Ian Kelly in Cooking for Kings(Photo © Mark Crick)
Ian Kelly in Cooking for Kings
(Photo © Mark Crick)
If chefs are supposed to be histrionic -- or, as my grandmother used to say, "crazy with the heat" -- does it follow that the very first chef, Marie-Antoine (Antonin) Careme, set the pattern for culinary histrionics? Ian Kelly, who has adapted his book Cooking for Kings into a solo theater piece, would have you believe the answer is a booming yes.

The red-headed, cherub-faced Kelly arrives as the lofty Careme holding a metal mold on a tray. When he turns the mold over and empties it, he reveals an embarrassingly loose blanc mange. Immediately, he launches into a tirade about the importance of time in the kitchen and excoriates the patron who insisted on having the shimmering delicacy served before it was able to set. He thereby establishes that, by the 19th-century's second decade, Careme thought of himself as a king of cooks cooking for kings and never in a mood to suffer fools gladly, no matter how high they ranked.

It's January 18, 1817, Kelly tells us, and Careme is preparing a banquet to test the limits of what's been considered sumptuous in a past that he ferociously chronicles and updates. Surrounded by the audience, he roams restlessly around a butcher's block; he explains that he's in the Brighton Pavilion's kitchen, where preparations are underway for the future George IV to entertain Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. Every once in a while, a bell rings. (The intricate sound design is by Aura, the original music is by George Taylor.) Careme talks about whatever dish he's presiding over, moment to moment. He gives detailed descriptions on the eye-popping extraordinaires he concocts from molten sugar; he shapes them into such edifices as the Brighton Pavilion itself and a ruined temple, remaking that he has placed a ruin on the table so that diners are faced with a reminder of death. How devilish of him to keep the notion of succession before monarchs!

Careme is no bundle of joy, a condition that Kelly carefully lays out as he slips astonishing amounts of information about the man and his times into his slick but never superficial monologue. An actor who became fascinated with Careme, he has researched his subject by reading the fellow's cookbooks and diaries and also by visiting sites where the creative chef worked. Kelly seems to have learned everything there is to know about Careme and he folds it into his peroration in the way that Careme layered his amazing pastries. He seems even to have ascertained Careme's moods on specific days and he catches the chef's confidence. Talking about meals served in courses (not the custom at the time), he says brusquely, "Never catch on."

What's especially impressive about Kelly's turn is that he's able to impart in approximately 90 minutes more than might be imagined of his thoroughly entertaining book, which has apparently been transported to the stage on the say-so of Simon Russell Beale and Tom Stoppard. However, Kelly does leave out recipes for, among other mouth-watering concoctions, Potage Anglais de Poisson a Lady Morgan, Salmon a la Rothschild, Creme de Pigeonneaux aux Marrons, and Gelee d'Oranges en Rubans. (He doesn't hand out any recipes: you have to buy the book.)

Careme was working at Bailly's on the rue Vivienne in post-Revolutionary Paris when he came to the attention of Charles Meurice Talleyrand-Perigord. Hired for his confectionery skills, he was granted entrée to palaces and castles. Kelly, who throws in an impersonation of Talleyrand with his game leg, covers Careme's life from its very humble beginnings to a death that was probably due to carbon-monoxide poisoning (from toiling over burning coals) and a pauper's burial. He refers to recipes calling for gold, for testicles; he talks about vols-au-vent and Nesselrode pudding, both of which Careme invented. Although Careme was employed by kings -- he made Napoleon's wedding cake -- he didn't seem to regard them with any great reverence. Had it occurred to him, he might have altered Madame de Sevigne's comment that "no man is a hero to his valet" to "no man is a hero to his chef."

Part of Careme's quarrel with the mighty is that they caused him to make choices he ultimately regretted. Not the least of his concerns is his alienation from his daughter Marie, although Kelly never discovers the precise causes for the continuing rift. He does have Careme plug away at his need to have Marie's approval and his belief that he doesn't have it, no matter how many favorite treats he readies for her. He presents a man whose autocratic behavior to assistants called Benoit and Badoit seems to stem not only from his perfectionism but also from his underlying rage at personal dilemmas. He moves about the kitchen, barking demands and imperiously pointing, constantly referring to his worn black book of recipes and then pushing it back under his tight apron string.

In addition to occasionally pulling his right leg behind him as the nasty Talleyrand, Kelly -- directed with verve by Simon Green -- also plays a series of guides, one of whom seems to be addressing the actor himself. These are factotums encountered when he toured buildings (and, where possible, kitchens) in which Careme ordered underlings about in the pursuit of memorable meals for hungry aristocrats in France, England, and Russia. Kelly is amusing in every accent, making the subliminal point that Careme is remembered but often by people who don't realize how seminal he was; they don't care as deeply as do tourists who've trekked long distances to find out about their idols.

In the last few months, numerous plays have cropped up in which cooks, cooking, and food are prominent. For some reason, the culinary arts have leapt from the Food Channel to local stages. Now, actors who love cuisine combine their interests, surrounded as Kelly is by racks from which pots, pans, and pitchers hang. Food writer-actor Jonathan Reynolds has cooked as himself in Dinner With Demons. Dorothy Lyman has cooked as Betty Fussell in My Kitchen Wars. A number of chefs from the vicinity have sliced and diced in Chef's Theatre. These cooks have exhibited various styles and Kelly, lit by Jason H. Thompson and wearing Charlotte Sewell's chef's costume, suavely, adds his to the mix. He gathers flour, sugar, water, milk, and other ingredients stored in the pots, pans, and pitchers that he climbs onto a chair to reach. He works with light, graceful gestures; watching him wield a whisk is like watching a ballerina gesture. What he cooks on a small burner are Josephine profiterole swans filled with Chantilly cream, which were apparently a favorite of Careme's elusive Marie.

There's no easy explanation for this season's romance with kitchens big and small, obsolete and up-to-the-minute. But some people -- most of them gourmets, some of them gourmands -- will tell you that cooking is theater that feeds souls as well as stomachs, and that chefs are leading actors. Chefs like Daniel Boulud and Wolfgang Puck do have superstar followings. There's no doubt that when Careme was on duty he performed in an expansive drama that had its ramifications on menus today. In Cooking for Kings, Ian Kelly has fun suggesting just how passionate, amusing, and consuming this drama, which cut a swath across Europe two centuries ago, must have been. Just call his energetic outing crème de la Careme.