David Martin thinks of himself as an actor, not a chef, so when he was offered the position of manager of the actors' residence by the Olney Theatre, he panicked. He knew the job required cooking dinners for cast and crew during rehearsal periods for the suburban Maryland summer theater.
He thought, "Oh, no, I've turned into a domestic! I'm going to cook for people!" he said. "My friends started calling me 'Hazel' and 'Benson.' I asked, didn't they know it was traditional for actors to support themselves waiting tables?"
The first thing Martin, 25, did in preparation for his new role was to call his mother for advice on recipes. "I already knew how to cook for myself," he said. "My mother had five sons and vowed she wasn't going to send any of us into the world to be totally dependent upon anybody else, especially since my father never learned to heat up a can of soup."
Martin was terrified the evening he cooked his first meal for the cast of the season opener, "Dennis the Menace," but "when I served my lasagne and saw the gratification on the faces of the actors," he said, "that made it all worthwhile."
That Martin is an actor himself gives him, he feels, a singular perspective on the feeding habits and nutritional needs of his peers.
"It doesn't take much to make actors feel pampered," he said, "because they are not usually treated well. At Olney Theatre, our goal is to make them feel at home in our communal living environment. Actors' Equity Association requires a dinner break, but we provide a home-cooked meal."
Martin believes, "Food is unique in its importance to theater people because they don't eat regular meals. If you want to locate the actors and technicians at a reception, look for the food table because they will be gathered there, devouring their one meal of the day."
Martin's duties include maintaining the physical plant of the actors' residence, a three-story converted Victorian farmhouse, built adjacent to the theater on acres of pastoral land off Route 108. His position as part-time chef evolved from that of Olney Theatre's first cook, Lavinia Warren, a local woman who ruled the kitchen with a cast-iron oven mitt for more than 30 years before her retirement in 1987. She prepared three meals a day, and was renowned for her southern fried chicken, as well as her irreverent attitude toward artists and the creative process.
Martin's kitchen is a unique domain. The first floor of the actors' residence was once a restaurant and boasts an industrial-sized kitchen furnished with a utilitarian hodge-podge of tables and appliances. The countertops display toasters, food processors and can openers in varying stages of disrepair -- "hand-me-downs" from friends of the theater.
Martin has converted the counter adjacent to the industrial sink into a recycling center for bottles and cans. An alcove houses two floor-to-ceiling sets of metal shelves, which are allocated to residents for storing canned goods during their six-week stay.
The crew and administrative staff, as well as the actors, have access to the kitchen and people come and go at all hours, fortifying themselves with their favorite "nosh."
Martin is at home in this chaotic environment, and it doesn't seem to distract him from his work.
High noon recently found him clad in shorts and T-shirt (the kitchen lacks air conditioning), preparing lunch for the director and 19 cast members of Kaufman and Hart's "You Can't Take It With You," which runs through Aug. 18.
Because Martin shares limited refrigerator space with the nonresident staff, he shops daily and that morning he purchased squash and strawberries from his favorite produce stand and chicken on sale at Giant.
As he sliced the squash into a colander, he gestured, "This knife is sacred. When I first arrived, I found every utensil in the drawers but what I needed. I got so desperate for a decent vegetable knife that I went out and bought one. The next problem was hiding it from the technicians, who scout out everything. One of them found it and used it to cut cardboard. When I saw the damaged blade flecked with cardboard, I threatened to lop the limbs off the next 'techie' who touched my knife."
Putting the squash to boil, Martin prepared cornbread, lavishly measuring ingredients into the mixing bowl. "I adhere to the Granny Clampett school of cooking, a` la the Beverly Hillbillies," he said. "No recipes. Just a little of this and that." He poured the batter into two enormous cast-iron skillets, which he placed gently into the cavernous oven of the Vulcan stove.
He seasoned the chicken and carried it outside to the grill. He barbecues frequently. "It's hard to make food taste bad on the grill," he explained. "I usually prepare extra portions, because although we ask the cast to sign up a day ahead of time, somebody always ..."
"Oh, chicken," interrupted actor Irv Ziff, who had drifted out of the theater after rehearsal. "I didn't sign up, but could I eat anyway?"
Martin nodded. He basted the chicken with barbecue sauce, using a paper napkin. "It's more gracious to use a pastry brush," he commented, "but we don't have one."
