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How Do You Build a Better Restaurant for a Play about at Restaurant?


By Bruce Chadwick

originally published: 01/25/2023

How Do You Build a Better Restaurant for a Play about at Restaurant?

How do you build a better restaurant for a play set in a restaurant? You go out and get people who work in restaurants to do it, that’s how.

And that is exactly what the folks at the George Street Playhouse, in New Brunswick, did for the play Clyde’s that goes into previews on January 31 and runs through February 19th at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.

Clyde’s, written by Lynn Nottage, is the story of a highway-side sandwich shop restaurant owner who wants to give ex-convicts a second chance in life. To do that, he hires a whole bunch of them to run his restaurant. There is immediate strain between the owner and one of the ex-cons and that’s the story of the play, along with the tale of how the ex-cons vie with each other to create the world’s perfect sandwich.

How Do You Build a Better Restaurant for a Play about at Restaurant?

But how do you actually slice meat for a sandwich? Make salads? How?

You go and get guys who do that for a living, and do it well, and have done it for several years.



 
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The people at the George Street Playhouse, always looking for authenticity, hired Chef J, who works at Elijah’s Promise - a soup kitchen in New Brunswick, that serves meals to 1,000 people a week, to come to the playhouse teach the cast of the show how to be a restaurant worker.

“You ever work all days with knives moving fast in your hands? Not easy,” said Chef J.

Hey, I could not imagine moving knives around quickly. I could not imagine how they make burgers so quickly. Me? The only thing I know about steaks and salads is how to eat them quickly.

Chef J, who was graduated from Promise Culinary School, part of the Elijah Soup Kitchen network, understands his actor/chefs but always worries about them. “The big concern I have where I work, Elijah’s, is safety in cooking. You could get injured. I teach everybody how to be safe with knives and forks. I stay up at night sometimes worrying that I taught safety as well as I could, as well as I taught cooking.”

How Do You Build a Better Restaurant for a Play about at Restaurant?

His job with the play is to make expert chefs and kitchen workers out of the actors in the show.

“I do not teach people how to be restaurant chefs. I teach them how to be good ‘actor chefs’. There’s a difference,”

He shrugs his shoulder. “When you go to a play, on the one hand, you appreciate the way the food comes out for diners in the show. On the other hand, you are mystified by what goes on back in the kitchen. How do they do that in the kitchen, an area you don’t see. All of us go out to eat and wonder how they cook and prepared food. This play tells you how they do that as part of a storyline. I think we succeed. I think that, a little bit, theatergoers get a good example from us of how the kitchen works,” said the Chef.

How Do You Build a Better Restaurant for a Play about at Restaurant?



 
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His work gets his ‘actor chefs’ ready to step on stage in Clyde’s... From there, the real kitchen job goes to scenic designer Riw Rakkulchon. He moves everybody, and every table, around to help the cast present a strong and engaging play.

“Example,” said Rakkulchon. “A family of four sits around a table to eat dinner. In a play or TV show the audience needs to see all the people not just their backs. In this play, and others like it, we move things around so you see everything.”

People eating in a restaurant do not think of that. “It’s double edge,” said the set designer.  “People want to have a good meal. They don’t think of all the work that entails.”

And too, he says and Chef J agrees, a restaurant is a “home” where a “family,” both workers and patrons, lives.

Football coaches call their players a family. Newspaper editors call their staffs a “family.” The owners of restaurants feel the same way about their employees and patrons.

How Do You Build a Better Restaurant for a Play about at Restaurant?

 (L to R) Gabriel Lawrence; Director Melissa Maxwell; Darlene Hope; Ryan Czerwonko; Sydney Cusic; & Xavier Reyes

“The family works together to serve fine meals in this play.  The stress between the restaurant owner and the ex cons is the story of the way our restaurant ‘family’ works together, too,” said Rakkulchon.

Chef J knows the business. He worked in it for three years in addition to his 17 week culinary school courses. 

“The George Street Playhouse people asked me, as a food veteran, to teach the actors how our ‘family’ works.  I did that. I think people who see the show will see that ‘family’ at work on stage,” he said.

There is a second step. The kitchen jobs are the ex cons first jobs out of prison, so it is there where they learn to re-socialize with all of society, It’s working on that while working on food preparation that is an integral part of the play. ”The audience watches them re-adjust to society through work – here – and that is a story in itself,” said Chef J (real named Jay Goldberg).

How Do You Build a Better Restaurant for a Play about at Restaurant?

At the end of the night (the end of the play) in the restaurant do the actors all pitch in to clean up the kitchen?



 
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Oh, no!

“The theater crew does that, thank God!” said the set designer.

I’m going to see the play and every time I eat dinner in a restaurant in the rest of my life, I’ll remember how these guys cook cheeseburgers!

Hey, not too much ketchup! No, I said onion rings. Where’s the salt shaker?  But no matter how the dinner is cooked, I’ll leave a big tip because I’ll know all the work that goes into this life of work, and into my cheeseburger!

George Street Playhouse presents Clyde's from January 31 through February 19, 2023 at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ). For ticket information, click here.

How Do You Build a Better Restaurant for a Play about at Restaurant?

Photos Courtesy of George Street Playhouse



Bruce Chadwick worked for 23 years as an entertainment writer/critic for the New York Daily News. Later, he served as the arts and entertainment critic for the History News Network, a national online weekly magazine. Chadwick holds a Ph. D in History and Cultural Studies from Rutgers University. He has written 31 books on U.S. history and has lectured on history and culture around the world. He is a history professor at New Jersey City University.

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