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,