Commentary

Reviews (6)
A Feast for Portlandia’s Soul

Faddah Wolf | PortlandStageReviews.com [23 Jan 2013]

James Beard (1903 – 1985) was Portland before Portland was Portland (or Portlandia, for that matter). Larger than life, big and ebulliant (as the on-stage character says in his hilarious ostentatious fanfare entrance, with Portland rose petals falling on him from the rafters — “Moderation? I’m against it!”) filled with an epicure’s passions (and as this show reminds us, he preferred “epicure,” an American English description, to the continental French words like “gourmand” and “cuisine”), a proto-Portland-foodie with the robust girth and appetites to match it, the quintessential host, world traveled and educated, yet with a love and dedication to his own very American, and yes, even home-grown local Portland flavor, openly gay, at least to close friends — Beard was, in a much less enlightened time, a trail blazer (pun somewhat intended) for many things we now consider common in our happy “Keep Portland Weird” city.

In James Still’s play, I Love To Eat, getting its West Coast Premiere at Portland Center Stage (oh why did it not World Premiere here in his home town? — the shame!), we meet Beard in all his over-the-top glory, in robe and silk pajamas to start, later in his trademark apron embroidered with his initials. We watch, rather enraptured, as he regales us as soirée host extraordinaire, hearing delightful dinner party gossip stories, such as his friendship with culinary queen, Julia Child (“I’m an inch taller than her, she’s an inch more famous than me.”), his travels from boyhood digging mussels on the Oregon coast with his mother, to forays into Opera around Europe and Theatre, before landing in his career as Chef by starting Hors D’oeuvres, Inc. in New York with friends, and lots of great re-living of his career on NBC as the first ever televised cooking show chef. You feel like you’re sitting down to drinks and canapés with the best of dinner party raconteurs.

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t would be easy to think of this play as a bit of fluff — after all, the subject matter is a twentieth century chatty and oft witty Portland chef, who but those in our local foodie community might have any interest? That would be the case, if it weren’t for the plain fact of his voluminous contribution to the culinary form, almost as big as his own robust form. Just a quick search at the Library of Congress or own Powell’s Books shows dozens of cooking volumes bearing his name, plus the fact that he was the progenitor of all televised cooking shows and, perhaps, our very “foodie” American culture.
Rob Nagle as James Beard with “friend” in Portland Center Stage’s “I Love To Eat.”

Nagle as Beard with Friend.
Ably leading us through with (ahem) relish, is Rob Nagle as Beard, fully embodying these very large shoes, not just in girth, but in Beard’s very wide and full embrace of life. Nagle triumphantly gives voice and body to the vigorous display that was Beard, both in his larger than life character, and even in quieter reflections on his regrets, or the later revealed reason Beard is entertaining us, his guests, and being so self-revelatory (won’t give that spoiler away, you’ll have to go see for yourself). He delightfully reveals to us, like so many surprise courses in a dinner party, Beard’s many life stories and quirks, including having his phone number publicly listed and not just gladly, but with eager gusto, looking forward to taking calls from anyone, from friend Julia Child to a woman trying out his recipes (more on that later). There’s even some fun puppetry involved with his TV show sponsor’s iconic trademark character. He also performs a neat trick in the latter part of the performance of continuing to deliver the stories from the script while actually cooking one of Beard’s recipes on stage, for real. Talk about pulling off a culinary hat trick.

Director Jessica Kubzansky’s work here with Nagle and her ensemble of designers is as open and generous as portions Beard himself would serve. It is worth mentioning that Tom Buderwitz’s kitchen set here will have any Portland foodie insanely envious and wanting to immediately go out and cook something (a scenic accomplishment Beard himself would encourage). And particularly of note is sound designer John Zalewski bountiful work of an aural landscape filling out the one set with the various ringing phones, enchantingly kitschy early TV fanfares, and the ever-present ticking of a kitchen timer.

