Aug. 07--Chicago, you likely have figured out by now, has more than its expected share of theaters and cutting-edge restaurants.
This week at the Goodman Theatre, you can see a relatively rare collaboration between the two dominant local cultural industries. That would be "Cascabel," a show that combines the theatricality of the Lookingglass Theatre Company with the culinary skills of Rick Bayless, the famous chef-owner of such nationally prominent eateries as Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco.
It is not a cheap ticket -- ducats begin at $225; food, show and wine all in -- but "Cascabel" is a very tasty and enjoyable night out, filled with food, circus, wine and a sense of well-being. It is very much a made-in-Chicago enterprise.
So why has the restaurant business in Chicago grown up in tandem over the last couple of decades with the theater business? Mere coincidence?
Not at all. The two fields, as practiced in Chicago, have some real commonalities.
Most of the best restaurants in Chicago are small businesses in storefronts. They usually are the work of creative entrepreneurs, sometimes paddling their own canoe, sometimes working with fiscal partners. Many of these entrepreneurs are mavericks and creative obsessives perfectly happy to work 100 hours a week as long as they then can hit their beds knowing they have control over their own creativity.
They are not primarily motivated by profit or, as the business types say, potential scalability. They are interested in quality, originality, moving the needle. They like to pass on their skills to others. They are, first and foremost, making an artistic statement.
Those are exactly the kinds of people who thrive in the theater business in Chicago.
More important, both businesses are inherently friendly to the boutique operation. Film and television, for example, usually require larger amounts of capital and are dominated by forces on the East and West coasts. Chicago has some action in such fields, but those industries are run elsewhere, and the deal-making and talent progression in the creative realms therein are dominated by agencies that lack a significant presence in Chicago.
Even the music business tends to pull the most ambitious away. But theaters and restaurants are better able to thrive in Chicago.
Neither theaters nor restaurants are instantly duplicable: Many is the chef who has taken heat for putting his or her name above the door but leaving the actual cooking to others. And in Chicago, both are approached by the purchaser with the thrill of discovery.
It has, generally, not been an impediment to a chef to have a restaurant located outside the Loop. Many have made their name through cooking in Wicker Park, Lakeview or even in a strip mall on the Northwest Side. There is both a neighborhood demand for such places and a hard-core coterie of fans, urban, suburban and touristique, all willing to travel to see the latest hot thing. Both of those statements also are true about the Chicago theater.
Bayless is a theater fan; he's been in the audience at many Chicago shows. A few other chefs and restaurant owners make appearances, too, although the two mostly nocturnal industries don't make it easy for those involved in them to watch each other's work.
The hours of the actor and the chef are as similar as their points of view. Perhaps that explains why collaborations between these two jewels in Chicago's creative crown are rarer than one might expect.
But there is some new crossover action. The game-changing advance-ticketing system at Next (the restaurant, not the theater of the same name) was spawned by its owner watching how Steppenwolf sold tickets. With shows that combine food and theater increasing in popularity all across America, there are some rumblings of more stuff along the lines of "Cascabel," maybe at a different price point, maybe just as exclusive, maybe even more so.
Bring 'em all on, I say. Nothing is a better fit for Chicago!
Theater Loop in Stratford: This summer, join Chris Jones and The Theater Loop on a getaway to Ontario, Canada. "Press Pass: Theater Loop Goes to Stratford Festival" includes bus transportation from Chicago to the festival and tickets to four productions, plus backstage tours and other extras. Check out theaterloopstratford.eventbrite.com
When: Through Aug. 31
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $215-$375; 312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org
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