Garry Geiken on playing James Beard: "I learned how progressive his ideas about people and their relationship to food was."
Geiken had help to not just preserve his digits from rogue knives, but also putting on the show. Local chef and Arts Institute International instructor Seth Bixby Daugherty has worked with Geiken on the role.
"We basically started with the mechanics of what is happening during the show. Beard talks about these little delicate onion sandwiches. As he talks about himself and his life in New York, he makes these sandwiches," Geiken says. "It's not advanced cooking. It's knife-handling techniques and everyday things."
James Stills's play sets the action in 1984, with Beard alone in his New York apartment. Over the course of the show, he looks back at his life as a chef -- he was the first to host a cooking show in the late 1940s and published more than 20 cookbooks -- and his years of celebrity.
"James was really about making things demystified. He was moving away from the industrial kitchens of the time -- the Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip cooking," Geiken says.
All of this provided plenty of challenges for the actor. "I started from zero. Not being a foodie by any stretch, all I knew of James Beard was with his foundation and the awards. There was a steep learning curve, but I learned how progressive his ideas about people and their relationship to food was," Geiken says.
Physically, Geiken does not resemble Beard, who was well over six feet tall and tipped the scales at nearly 300 pounds. "I read the play looking for the other characters," he says of being invited to audition by director Michael Robins.
It was previous roles as another bigger-than-life character that drew Robins's attention. "He had seen me years ago at the Jungle playing Orson Welles, and he was of the opinion I could carry something like this," Geiken says.
The actor has played Welles twice: At the Jungle (in Orson Welles Rehearses Moby Dick) and in the Ivey-winning Orson's Shadow at Gremlin Theater.
Like Welles, Beard was a public figure. That means there is some footage of the man, though "no tape exists of James Beard's original show," Geiken says.
"This is not a bio pic. It is not meant to be pictorial realism. It is theatrical. What you have is a portrait of a real American bon vivant who had a genuine passion for sharing his love of food with the public," Geiken adds.
And the role is rubbing off on the actor. "I am trying to be a little more adventurous at home. There is nothing I make that I would do other than to serve to friends. That was the charming thing about James Beard. He really wanted it to be everybody," Geiken says.
IF YOU GO:
I Love to Eat: A Love Story with Food
Through May 18
Illusion Theater, Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, 8th Floor
528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
For tickets and information, call 612.339.4944 or visit online.