From choreographed Korean chefs, to a food writer's memoirs, to the closest thing Manhattan has ever seen to dinner theatre, it's food, glorious food all over off-Broadway's stages. With these shows come new challenges for the set designers and the production stage managers, who must work in tandem to bring a kitchen — and all its messy, juicy contents — to the stage.
Korean import Cookin' concerns a quartet of chefs preparing for a big wedding banquet and in the process use everything from knives and garbage cans to whisks (chained together like culinary numchucks) and brooms to meet their deadline. At one point, the stage is covered with cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, and onions that have been sliced, diced, and flayed about the stage in choreographed antics that combine acrobatics, percussion, and even martial arts.
For a production stage manager, having to keep up with cooking utensils is one thing, but what about coordinating the vast amounts of food involved in Cookin' that, on some days, has up to three shows? “Honestly, the biggest problem was storage and cleanup,” says the show's production stage manager Lucy Thurber. “We had to adapt the backstage because there's a lot of food and a lot of trial and error, like when we thought we could just store some of the cabbage in the basement. Needless to say we had a lot of unpleasant cabbage.” To solve the bad cabbage problem, additional refrigerators were installed.
In cleaning up the used food, Thurber has become more familiar with New York City's sanitation schedule than she would like. “The amount of food the show goes through in a week is immense,” she says. “Chopped vegetables and wet rice are thrown all over the stage, so we had to find a way to keep the stage and backstage clean and smelling fresh. Weekends are especially stressful since there are five shows. The mess has been the biggest surprise.”
While Thurber has to deal with bushels and pecks of the same food week after week, Kai Brothers, the production manager at Chef's Theatre: A Musical Feast, is lucky: the producers hired a professional food management firm, Restaurant Associates (RA), to manage the cooking aspect of the show, including the food cooked on stage.
“They [RA] deal with all of the food purchases so whatever the chef needs for a given show, they place on the stage,” Brothers says. However, the pre-sets on stage are different each week due to the changing chefs and ingredients, not to mention the TV monitor located over the chef's shoulder. “Each week we have to figure out the best camera shots for the different food items,” he says. “We had to adjust the set accordingly based on the ingredients. It's like putting together a puzzle. When a new chef comes in, the counter tops have to be re-teched.”
Brothers should have pity on Billie Davis, stage manger at My Kitchen Wars, who has to make a daily trek to the trendy grocery store, Citarella. Davis purchases the same ingredients for each performance, which includes an onion, avocado, soup, wine, eggs, oil, and a lobster that gets whacked and becomes a part of the finale meal. Throughout the show, the meal is prepared by Dorothy Lyman as food writer Betty Fussell, who dishes about her life, marriage, and career as she cooks.
“Avocados are a killer,” Davis says, reflecting on her grocery sojourns. “Dorothy wants to be able to peel it without a knife. They have to be at the perfect ripeness.” Her big shopping day is at the beginning of the week when she stocks up on oil, eggs, butter, onions, etc., but she has to buy the lobster, watercress, and aforementioned avocados daily.
In the play's current incarnation, the lobster is cut in half and cracked open. However, when the play was first performed on the west coast, a live Maine lobster was on display in a tank throughout the play. In this incarnation, the lobster did not become a part of a meal, but that did not ensure its survival by the final curtain. Underneath the tank there was a light to illuminate the lobster, which would heat the water and essentially cook it during the show. However, if the lobster did survive one of the stage managers would take it home for an after theatre meal.
Then, there was the case of the Nanny and the lobster. Since Lyman produced and directed three seasons of the CBS sitcom The Nanny, star Fran Drescher came to the show. When Drescher learned of the lobster's fate, she insisted on taking it to Malibu and setting it free. Lyman finally relented knowing full well that a Maine lobster would not survive in Southern California's Pacific waters. “Hey,” Lyman said, “let her live the dream.”
Aside from the lobster salad on display, Lyman also “cooks” a soufflé during the show. The audience sees Lyman break the eggs, carefully separate the whites from the yolks, and coat the soufflé dish with butter and flour, and then put the concoction into the vintage oven. However, the oven is not working, so the soufflé doesn't really cook, despite what Lyman reveals at the finale. In actuality, the soufflé is a bowl of liquid insulation that overflows the dish like the real thing. “You couldn't take the risk of a real soufflé falling during the show,” Lyman says.
