Danielle Nally chose to accompany the entree, although neither of us could detect the wild cherry fragrance that she insisted floated from it.
What did work was the Milliken-Feniger byplay -- until, that is, they tried to duet on Irving Berlin's "Anything You Can Do." Feniger is the more naturally funny of the two. She's also the shorter, and when the two stand together -- as they evidently have done for 20 years now -- they make something of a cute sight gag. Their cooking tips were helpful and I'm assuming that any of the chefs who agree to show up for this thing have equally beneficial tips up their long, protective sleeves. (I especially liked the fingers-bent-under-with-other-hand-rocking motion that the two women made when slicing and dicing.)
Of course, such guidance and other advice might have been available when the Milliken-Feniger Two Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour series were on the Food Network in the '90s. (Hey, that's it. Chef's Theater most resembles a Food Network show.) Much of it is undoubtedly also contained in the five cookbooks that these kitchen frequenters have published. And it occurred to Alpha-Betty that the meal served at a $115-$125 ticket price might have cost considerably less at Border Grill, the Milliken-Feniger restaurant in Santa Monica. (A-B's been there and recommends it.)
Yes, the perky lessons were enjoyable and probably satisfied customers for whom a smashing dinner out beats going to a show any day. But for those who are content to munch a frankfurter and slurp bottled water on the way to a play or musical, Chef's Theater will likely be far less rewarding. Acting as if they're having the time of their lives, Paige Price, Shannon Lewis, and Jim Walton -- Broadway vets all -- carry out emcee duties and perform professionally crafted but unmemorable songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, Casey Nicholaw and Sam Davis, and Andrew Lippa. (Producer Marty Bell is also credited with some of the lyrics.) The tailored score is played by the cooperative Shawn Gough Orchestra, whose members sit stage left, sniffing the aromas wafting over from stage right.
The musical interludes were nowhere near as fresh as the ingredients that Milliken and Feniger worked with. My impression was that the audience couldn't have cared less how the trio of entertainers sang or danced; as directed by Stafford Arima and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the performance was pretty much standard fare. And when the guest performer of the week, Mylinda Hull, belted some Broadway tunes (including a fast-paced Guys and Dolls medley), the waiter at our table was so intent on closing out the bill that he distracted us from what was happening on stage. At that point, I didn't need A-B to tell me that the service was lacking.
One of the exciting qualities of theater today is the search by so many people for new ways to do it. The Chef's Theater producers deserve thanks for trying to come up with a new gimmick, even if it doesn't really work. At any rate, that's the opinion of one food lover who loves theater even more. My very personal opinion is that this evening minus the "theater" component would be a far more inviting repast.