Also, at least in Still’s idealized version here of Beard, we see an utterly different chef than what we’ve seen of late on the 24/7 cable TV cycle, or for anyone who’s ever had to work under a kitchen demagogue. As part of his love of getting random phone calls from nearly anyone on his very open unlisted number (perhaps this was Beard’s pre-Internet version of replying on Twitter), Beard has an ongoing serial chat with a woman in the midwest who has tried one of his recipes for an important dinner party only to have it turn to disaster. Nagle’s Beard cajoles and coaxes her through, punctuating it with his primary cooking credo: “Now, did you have fun?” Compare that very folksy mentoring of an utter stranger through the culinary storm to the cut-throat reality television chefs we get too much of today on Iron Chef, Chopped, or Mr. Hell’s Kitchen himself, Gordon Ramsay, all of whom would sooner have you turn in your apron and take a nationally televised, humiliating walk of shame than instruct you in the difference between poaching and blanching.

One other personal note — while it’s easy to fall into fan-boy-ism over Beard and consider him final authority on anything American food-related, I must say he was wrong about his prejudice against sourdough breads — dead wrong. Maybe back then, there were not as many ways to keep sourdough starters vital. That’s all I’ll say on that.

One mention of how local politics might creep into even a simple, fun production like this, the gala opening of this show at PCS, with four top Portland chef serving up dishes post performance, was sponsored by the foundation to lend Beard’s name to a public project for food booths, a restaurant and a new office tower at the downtown west entrance to the Morrison bridge, the James Beard Public Market. On the one hand, this might be a worthy tribute to our local Portland original chef, a foodie paradise of culinary booths, with our new Mayor, Charlie Hales, commissioner Dan Saltzman and other local luminaries and restaurant owners on the board; on the other hand, I wonder how much of this is using Beard’s name and the good will generated by this production for further projects from the Portland Development Commission and local developer Melvin Mark Development Company, whether or not the infill is necessary. We already have a very thriving Food Cart business culture here in Portland — will this project be in support of including this already existing culinary economic segment, or will it price them right out of that area? It is nice, however, that during the production run, PCS is partnering with Oregon Food Bank to take canned or boxed food donations to feed the hungry, something James Beard would certainly approve of, keeping everyone well fed.

By the way, that trick where it’s part of the script for Nagle as Beard to actually cook something on stage? If you can afford it, try and get seats in the front row. Those who did got to sample the recipe on completion, paired with the perfect vintage. Beard himself would ask you as his cooking protégé, “Did you have fun?” Go, Portland, bring your taste buds and your fiercely local wild hearts. You will have fun, you will.

Portland Center Stage presents I Love To Eat, based on the life of Chef James Beard, written by James Still and directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Starring Rob Nagle as James Beard. Scenic Design by Tom Buderwitz, Lighting Design by Daniel Meeker, Sound Design by John Zalewski, Costume Design by Jeff Cone, Casting by Rose Riordan. Runs January 8th – February 3rd, 2013, Tuesdays through Sundays, evening 7:30 performances Tuesday through Saturday, matinee Saturday and Sunday performances at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $59 – $65 evening performances, $39 – $45 for matinees, student youth tickets are $25 with valid I.D. Tickets available through the PCS Web Site, or by calling the box office at (503) 445-3700, or e-mailing boxoffice@pcs.org.
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I Love to Eat at Portland Center Stage

Byron Beck | Byronbeck.com [18 Jan 2013]

EAT BEAT: “I Love to Eat” is more than just a great night of theater, it’s also an opportunity to spend time with a really cool guy.

Rob Nagle absolutely nails his portrayal of Oregon-born icon James Beard in a one-man show about a man many may have heard of, but may not know much about (except for those in the foodie world).

At Portland Center Stage, Nagle is not only able to pierce the membrane of a man who popularized the “American” style of cooking (there’s a great conversation about fried chicken embedded in this play) but he exposes the somewhat lonely soul of a man who not only loved to eat, but laugh, love and LIVE.

That’s the big message that “I Love To Eat” shares with its audience on the mainstage of the Armory. It’s not just about food, nor would it work if it was just about food; we have plenty of reality shows that do just that. No, this show is about the passions of one man, including his much missed and beloved Oregon, and how he was able to share that with not only with his dining companions but with the world. I could have spent the whole night listening to Nagel channel James Beard and his stories. And isn’t that what a good dinner host is supposed to do?

