Maybe it is cliche but they say dinner and a show makes for a great date. I’m hoping so because this weekend my boyfriend and I will be eating at Conni’s Avant Garde Resturant – which is both dinner and a show. But this is not your average local dinner theatre. They are really serious about their local food. I got the chance to talk with some of the folks working on the show about their menu and focus on local food. Below the jump is a brief interview and information on how you can get your own tickets to this fun event.
1. How do you conceive of your menu? Is it different from show to show?
We create entirely different menus for each show but sometimes we do reprise seasonal hits, for example, you just can’t beat curried butternut squash soup in the winter. The “writing” for the menu and for the show itself starts with where we are at any given moment in time. We ask: What’s fresh, local, topical, fun to eat, and easy to share? All other considerations are trumped by the interest of the actor-cooks, which is essential to me. We must love what we are making before we share it with the audience, and it must integrate playfully with the writing of the show..
Each Restaurant grounds itself in common experience with the audience (with our own special twist, of course), and tries to create the feeling of a special occasion. Since our guests are entering an unfamiliar situation, we provide meals that are comforting and have broad appeal (again, with our own special twist). That childhood question “What’s for dinner?” is a powerful marketing tool. We try to announce menus in advance that will make the audience crave the show. For one holiday show, we had potato leek soup, roast chicken with classic stuffing, and cranberry sauce. For the show in late August, the menu included the cooler offerings of a chilled gazpacho, watermelon-mint-feta salad, cold meatloaf sandwiches with pesto pasta salad and a dessert with fresh local blueberries.
2. Prepping a theatrical production is as challenging as prepping a meal for a large number of people. How do you keep your theatrical content and menu items fresh? And how do you avoid burnout?
We rehearse the scripted material and musical numbers as if we were mounting a more traditional show, but the format for the evening leaves plenty of room to improvise and be spontaneous.
Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant was made from scratch. Everything about our current show– the characters, the narrative, the format of the evening, the role of the audience, and the food service – was developed by a company of actors who work together to stage ideas in the absence of a director or sole author. In the first two years of this project, the content varied widely from event to event. This year we have been concentrating on refining the writing so that we can present it at different venues. Many loyal return audience members now know the “routine” and act as unofficial guides for new audience members (kind of like in the Rocky Horror Picture Show). What they look forward to most is the new menu each time.
The whole project could be described as a live episodic show about a fictional theater ensemble that is running a restaurant. As a company, we have all “done time” in New York’s downtown, experimental theatre scene. Many of us have worked in restaurants. These are the common points of departure when coming up with new material. We’re also highly influenced by popular culture and we love to make reference to our favorites: sitcoms, rock/pop music, public television, etc. There is always something new to say, there is always something that can be done or said just a little better, and the audience always throws us something new to work with.
3. Since this a food blog, I’m sure the readers are very curious – Where do you source your food from? How do you choose your food vendors?
We seek more and more to know our vendors personally, and we build the menu around featured, seasonal ingredients that we source locally. We have three cooks in the restaurant who divide authorship of the courses: I do soup, Jerusha Klemperer does appetizers and salad, and Jesse Gustafson does the entree and dessert. Jerusha is on staff at Slow Food USA and is also a native New Yorker with encyclopedic knowledge of the cultural and culinary offerings of this city. She provides us with most of the leads for food sourcing. You can read her blog.
With each iteration, we accumulate more knowledge but it is a slow process and is deterred by practical and financial concerns. Let me be clear: sourcing locally is not more expensive, its just more difficult to know that quantities will be available in advance or to arrange transport where we need it when we need it. For example, we wanted to source the watermelon locally for our early August menu, but the rain destroyed the local supply. We had already promised the audience watermelon, so we got it delivered from Fresh Direct. We are learning.
Our next show is at the Ohio Theatre in Manhattan and opens on Friday, so we will shop at the Union Square farmers market on Wednesday for the main produce items needed for the food we actually prepare in the theater itself—portobello mushrooms for the vegetarian sandwiches, and greens, berries and apples for the salad. I will get New York State Bartlett pears for the pear soup. This month they are inexpensive, plentiful, fresh, delicious and available even in local supermarkets. For the last show, I went to the Sunset Park farmers’ market and got tomatoes and jalapenos for the gazpacho from Rexcroft Farm, and the cucumbers from Angel Farm.. We like getting our bread from Grandaisy Bakery our ricotta cheese from Salvatore Brooklyn and berries from Fantasy Fruit Farm. We especially enjoy it when our vendors come to the show and we can incorporate them into the celebration.
4. I have heard that the company places an emphasis on Slow Food. Does anybody in the company have a food background or any kind of specialized training?
As I mentioned, we have a strong direct connection to the Slow Food movement through Jerusha Klemperer who is on staff there. Jesse Gustafson is a self-taught, talented mastermind in the kitchen who comes to the project out of creative interest in the latest innovations in cooking, recipes and trends. I care about conviviality and the way that food builds community. We balance one another well and argue about the menu until something inspires us all.
I think of our food concept as Slow Food from a cultural perspective—not only knowing where your food comes from, but knowing the people grow, prepare and share the meal with you. In a moment of supreme inspiration or foolishness (jury’s still out) I took a year off from my day job last year and attended the Culinary Management Program at the Institute of Culinary Education. In addition to the nuts-and-bolts, I was surprised to find that their main teaching was that the best restaurateurs are stage magicians. From a management perspective, more important than the food was creating an experience. They even made us write scripts for what a guest experiences step-by-step through the meal. I was pleased that what they were teaching was that the most successful restaurants have staff that, like the best theater artists, have a sense of ownership and sincerely care about the whole experience they provide. This is what we try to do at Conni’s: bring theatricality to the restaurant and hospitality to the theater.
Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant
starring Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant
with design by guest artist David Barber (sets) and Jeanette Yew (lights)
Two Nights! Friday and Saturday, September 25-26
@ The Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, Manhattan
Doors open at 6:30; Curtain promptly at 7:00pm
Click here to reserve in advance through SmartTix