When Ina Garten looks out from center stage at a live presentation, she sees an audience of hundreds of eager faces, hungry to share an in-person experience with the food star known as "The Barefoot Contessa."
Garten, who comes to Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, March 28, is one of in a long buffet line of food stars who are part of a growing trend in the presenting industry which supplies touring shows for theaters such as the Bushnell, Waterbury's Palace, New London's Garde and New Haven's Shubert.
"The response is very flattering, and I'm thrilled that people want to see me [on stage]," says Garten in a phone interview from her home in East Hampton, Long Island. "Actually, I'm quite stunned."
The Food Network star and author of eight best-selling cook books, has already sold 2,000 seats in the 2,700-seat hall for "a conversation with Ina Garten." The show, like Garten, is elegantly simple. She will be interviewed on stage by local food personality and entertainment producer Prudence Sloane, followed by questions from the audience.
"I think when you're in someone's home on TV they feel very close to you," says the soft-spoken Garten. who grew up in Stamford. "This is a nice way to get to know an audience."
Over the years, she says, she was urged to change her style and make her presentations more dynamic "but that's not who I am. For me, it's important to 'stick to my knitting,' as they say. I would love to do this for a long time and not be pulled off my game."
Garten has company in this growing field of "lifestyle shows" or "branded entertainment" where TV food and "reality" stars hit the road to offer "shared" experiences to fans at Broadway touring show prices.
The food personalities are the superstars in this new touring field and they include "Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro, who was a hit when he played the Bushnell last April. Robert Irvine ("Dinner: Impossible") played the Garde Arts Center in New London in December and brought out more than 800 in a snow storm. Coming up at the Bushnell in May is a show pairing the outspoken Anthony Bourdain — "the bad boy of cuisine" — and Eric Ripert, top chef at New York's Le Bernardin restaurant, rated three stars by the Michelin Guide.
Bourdain and Ripert up the performance ante as they play off their personas in the "Good Vs. Evil" show.
"People laugh most of the time, but it's not meant to be a 'performance' show," says Ripert in a phone interview from his restaurant. "It's way to share our cooking wisdom in a fun way. But I don't see myself as an entertainer and I've never been pressured to bring more personality [to the shows]. I am myself and I do what I want. I always try to be inspirational. But I also do it to have fun."
Says Ripert's co-star, Bourdain, in a phone interview: "We well understand that people should have an entertaining night out so we're not going to just sit there and drone on and on."
Bourdain perhaps better than most understands the value of expertise-plus-big-personality, having marketed himself on multiple venues from the Food Network to the Travel Channel's "No Reservations" to ABC's "The Taste" to his latest gig about dining traditions around the world for CNN, "Parts Unknown," which begins in April.
"For better or worse to be a successful chef and restaurateur, having media savvy helps," he says. "That said, Eric does very well [being himself] with his standards. That's sort of what makes the show fun. He has a reputation to protect. I don't. We have diverse personalities. He's a Buddhist. I'm a believer in vendettas."
Their two-hour show begins with a kind of "roast" with the two men exchanging barbed but playful remarks back and forth, followed by a casual unscripted "couch conversation" where they discuss such things as food trends, sustainability issues and global cuisines. The show ends with questions from the audience.
And what would Julia Child say? (She did food demonstrations and talks for charity, but never endorsed any products.) "She was the original master of the form of engaging audiences," says Bourdain. "So I think she would be entertained — and appalled."
And then there are the shows that embrace the "show" of show biz, with actual cooking on stage — and more.
Alton Brown, the snarky star of Food Network's "Good Eats" and host and judge of a number of its competitive shows, drives a food truck on stage and presents a show that's part cooking demonstration, part vaudeville. That show is booked for February at the Bushnell. Under consideration for next season is "MasterChef Live" with a gaggle of cooking wunderkinds showing off their competitive skills on stage.
But the king of food pizazz is Irvine,
"He's like a rock star," says Jeanne Sigel, marketing and development director at the 1,450-seat Garde Arts Center, referring to the show by the muscled Irvine, who made his entrance swinging on a rope from the loge onto the stage.
"He's a performance artist," says Steve Sigel, executive director of the Garde Arts Center. "This is not a conversation. Conversations just draw from the fan base. This is more. This is highly entertaining, engaging, multi-media show biz."