Opening night of this West Coast premiere was capped with a larger-than-life party, to benefit Portland’s soon-to-open public market featuring James Beard’s name, held in the lobby of the Gerding Theater featuring not one, but four, Portland-based James Beard Foundation winners including Gabe Rucker, Philippe Boulot, Corey Schreiber and Greg Higgins.

Kitchen aid: James Beard on a platter

Bob Hicks | Oregon Arts Watch [18 Jan 2013]

Once upon a time in the upscale eating houses of the last century, a dining room was a dining room and a kitchen was a kitchen, and never the flame would meet.

But something was stirring.

As the best restaurants took pains to disguise the existence of the back of the house and serve their customers in a patrician hush, millions of customers at America’s bustling corner diners sat at the counter, gulped their grub, and stared eagerly into one of the greatest improvisational floor shows devised by industrial humankind: the clattering, chattering, rough-and-rowdy turmoil of the short-order grill. Who needed radio or TV when you could watch a tattooed guy flipping a flapjack or hear a waitress shout out an order for “Adam and Eve on a raft”?

Once they escaped the slavery of their own home kitchens and ventured into the world of public eating, Americans knew instinctively that a kitchen is a theater. But it took a certain kind of chef/entertainer to bring the high and low worlds of cookery together and create one of the country’s favorite forms of show business, whether you were out on the town or entertaining in: Let’s all gather in the kitchen! In the new food world baked up by celebrity chefs from Julia Child to Paul Prudhomme to the traveling kitschmeister Guy Fieri, open kitchens and molecular gastronomy and pop-sociological references to “the third place” mix easily with food carts and rib joints and designer pizza palaces.

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Once upon a time in the upscale eating houses of the last century, a dining room was a dining room and a kitchen was a kitchen, and never the flame would meet.

But something was stirring.

As the best restaurants took pains to disguise the existence of the back of the house and serve their customers in a patrician hush, millions of customers at America’s bustling corner diners sat at the counter, gulped their grub, and stared eagerly into one of the greatest improvisational floor shows devised by industrial humankind: the clattering, chattering, rough-and-rowdy turmoil of the short-order grill. Who needed radio or TV when you could watch a tattooed guy flipping a flapjack or hear a waitress shout out an order for “Adam and Eve on a raft”?

Once they escaped the slavery of their own home kitchens and ventured into the world of public eating, Americans knew instinctively that a kitchen is a theater. But it took a certain kind of chef/entertainer to bring the high and low worlds of cookery together and create one of the country’s favorite forms of show business, whether you were out on the town or entertaining in: Let’s all gather in the kitchen! In the new food world baked up by celebrity chefs from Julia Child to Paul Prudhomme to the traveling kitschmeister Guy Fieri, open kitchens and molecular gastronomy and pop-sociological references to “the third place” mix easily with food carts and rib joints and designer pizza palaces.

James Beard, the big and gregarious columnist and cookbook author who happened to grow up in Portland, was one of the pioneers of the celebrity food world. There were other and earlier experts, from cookbook queen Fannie Farmer to restaurant rater Duncan Hines to war correspondent A.J. Liebling, whose almost erotically yearning descriptions of his memorable meals in Europe helped awaken a dormant tastebud on the palates of his eager readers. But Beard seemed an American original: He loved French cuisine but also championed good American regional cooking, from Boston baked beans to Oregon oysters to the hams and hush puppies of the South and the home-baked breads of the Midwest. A wonderful world of food, he assured his readers and listeners, was right here, just waiting to be rediscovered. In the world of cooking, what, and who, could be more innately theatrical than James Beard?