He piled the chicken into a serving dish, and carried it into the house, greeting Margo Hall, who was opening the oven door to check on the cornbread. "I'm practicing for my role," she explained. "I play a housekeeper."
Martin gathered plates from the cupboard and arranged the meal on the butcher block counter that doubles as a buffet table.
He hurried through the swinging doors that separate the kitchen from the enclosed porch that encircles the building and functions as a dining room/lounge to summon the actors. They required no second invitation. They piled into the kitchen, tucking their scripts into their pockets, lining up like a troupe of hungry campers.
"Oh, boy, cornbread," sighed Brigid Cleary.
"It looks wonderful," said John MacDonald. "I always look forward to coming out here."
Martin stepped behind the counter to greet his guests. "Actors can consume incredible amounts of food," he said, "and I want to make certain everybody gets firsts before anybody takes seconds."
Martin's duties also include catering special events, such as opening night receptions, cookouts and his biggest challenge, the "strike" breakfasts that occur at 2 a.m.
"Immediately after the last performance of each production," he said, "the crew tears down or 'strikes' the set, hauling it to the dumpster and storing away lights and costumes. By the time the technicians finish, they are hungry enough to eat plywood, but we invite them to sit down to a country-style breakfast of blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, doughnuts, hash browns, orange juice, milk and coffee."
While the cast devoured the main course, Martin prepared the pie`ce de re'sistance, a strawberry shortcake. He halved a poundcake, still warm from the tube pan, spreading the layers lavishly with whipped cream and garnishing them generously with strawberries.
"I like to serve a dessert," he said, "not only because they love it, but because it provides energy. When I'm planning menus, I observe them. Do they seem tired? Do they need something to perk them up? You also need to respect food preferences, both the old liners who insist, 'just give me a little starch and red meat' and the 'new wave' vegetarians."
Occasionally, Martin will prepare a "theme meal." During exhausting dress rehearsals for David Hare's "The Secret Rapture," he treated the cast to a "Thanksgiving in June," featuring the traditional turkey with stuffing, saute'ed squash, mashed potatoes, corn souffle', sweet potato casserole and pumpkin pies.
The actors flocked to claim their share of dessert, praising Martin, who hurried through dishwashing duty to attend afternoon rehearsal. Ironically, in the world of the script, he portrays a "G-man" who holds at gunpoint the "family" he serves so lovingly during his "day job."
An actress nibbling a last piece of shortcake said with a grin, "David's our mother."
POUNDCAKE (10 servings)
The cast of "You Can't Take It With You" just can't get enough of this cake, transformed by whipped cream and fresh strawberries into strawberry shortcake.
1 pound butter (2 cups)
3 1/3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Cream butter, sugar and vanilla. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add flour 1/2 cup at a time. Mix well, using hand beater at high speed 4 minutes. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees in a greased and floured 9-by-3 1/2-inch tube pan.
Per serving: 812 calories, 11 gm protein, 100 gm carbohydrates, 43 gm fat, 25 gm saturated fat, 374 mg cholesterol, 446 mg sodium.
CORN SOUFFLE (8 servings)
"David's corn souffle' is the perfect dish," raves actress Karen Trott. "I don't know if he'd give you the recipe, but it's sweet and utterly unforgettable."
2/3 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
4 eggs, beaten
1 stick margarine, melted ( 1/2 cup)
1 cup milk
2 cans corn (drained, whole kernels)
Combine flour, sugar and baking powder. Mix in eggs, margarine, milk and corn. Pour into well-greased 3-quart casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes until top is golden crusty brown and center firm.
Per serving: 311 calories, 7 gm protein, 37 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 141 mg cholesterol, 588 mg sodium.
MASHED POTATOES (8 servings)
Local actress Carolyn Swift swears by these potatoes. "They're more nutritious with the skins left on," she says. "And they're wonderful served with David's baked chicken or roast turkey."
5 pounds baking potatoes
1/2 stick butter
1 cup milk
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons black pepper
Clean potatoes, leaving skins on. Boil until tender. Drain well and add butter. Mash with wooden spoon. Add milk, mayonnaise, salt and pepper. Whip on high speed.
Per serving: 370 calories, 7 gm protein, 60 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 659 mg sodium.
Barbara Gross is a Rockville freelance writer.