Irvine was already known locally from having made over a struggling Mystic restaurant in his newer "Restaurant: Impossible" show. But the turnout for his show was a surprise, says Sigel and the respopnse from the community enthusiastic with a hunger for more of this type of programming.
Food is now a leading driver of pop culture, says Bourdain. "Young people used to spend their money concerts or cocaine they can't afford. Now they spend money on restaurants they can't afford."
Connecting With Audiences
"[Pop culture shows] have really taken over" says Frank Tavera, executive director of the Palace Theater in Waterbury, who presented Bourdain as a hit solo act last year.
"As a manager of a venue ...I am required to present what the market will support, within limits," he says. "If the new celebrities are chefs or reality stars then we have a responsibility to present them — but not in lieu of other shows. But it's what the market supports right now and to ignore it is dangerous."
The food shows tap into a different market, say theater executives.
"We were looking for some new with energy to bring in the non-Broadway show market," says the Garde's Jeanne Sigel. "These shows help introduce another audience to our theater, people who drive by but have never come in."
She says shows like Irvine's are opportunities to connect to the community. For the Garde show, culinary students from local technical high school participated in the show.
Presenting houses executives at the Bushnell and other theaters stung by criticism of the decline of fine arts products, see the "lifestyle" shows as a way to capitalize on these popular events with spin-offs of their own, either for fundraising, outreach and just image-branding their venue as a more populist center.
Says the Garde's Steve Sigal: "People want more participation and not just on stage. Even the lobby has become more important to the event with activities happening there." He says spin-off activities from book signings, to meet-the-artists events to youth-related activities that connecting thematically to these shows make people feel more connected to their theaters.
After his show, Tavera says Bourdain was gracious and met with members of the audience, signing books and "really connecting with people."
The response has sometimes been wild, Bourdain says fans have presented him with sea urchins, military medals and "every kind of liquor." One fan displayed a tattoo of Bourdain's face on his inner thigh. "For once, I was speechless."
Reality Stars, Too
It's not just food stars whose tickets are hotter than a dish of peaches flambe. This new pop culture menu includes far-flung "reality" tastes, including TLC's "The Long Island Medium" Theresa Caputo, and "Myth Busters" stars Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, who have already played the Bushnell. Jillian Michaels, the sweat mistress in TV's "The Biggest Loser," is booked for May. And that's just the beginning, says Ric Waldman, director of programs at the Bushnell.
Part of it is competitive, he says. Presenting houses have lost musical acts to the casinos in Connecticut, a trend that shows no sign of reversing. And with top ticket prices as high as $60, the gross potential of these shows — which fall in the range of $40,000 to $75,000 — can be significant for presenting houses. Not all "experiential" shows are created equal. The Bushnell box office fizzled with two stars — Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet — from the hit network series, "Modern Family." Originally four stars from the show were part of that package, but even with the quartet in place, Waldman says "it wasn't clear exactly what the audience would be seeing."
There's also an opportunity to develop some of these new shows.
In June, The Bushnell will use its 900-seat Belding Theater as a try-out house for Tabatha Coffey, star of "Tabatha Salon Takeover" on the Bravo network. She's developing a stage show based on her series where she gives failing hair salons a new do.
So with the cultural bar continually being lowered for the dubious subjects of reality shows, where does an executive of an arts institution draw the line? Waldman says the Bushnell passed on a show based on the dysfunctional sea show, "The Deadliest Catch." And when it came to another show of an even smellier subject, the Bushnell declined to present garbage. Literally. It nixed a "American Pickers, Treasures or Trash"
INA GARTEN will be at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts,166 Capitol Ave., Hartford on Thursday, March 28, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are, $33.75 to $55.75 plus fees. Information: 860-987-5900 and www.bushnell.org.
ERIC RIPERT AND ANTHONY BOURDAIN will be at the Bushnell on Friday, May 3, at 730 p.m. Tickets are $42.50 to $60. Information: 860-987-5900 and www.bushnell.org.
Note: This story includes corrections from an earlier version about the date of Garten's Bushnell show, the spelling of Prudence Sloane's surname and the name of Caputo's TLC show, "The Long Island Medium."
Read Frank's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. And be the first to know by following Frank on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.