So when Portland Center Stage announced it was producing a one-man show about this American cooking icon, it sounded like a slam dunk. A great big friendly American figure, a pioneer of what’s become Foodie Nation, and a guy with deep local roots: His mother ran a boarding house in Portland, and James became an early young creative: an opera singer (not quite good enough), a Reedie (kicked out in 1922 for “homosexual activities”), a stage actor in the ’20s in one of the companies that soon joined to become the legendary Portland Civic Theatre. The family cooked and ate well, and vacationed frequently at Gearhart on the Oregon coast, where years later Beard returned annually to run a West Coast branch of his cooking school.

And sure enough, there’s plenty of reason to want to like “I Love To Eat,” the play that opened last weekend at Center Stage. First and foremost, actor Rob Nagle fits the gregarious Beard personality to a well-cooked T. That shiny bare skull, that friendly grin, that overgrown shambling gait, that oddball stitching-together of wry New York sophisticate and down-to-earth Westerner, as if he were part Cole Porter and part Zane Grey: Nagle makes Beard as likable and gossipy an evening’s companion as you can imagine.

Yet watching this genial, often tasty, yet curiously half-baked production, the thought struck me: When is a solo show a stand-up routine or a character sketch, and when does it cross over and become an actual play?

Several days afterwards I’m still trying to figure out where the actual play is, or where it might be if it existed, because the life and times of this great American gourmand would seem to be littered with dramatic possibilities. But writer James Still seems to have concentrated on nailing down Beard’s outsized personality without reckoning on the need for dramatic tension or a narrative thrust – the show’s major complication arrives late and feels forced – and that’s too bad, because the possibilities are here for a very good show, if only it had a sense of where it wanted to go.

As it is, the show is friendly and accomplished and sometimes even witty but also oddly flat: You can feel the little empty spaces where the script pauses for audience laughter and nothing much happens. It’s not a bad show. I found myself amused, and entertained by Nagle’s stage skills, and interested in what was going to happen next, but in a low-key way: the vitality that could have been there was lacking – and mostly from the script, a fact only partially obscured by some genuinely strange sound effects and a circus ring of stage tricks. If it’s going to be an actual play the thing needs shape, and it needs conflict that isn’t just tacked on. There should be plenty to choose from: Beard’s free-and-easy attitude toward product endorsement, a problem that continues to plague the cooking industry; the rub between his small-town roots and big-city aspirations; the troubles of being a gay man at a time when public acknowledgement might kill his career; even the loneliness-amid-the-crowd that Still’s script hints at. Choices need to be made.

That said, if you’re interested in the food world or Oregon history or just the fascinating character that James Beard was, this affable little show still has its charms. Director Jessica Kubzansky and scenic designer Tom Buderwitz have whipped up some fun stage bits, including a boffo surprise opening entrance. There are some frightfully silly puppet scenes with Elsie the Borden cow. (Other reviewers have been less kind to these scenes, but I found them just goofy enough to squeeze out a, well, horse laugh.) And Nagle shows off some impressive chops, sometimes literally: He’s got real knife skills dicing an onion. I love the way his voice and demeanor become calmer and more centered whenever he’s actually preparing food. And I love the way his voice becomes forced and a little manic when he’s winging it on camera in his 1946 NBC show “I Love To Eat,” the very first network cooking show on American television. Of course he was nervous: Nobody’d ever done this sort of thing before.

One other point: This show seems best when it’s at its most intimate: Nagle has a natural easy charm, and he can play a crowd. That makes me think the show would work more congenially in Center Stage’s much smaller and blessedly rowdier basement-level Ellen Bye Studio than on the bigger Main Stage upstairs, where a one-person show can tend to get distanced and lost. I understand why “I Love To Eat” was put on the bigger stage. Portland’s a foodie town, and Beard’s a local hero, and this was a chance to sell a lot of tickets to a relatively low-budget show. It seemed like a smart business move. Unfortunately, it’s also an uncomfortable fit.

Bottom line: This ain’t the James Beard Show we might have wished for. But it’s the James Beard show we’ve got. OK, the soup’s a little thin. But if you curb your appetite a little bit and mind your peas and carrots, you might just find it’s a pleasing enough meal at that. It’s no Four Seasons. But it’s a good step up from Applebee’s.

