Director shares Julia Child’s delight in dining
by Hedy Weiss Theater Critic September 10, 2013 7:59PM
Bill Brown, co-writer and director of the Broadway in Chicago show "To Master The Art" makes a scrambled egg recipe at his home in Chicago Wednesday morning. The Julia Child recipe is also made onstage during the show. | Michael R. Schmidt-For Sun-Times Media
‘TO MASTER THE ART’
When: Through Oct. 20
Where: Broadway Playhouse
at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
Tickets : $25-$75
Info: (800) 775-2000;
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes
with one intermission
Updated: October 12, 2013 6:05AM
You don’t have to be a certified foodie or Cordon Bleu chef to love Julia Child. You need only be an enthusiast for life — for the pleasures of fresh produce, a plump chicken, perfectly scrambled eggs and, above all, good company. That was the whole point. And that is why, many TV cooking shows and thousands of cookbooks after the arrival of Child’s 1961 best-seller “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” the woman with the warbly voice and larger-than-life personality continues to delight audiences.
William Brown, the multitalented Chicago actor and director, loves good food almost as much as he loves the theater, and like many he found his culinary passion set in motion by way of Child’s hugely engaging television shows.
To celebrate Julia Child, her beloved husband, Paul, and the couple’s intriguing post-war years spent in Paris, Brown collaborated with Doug Frew on a play, “To Master the Art,” which became a big success for TimeLine Theater in 2010. It is now being remounted in a commercial production at the Broadway Playhouse.
I recently chatted with Brown about his passion for cooking, eating and sharing a table with friends. Here is some of what he said:
Q. Do you have a philosophy about food?
A. Food must be good, but the event, the occasion of eating, is just as important. I think this was a great deal of Julia’s message. She made it look fun, spontaneous, a great adventure. All the great meals of my life have been events: the Christmas Eve dinners my partner, Steve Hinger, and I have hosted for years; the Day of the Dead feasts at my friend and writing partner Doug Frew’s house in the country; the trout pulled out of a river in Montana; dinners in the backyard. It’s the where and the who and the love that is passed around the table that matters most.
Q. Is there one grand meal you’ve “staged” at home that stands out?
A. Steve and I have been doing “immersive,” five-hour-long Christmas Eve dinners for a decade. We pick a country or time period as a theme, invite about 20 people, and there is lots of food and storytelling. I think our Scandinavian-themed dinner was one of the best, with a homemade chandelier made of tree branches and crystal drops. And last year was Julia Child’s 100th birthday, so the meal sort of traced her evolution from her California beginnings to her time in France, Norway and Boston. Our best friends are wine importers, and each course was a competition between French and California wines. This year I’m pushing for Greece, but Steve wants England.
Q. Do you have a fancy kitchen?
A. No, just a four-burner stove, and some room to cook and some basic tools, including a really good steel-clad saute pan and a whisk. As a director, I travel quite a bit, and I always bring my electric wok. I’ve begun learning Vietnamese cooking.
Q. What are your favorite recipes?
A. I have two. There’s one from a Patricia Wells cookbook that is for a leg of lamb cooked over layers of potatoes and onions, with tomatoes, garlic, rosemary and olive oil. And there’s a spicy penne in vodka sauce that dates back to my first trip to Europe in 1997. We went to a restaurant in Florence that served it — long before it became a popular dish in this country. When I got home I wanted to re-create it but couldn’t find a recipe until on the day of a dinner party I went to a bookstore, started leafing through every Italian cookbook, and found the exact one from Alla Vecchia Bettola, the trattoria where we ate.
Q. Do you have some favorite restaurants in Chicago?
A. I love Sola (at 3868 N. Lincoln), which has careful yet adventuresome contemporary food with hints of Hawaiian and Asian. Their short ribs are amazing; so are their truffle fries. I’ve gone to Yoshi’s (3257 N. Halsted) for years, which does a French and Japanese fusion. And then there’s Le Sardine (111 N. Carpenter), a traditional French bistro that has a great cassoulet, as well as a coq au vin that uses Riesling white wine rather than the usual red wine, and is 100 times better.
Q. Cooking on stage can be tricky. Do you have some guidelines in “To Master the Art”?
A. Julia had a gas stove in Paris, but in the show we cook the scrambled eggs on an electric burner that is inset into a stove that looks as if it’s gas.
Q. Was your mom a good cook?
A. I grew up in a small town in West Virginia, and my mom made a few things well. But my dad’s family were farmers, so from early on I knew about cream right from cows, vegetables from the garden, and delicious cured ham — so when I had my first slice of prosciutto in Italy I felt right at home.
Q. Your next project is directing “Tom Jones” (Jan. 17-Feb. 23 at Northlight Theatre), which also involves food, right?
A. Yes, and the actors who auditioned for that show had to mime eating roast chicken so that it became all about sex.