ESCOFFIER: MASTER OF THE KITCHEN

by Max Sparber in ,


We’re in a sort of golden age for dining in Omaha. I have been away and back, and it happened in the interim. What happened? Hell if I know. When I first moved here, the fact that I was a vegetarian alarmed people. “What do you eat?” the would scream at me. “HOW DO YOU LIVE?”

Salads were then a pile of lettuce topped with store-bought ranch dressing. Pizzas were soggy wedges of enriched flour and government cheese. Steakhouses were in decline, and while I hear the steak was still good, apparently the approach to sides was “panicked afterthought.” There was a four-star French restaurant, but apparently it had only enough room for a person and a half and you had to wander down a Little Italy back alley with a flashlight to find it. That’s how I remember it, anyway.

Nowadays, the town has gone fine dining crazy. Maybe it is the influence of the culinary school at Metropolitan Community College. Maybe it is the cumulative effect of 32 television stations devoted to well-made food. Every day we see an endless loop of Chef Gordon Ramsay calling adults donkeys while charming children into making authentic Occitan pan-bagnat and salade niçoise.

Whatever the cause, it’s a good time for food in Omaha.

And it’s a good time for plays about food. I won’t write much about local theater on these pages, because it presents a frequent conflict of interests, and because Omaha is mostly a city of community theaters and one begins to feel a bit like Thaddeus Bristol when one’s criticism becomes too pointed. But Martin Skomal is currently doing a one-man show about French chef Auguste Escoffier, and he was kind enough to invite me to his last performance, and it’s a sort of perfect play for the sort of play it is.

I mean, the script, by Owen S. Rackleff (and then adapted by Barbee Davis), is a bit perfunctory at time, and is written in that style in which a character appears onstage, introduces themselves, and then just talks about themselves for a while. It’s not an approach to storytelling that’s considered especially sophisticated, but I’ve written a few plays like this, and in a pinch they do the trick. This play is 45 minutes long, the writing is light and lively, and tells the story with a minimum of fuss, and sometimes the best thing you can do as a storyteller is get out of the way of the story.

Skomal plays Escoffier with a great deal of élan, an approach to performance that seems just right for playing a Frenchman. There’s some joie de vivre as well, and, while we’re on the topic of vivre, quite a lot of vivre d'amour et d'eau fraîche. I do not know what Escoffier was like in life, but in this play, as limned by Skomal, he’s somebody you would want to sit down to dinner with, and not just for the food, but also for his life story.

Escoffier brought military precision to the kitchen, created pêche Melba and spearheaded the cause to codify haute cuisine. If that were not enough for good dinner conversation, he was a friend to the royalty and the artists of his era, and, while this play is light on gossip, one imagines Escoffier knew the best of it. One hopes that after a few drinks he would have had some indelicate things to say on the subject of, say, Sarah Bernhardt, after who he named a fraises of strawberries, pineapple, and Curaçao sorbet. Heck, he could potentially have provided the wine – he is rumored to have stolen £3400 of wine and spirits from the Ritz Hotel. And nothing makes gossip more daring than a hint of larceny.

We can’t have food, drinks, and conversation with Escoffier, alas, as he died in 1935. But Skomal provides an enjoyable facsimile of the conversation, and has wisely paired it with an enjoyable recreation of the dining. In the past, Skomal presented his show at restaurants and at MCC’s culinary school (the latter is where I saw it), and so the evening becomes a sort of epicurean pairing, where the wine is selected to go with the food, which, in turn, is selected to go with the performance. And this is as it must be – it would be cruel to spend 45 minutes listening to Skomal sing praises to exquisite cooking and then leave with an empty stomach.

"Escoffier: Master of the Kitchen" is performing Sunday, March 30 at Le Voltaire French Restaurant, 402-934-9374.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you , Max!. I am so glad you enjoyed the performance at Metro last November. TICKETS are still available for this Sunday, March 31 at Le Voltaire. $50 gets you the play, a glass of wine and a three course "Escoffier-inspired" French meal prepared by the impeccable Chef Cedric Fichepain of LeVoltarie. But hurry only about 10 seats left so call soon.

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  2. OOPS - that should be Sunday March 30th, not 31st.

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