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Portland Center Stage’s “I Love to Eat”

Jonathan Frochtzwajg | Portland Monthly [18 Jan 2013]

It is a strange-but-truism of humans’ strange-but-true psychology that the most sociable people are also often the loneliest. Famed chef James Beard was one such walking contradiction, at least as represented in Portland Center Stage’s new production about the Portland-born epicure. The one-man show, written by the Los Angeles–based James Still and directed by L.A.’s Jessica Kubzansky, is a well-staged and excellently acted—if not fully satisfying—“character” study of a man who was known for his clubbiness, but for whom countless dinner parties never quite stuck to the ribs.

First, for the nonfoodies among us (this reviewer included), an introduction: James Beard, born in Portland in 1903, helped come up with the concept of distinctly American cuisine, was America’s first television chef, and gave his name to “the Oscars of Food,” the James Beard Foundation Awards. Beard was a dyed-in-the-wool social animal, a consummate host, a razor-sharp wit, an unpretentious cook (his motto was, “good food, honestly prepared”), and a zealous sensualist. He was also a failed opera singer, an out gay man in a closeted society, and, as already stated, a rather lonesome person; it’s in bringing these darker, compelling facets of Beard’s life to light that I Love to Eat is most valuable.

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The play takes place in Beard’s apartment in the middle of the night as Beard, unable to sleep, does what he does best: entertain us, the audience, as midnight-snack guests of sorts. We learn about our host not only through his free-associative monologues, but through conversations he has on his multiple, incessantly ringing phones (“I fear the day the phone stops ringing,” Beard tells us); flashbacks to his TV show; and even a bit of absurd but well-played ventriloquism. Starting by reducing the fourth wall to rubble, playwright Still continually surprises his audience with creative ways of keeping one guy talking for an hour and a half interesting.

That guy, Eugene-born actor Rob Nagle, gives an impressive performance, laudable not just for its endurance but for its perfect pitch. Nagle’s delivery of his comedic dialogue, for instance, is spot-on, employing pregnant pauses and arched-eyebrow looks as visual drum stings. In our interview with her last month, director Kubzansky said it would take “a shocking amount of repetition and physical discipline” to make Nagle look as at ease in the kitchen as Beard would have. Their hard work has paid off: In the part of I Love to Eat when Nagle prepares canapés live, he appears just as in his element as Beard would have been—producing, in addition to delicious-looking hors d’oeuvres, the play’s finest moment.

I Love to Eat runs at the Gerding Theater at the Armory through Feb 3.While Nagle’s acting is outstanding, the script he’s working from has some problems. The conversational format of I Love to Eat’s dialogue, while admirably naturalistic, doesn’t provide much more biographical information about Beard than his Wikipedia page does, and the play doesn’t delve deeply enough into some of the most intriguing aspects of Beard’s life, from an alluded-to unhappy childhood, to his transition from singing student to chef, to what it was like to be out of the closet in a deeply homophobic time. (Admittedly, that might not be fair, as Beard himself apparently didn’t treat his sexuality as very important.) That said, it’s difficult to give a 360-degree picture of anybody—much less a public figure—in the limited format of a one-man show. I Love to Eat reveals more of Beard than not, and the play especially succeeds in examining the voracious—and perhaps insatiable—appetite for human connection that gnawed at the man behind the apron.

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I Love to Eat at Portland Center Stage

Kris Haines | The Crippled Critic [18 Jan 2013]

I saw “I Love to Eat” at the perfect time in my life, I have just begun to cook and I’ve had enough successes that I’ve arrived at the “this is fun!” stage. If playwright James Still’s portrait of James Beard is accurate, Mr. Beard does not seem to have ever left that stage. He was a foodie, but not a food snob. My favorite parts of the play were the little pearls of wisdom he gives the audience about food, cooking, his own process, and tips and tricks.  One of these is his distaste for pretension, (he hated the word “cuisine” to describe American cookery.) There’s a moment where he lavishes praise on fellow TV-chef Julia Child’s garlic mashed potatoes, though he quick to wonder whether the cream sauce is necessary….