When she's not loading her shopping cart at Citarella, Davis runs interference after each performance by immediately clearing the set and keeping audience members at bay; lobster + mayonnaise + PAR cans = salmonella poisoning. “The audience is curious; they want to see if the food is real,” she says. “But I have to guard the table not only for their safety but to keep the props in one piece. One audience literally rushed the stage and a lady went around me to look into the oven while another was pulling dishes out of the sink. If they break it, we don't have any backups.”
Dong Woo Park's scenic design for Cookin' is a kitchen, albeit a sparse one in order to allow enough room for the performers' manic antics. While an “oven” is stationary upstage right and a sink stays put downstage left, the action takes place front and center with a series of chopping blocks and a grill on wheels that can be moved offstage in either direction depending on the action at hand. The set was constructed by Seoul Art Stage in Seoul. Thurber noted that the cooking table has to be handled gingerly and cleaned by the backstage crew before the food hardens.
Cookin's manic chefs would make an even bigger mess at the Chef's Theatre set, which contains a more traditional kitchen on the stage of The Supper Club. “The starting point was that it needed two working ranges, a grill, two ovens, a refrigerator, a working sink and a lot of storage space,” says Chef's Theatre scenic designer Beowulf Boritt. “It wasn't that difficult creating the set as it was putting it in the context of a cabaret theatre. Not to mention that the staging area is about the size of a postage stamp!” Boritt created two giant cylinders on stage that open to reveal a bandstand stage right and the kitchen stage left. The set was constructed by Brooklyn-based Daedalus.
Sub-Zero Wolf supplied the kitchen equipment, saving Boritt some time spent at Home Depot, but he encountered new headaches because the kitchen set — with pipes, plumbing, and ventilation systems — had to meet New York City codes for commercial kitchens. Luckily, production managers Kai Brothers and Bridget Markoff dealt with those details.
Brothers had to work with the New York City Fire Department and the City's Department of Buildings in order to get approval for integrating a working kitchen into a theatrical environment. “There is no single set of regulations that apply to this setup,” he says. “Some things we were ready for and other things we were not; we had to react quickly. So much was open to interpretation by the safety inspectors. This is unexplored territory. Did we need a separate fire suppression system on stage? Commercial restaurants do, but did we fall in that category? Issues like that had to be resolved on a one-by-one basis.”
What appears onstage at The Supper Club is a trendy, up-scale functional kitchen with enough space to allow the guest chef and performers to move about freely as they prepare the meal. While the onstage chef is cooking, the Supper Club's chefs are preparing the same meal in an upstairs kitchen to be served to an audience of up to 400.
Unlike Chef's Theatre's galloping gourmets, My Kitchen Wars is a traditional play, but it needed a working kitchen, designed by George H. Landry. Since Lyman prepares a meal throughout the show, the set is integral. Designed as a New York City apartment kitchen, the set contains a vintage Magic Chef oven from Lyman's own apartment outfitted with a double-burner hot plate instead of the original gas oven's flame.
“Everything about that oven is beautiful,” Landry says. “From that one piece of furniture, I set the color scheme for the rest of the set.” He added that, while the stove is old, the faucet is new and not just because the original faucet broke, but because it is more representative of a New York apartment that is cobbled together with old and new fixtures. The set was actually constructed at Lyman's upstate ranch by Landry, Lyman, and Melissa Sweeney, who also provided jazz vocal interludes during the play. Talk about doing it yourself!
The centerpiece of the set is a cascade of copper kitchen accoutrements that splits the kitchen down the center. “The intention was to use the pots as a sense of attention, a vortex of energy,” says Landry, who was trained as a sculptor. “I wanted it to give a hint of the spiritual nature of [the character's] love of cooking, much like a totem pole. It has more emotional weight than just a pot rack.”
It should be noted that this Off-Broadway trend has seemingly spoiled; as this goes to press only Cookin' is still cooking. However, producers of the other two shows promise their productions still have bite in them.