Nick Olcott isn’t really a big-time food guru. He’s just playing one onstage.
But the prospect of becoming James Beard in the solo show “I Love to Eat,” at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, has filled Olcott’s plate with interview requests. The American appetite for celebrity chefs seems insatiable now that “foodie” is a noun, but it’s been sharpening since Beard served himself up in the 1940s as one of country’s first cookbook stars.
“It’s been a little intimidating,” says Olcott, a longtime Washington actor and director who shaved his head and cultivated a salt-and-pepper mustache to increase his resemblance to Beard. “People expect me to know a whole lot more than I know.”
Olcott is educating himself in public via the blog “Cooking My Way to Mr. Beard” on the Round House Web site. Subjects include the actor’s adventures preparing oysters and learning to make mayonnaise — something he will have to do onstage in James Still’s play.
“I was really kind of boring,” Olcott, 56, says of his culinary persona. Growing up in Montana, he was raised on beef, so in restaurants, “I would gravitate toward whatever version of steak was on the menu. This has made me realize there are other things in the world.”
He is scrutinizing the lunch options at Newton’s Table in Bethesda, a contemporary American eatery in the farm-to-table wave. Olcott has chosen the place because he doesn’t know it, daring himself to channel a Beardish spirit of epicurean adventure.
“Bacon-pomegranate vinaigrette,” Olcott reads, scanning the fine print on the Truck Patch Salad. He accurately forecasts what the ceviched shrimp will be like in a noodle appetizer: “Raw, but in vinegar, so almost pickled, or sometimes just lemon juice.” He accepts a waiter’s caution that the soy-dressed Fuzu may be salty to some tastes; undaunted, he chooses it, intrigued by the veggie-seafood-chicken possibilities.
Even as Olcott preps his chef’s roll — er, role — he is rediscovering what it means to be onstage, something he hasn’t done in more than a decade. “Yes, I act, too!” reads the end of Olcott’s long online bio of directing credits. For 20 years, he performed with troupes from Round House to Arena Stage, earning a Helen Hayes nomination in 1999 for a turn in Terry Johnson’s “Dead Funny” at Woolly Mammoth.
Directing gradually made more sense to the busy Olcott, who has worked locally and out of town, in theater and, increasingly, in opera, from Wolf Trap to Opera Cleveland. He has helmed half a dozen plays at Theater J and for the Kennedy Center’s young audiences program, and more than a dozen shows at Round House, from Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and “The Cherry Orchard” to the premiere of Karen Zacarias’s “The Book Club Play.”
But reading the script of “I Love to Eat” for Round House’s advisory committee intensified a recent itch to act again. He had auditioned a few times recently, but he didn’t get cast. “Also great for a director,” Olcott says, “to remember what that feels like.”
Within a few pages, the play was whispering in his not-entirely-dormant actor’s ear; the exiting Producing Artistic Director Blake Robison programmed the show with Olcott in it, and new hire Ryan Rilette stood by the choice.
The difference in mind-set? At the first rehearsal, Olcott says he announced, “I don’t have to solve problems, I get to be a problem.”
“It’s such a relief,” he laughs. “Because acting is the only profession in the world where standing in the middle of the room and screaming ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’ is considered a mark of honor.”
The salad arrives. “Shallots,” Olcott murmurs, examining his plate. “My new love in life.”
It’s not Olcott’s goal to impersonate the Oregon-born Beard, despite a shared Western heritage, the tonsorial adjustments and a similarly large frame. (“No one is going to say, ‘An uncanny resemblance,’ ” he ventures.) He is reading the books — Beard was a one-man cookbook factory — and eyeballing archival videos supplied by the Beard Foundation in New York. No footage survives of Beard’s 1940s “I Love to Eat” TV show, but Olcott has viewed other samples of Beard’s on-screen work.
The actor-director’s take: Beard was ungainly and wooden on-camera, directed to be still, to do less. (Contrast that with the high-octane approach of today’s revved-up restaurant shows.)
Even so, Olcott finds points of contact with Beard the performer, who, as a young man, took pie-eyed stabs at Hollywood acting, operatic singing and the New York stage. All fell flat, and then, as Olcott puts it, “he sort of stumbled into catering.”
With this, the actor offers his saga of strangled ambition. In the early 1980s, Olcott was hired to be in a European film with Marthe Keller; visions of an international, James Masonesque career danced in his head. At the last minute, the producers told him he would be paid, but they had found someone else.
“All of my dreams, to see them smashed like that, with one phone call,” Olcott laments. “I think that was what he had pictured. He was in London studying, he was going to have a European career, going to come back and sing at the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera. And his mother said, ‘Your voice isn’t good enough. Come back.’ ”
Beard’s triumph was in the cooking career that was never restaurant-based. “His milieu was the dinner party, because he got to perform,” Olcott says. “And that’s what all his writing is really about: How to host a dinner party. How to be the cook with people around you. How to be amusing.”
Olcott’s sense of Beard comes from Still’s play, Beard’s books and Robert Clark’s biography “The Solace of Food.” That book title is rich; Olcott, expertly working sterling chopsticks as he polishes off his dish, ticks off Beard’s plagues and neuroses. There was the fear of selling out as Beard took on food endorsements. His mother was, in Olcott’s phrase, “Mama Rose times 10.” He was a gay man in a closeted age. He suffered from self-destructive behavior in relationships. Late in life, he dramatically overate, indulging in major Kentucky Fried Chicken binges.
The Beard effect on Olcott, however, has been healthy. No more beer: “Weight in a bottle.” A total break with Diet Pepsi: “Diet soda is the devil.” An end to fast food: “My addiction to junk food was entirely out of convenience.”
You can see how burgers in bags would be the easy thing. The jobs Olcott juggles include coaching acting for the Washington National Opera and teaching at the University of Maryland, where he is directing “The Magic Flute.”
A manager stops at the table and asks after the meal. Olcott: “Loved it.” The dish is popular, the manager says. Made to order, so guests can tailor the shrimp, scallops, chicken and eggs to taste.
“I’m an omnivore, so I took it all,” Olcott says.
He skips dessert, pleased with the lingering flavors of the Asian fusion entree. He talks about the slower tempo and satisfying effects of real cooking. He describes how his longtime partner, Tim Westmoreland, grilled food for the workweek one recent Sunday. Inevitably, Olcott was soon dashing between jobs and eating in the car.
But the fare was home-cooked roast chunks of beef. Roast potatoes. Roast cloves of garlic.
“It was so good, I had to pull over just to sit there and taste that garlic,” Olcott says, “and think about how good that garlic was.”
by James Still. Directed by Leon Major. Through Nov. 4 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100. www.roundhousetheatre.org.