The play shares its name with Mr. Beard’s cooking show, the first of its kind, and the title does seem an apt description of the man and his philosophy. He loved to eat, and viewed food as a path to happiness. Some of us got to share in his love for food right there in the moment, as the actor (Rob Nagle)  prepared onion sandwiches for the first row….

The highest compliment I can pay the show is that it has inspired me to seek out one of James Beard’s cookbooks…. Throughout the show Mr. Beard insists that it was his mission to convince people that cooking is not something reserved for the elite, and I will take him at his word, his approach is very enticing to a beginner, and seems to start with a love for eating. I have that in spades, oh and I have a monogrammed apron just like his… I’m well on my way!

 

Eat to Live, Live to Eat or Just Simply Love to Eat

Tamara S. Belgard | Sip With Me! [18 Jan 2013]

The name James Beard is to foodies as Pavlov’s bell is to dogs. You hear the name and you immediately think of food so genuinely good and so simply scrumptious that your mouth begins to salivate.

If you love to eat, are interested in the Portland food scene or culinary history, this is one play you don’t want to miss. Portland Center Stage is currently running I Love to Eat, a play that showcases the culinary genius James Beard, at the Gerding Theater through January 24, 2013.  Actor Rob Nagle brilliantly portrays the larger-than-life iconic figure who elevated cooking to an art form (while keeping it completely accessible) in this one-man show about the legendary chef from Portland. Nagle spoonfeeds the audience tidbits about cooking, and the history of cooking. You’ll learn that the earliest recipe was one for beer and was written as a poem 6,000 years ago. He’ll even demonstrate how to whip up a perfect mayonnaise, and surprisingly produces a batch of what looked like tasty sandwiches for those lucky enough to be sitting in the front row. I Love to Eat is not only a whole lot funnier than I expected, it’s also peppered with generous dashes of warmth, honesty, tenderness, passion and beauty, which all come together to fill you up and leave you truly satiated, as if you’d just consumed a wonderful meal presented by the perfect host.

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The play honors the epicure who started it all.

Long before the Food Network was concieved, James Beard was the star of the first-ever TV cooking show on NBC called I Love to Eat (in 1946) where he demonstrated techniques for everyday American cookery. He wasn’t a gourmet—in fact he despised the pretentiousness of that word—Beard’s philosophy was “Be simple. Be honest. Fresh ingredients, the best you can find, in season.” It’s a bit ironic that a man who wrote 26 cookbooks would say something like “There are no new recipes, just variations on a theme,” and yet he did. His ground-breaking way of cooking, one that included being true to one’s region, has stood the test of time and inspired so many great chefs.The James Beard Foundation was set up in his memory to provide recipes, education and scholarships that help aspiring culinary students from all walks of life, while preserving his vision of American culinary’s heritage and future.

You don’t have to be a chef or a foodie, you just have to love to eat.

I’ve accepted it, as a Jewish girl, I’ve always known how to eat… let’s face it, food is in my genes. As a skinny child, I think I heard the words “Eat, you’re a growing girl” (insert New York Jewish mother accent here) more than I heard anything else, including “Would it kill you to clean up your room?”. My memories of childhood strongly steeped in food, like a good cup of tea. Food was not only the centerpiece of every religious holiday, it was also used as reward for good behavior, punishment for bad and was one of the ways my parent’s showed their love (my mother by cooking our favorite meals and my father who valued sharing culinary experiences with his kids by taking us out to ethnic restaurants so as to expose us to different foods from around the world). Though I clearly understood the foods of my culture, I wouldn’t truly understand or appreciate the foods of my region, or seasonal or locally-sourced cooking until I moved to Portland.


Portland gets a new pantry.

Portland is fortunate to have a multitude of seasonal and even some year-round farmer’s markets. And with places like New Seasons, finding fresh, local produce and the best ingredients needn’t ever be a challenge. But things are about to get even easier and more interesting for Portlanders. Watch for the James Beard Public Market at the west end of the Morrison Bridge to arrive soon. The full-time, year-round, indoor-outdoor market will feature 40-60 permanent vendors who can help you satisfy your cravings for fresh and local cuisine.

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