For Lookingglass, dining is also a formidable logistical experience, with what artistic director Andy White calls "a steep learning curve" and all kinds of things to worry about.
If Bayless' fans — who are coming from all over the world — try to say hello to their culinary hero while he's in character as the cook in a Mexican boarding house, a separate maitre d' character will be "empowered to take care of stuff like that," Stillman says. This is a show, not a personal appearance.
Everything is happening, White said, at a breathtaking pace. Because of the expense of the food operation, it is not being introduced until the dress rehearsal, which means that there is an unusually large amount of guesswork in technical rehearsals, given that Bayless says he wants to "build in some pauses so that people can have a personal emotional encounter with their food." At Lookingglass, nobody has ever tried that before. So nobody knows how long it will take.
The theater will seat about 150 guests per night, using a collection of communal tables and two-tops.
Everyone will be served the same Bayless-created food (with an option for vegetarians). Bayless can cook onstage, but not for the paying guests — health regulations and the lack of a kitchen at Lookingglass mean that the food will have to be created at Bayless' restaurants a few blocks away and then kept warm (or cool) until it can be served. That might be a familiar task for caterers, but this is expensive Bayless cuisine. It can't come off as banquet fare.
"We have been working for more than six months on how to do the food service up to our exacting standards," Bayless says.
In contrast, the actual show has been rehearsing for only two weeks. Celebrity chefs have busy schedules.
Despite the high ticket prices, the steep costs and a relatively short monthlong run (Bayless has other commitments) mean that "Cascabel" is by no means a profitable endeavor.
"Walgreens, one of our sponsors, really stepped up so we could do this," says Lookingglass executive director Rachel Kraft.
To make the show work commercially, there would need to be a higher capacity and a longer run, which means doing the show and serving Bayless' food without Bayless himself needing to be there every night. Kraft says such discussions are premature. "We are going to get through this," she said, "then everyone can talk."
Talk, they will.
"I've always told everyone in our restaurants that we are putting on a performance," Bayless says. "It's just that we center it on each individual table."
Once you have the chef center stage, playing a character, that changes. Of course, not every chef is like Bayless, with an itch to act with his food. Achatz says he sees himself "more like Steven Spielberg," orchestrating the theatricality from behind the scenes. "I don't think I'd be much good as an actor," Achatz says. And Cantu wants to use theater and food for somewhat different purposes.
But Bayless, who will be seen acting, dancing and cooking at the center of a little ensemble of performers, is clearly enjoying himself.
"Great restaurants have always had a component of theater," he says. "But I want to try and take the shackles of 'just the meal' away. This will be my chance to show people what effect food and theater together can have on them, as long as they are willing to open themselves up."
And that includes their wallet. Great food and theater does not come cheap.