There is no Iron Chef, Gordon Ramsay, or Great British Baking Show without James Beard. That’s a wide spectrum of culinary entertainment and maybe it seems a bit bold to name one man as the thread that links them all, but Beard’s legacy is just that profound. freeFall’s new production “I Love to Eat” aims to shine a light on the original celebrity chef, whose influence and approach to food culture set a standard, even if he isn’t as instantly recognizable as his good friend and contemporary Julia Child.
James Still wrote the script for “I Love to Eat”, and it qualifies as historical fiction in that it imagines a night in Beard’s kitchen as the chef talks the audience through everything from favorite recipes and cooking tips to painful regrets and heartbreak. It’s a one-man show, with Matthew McGee’s as Beard, up late in the kitchen of his New York apartment on a night (presumably) shortly before his death in 1985. Between taking calls from average citizens seeking cooking tips, whipping up charcuterie before anyone knew that was a thing, and carrying on conversations with both Child and Elsie the Cow (mascot to the sponsor of Beard’s television cooking show, the first of its kind), the chef reflects on a long career that, had he had his way, would have gone differently.
It’s a challenging script in that way, and, at moments, Stills’ piece is borderline frustrating. There’s no real plot to follow and the character pinballs from topic to topic, so it falls on McGee’s shoulders to keep the audience locked in. In lesser hands, the 75-minute, intermissionless show might run its course in a half hour and appeal only to Beard die-hards. But McGee and director Lee Anne Mathews tap into that special something that made Beard famous in the first place: his relatability. Before Beard’s numerous bestselling books, before the show (also called “I Love to Eat”), before the foundation and awards – still one of the most prestigious among culinary professionals in the U.S. – were named for him, Beard was an aspiring opera singer. The loss of that dream hurt until the end, as did the fact that he hid his homosexuality throughout his life. Famous for being approachable and rejecting elitist notions about the art of cooking, the celebrity chef everyone knew kept a lot hidden from view.
McGee’s portrayal balances the public and private Beard with lovely nuance; the character’s underlying melancholy is deeply felt, but the joyful snark is never far behind.
“It’s not Easter,” he tells a home cook at one point about her dish. “There’s no reason to try to raise it from the dead.”