The show is being billed as "The Good vs. Evil Tour." But there will be no flaming pans or flashing knives or mythical Chairman sitting in judgment, which may come as a surprise, since the dueling stars are two celebrity chefs.
When Eric Ripert takes the stage Wednesday night at the Merriam Theater, just a few blocks south of his restaurant 10 Arts, he'll be sitting in an easy chair across from the culinary world's bad boy, Anthony Bourdain. And the two will - chat.
"I'm eager to see how they're going to fill an hour and a half," said Rosemarie Fabien, an architecture writer who's spent $153 in all to take her son, Nick Normile, a Wharton School freshman and food blogger. "What are they going to talk about?"
The mere fact that chefs are headlining national touring shows that have more in common with vaudeville than anything in a professional kitchen says a lot about our bulging national obsession with chefs and food. This duo is booked for 11 cities into 2012, from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Austin, Texas.
"Chefs have been elevated to celebrity as they've become, in many ways, the new artists of our moment," says Bryant Simon, a Temple University history professor who studies American culture. "But this is where celebrity and art collide. We consume their personalities more than their art. More people know them from TV than the tastes they create, because so few of us can afford it."
As a pair, the chefs just might be the Smothers Brothers odd couple of chefdom - Ripert the silver-haired idol of French gastronomy who quotes the Dalai Lama on Twitter, Bourdain the brashly opinionated No Reservations TV host whose iconic tell-all book, Kitchen Confidential, launched his career as an irreverent food world personality 12 years ago.
Turns out they're great friends - Ripert introduced Bourdain to his current wife. And the chefs have promised a night of unscripted and "sometimes shocking" banter on everything from sustainability to fast food, least-favorite Food Network personalities (of which Bourdain has many), and Top Chef, on which Ripert has been a judge and on which his former 10 Arts chef de cuisine, Jen Carroll, was a memorable chef-testant.
"Clearly I'm not the 'good' one here," says Bourdain. "Eric's got a reputation to protect. And he's funny. But the bottom line is this: There's not going to be a giant blender and a T-shirt cannon, so we better provide some damn entertainment."
Ripert, at least, still has some cooking to do first. This week at 10 Arts, he will be in the kitchen all day before his show prepping a five-course tasting for $95 ($140 with wine) inspired by the menu at Le Bernardin, his Manhattan home base, considered by many to be among the nation's haute cuisine jewels.
It's a limited special event for the more bistro-style 10 Arts - rather than a high-end change in concept - while the restaurant navigates a high-profile transition to replace Carroll, who is looking to open her own place in the city this spring. But the Somerton native's recent departure is very much an example of the bittersweet effects that celebrity chef exposure can bring.
Despite Ripert's considerable pedigree and prime Broad Street location in the Ritz-Carlton, 10 Arts generated an underwhelming buzz until Carroll's appearances on Top Chef at Ripert's urging. Curious starstruck diners, though, were only sporadically rewarded with tastes of her more personalized cuisine, an additional tasting menu, or a special appended to the standard menu of roast chicken, Cobb salad, and fish burgers.
"From her first day to now, she learned how to become a chef," says Ripert. "But Jenny on her own has a very different style than we do. I would never put flowers in a dish - but we let her do tuna with flowers as a compromise. At Le Bernardin, our food is simple. We are obsessed with flavors and sauce - no over-the-top anything. We'll be going back to that mantra much more."
Her replacement has yet to be chosen. But the fact that Ripert can still focus on the minute details of cuisine at his four restaurants (with satellites also in Washington and the Cayman Islands) speaks to his continued seriousness as a culinary professional despite his many media distractions.
It's a rare balance in the current celebrity chef world where, according to GQ restaurant critic Alan Richman, "all chefs want to do is depart from their craft."
"For 200 years, from the French Revolution to the 1980s, it was basically a life of drudgery where you stood on your feet until you were too old to do it any longer, and you dropped like a horse in the field," said Richman.
As the careers and prospects for chefs' notoriety rocketed in the media, however, from stately Julia Child to exuberant Emeril Lagasse to the grilling gladiators of Iron Chef, priorities changed.
"Now we have 23-year-old chefs who only want to be celebrities," Richman says. "If they cook for two years in obscurity, they can't figure out why they've suffered so long."
Bourdain, who slugged his way through the middling ranks of Manhattan restaurants (such as Brasserie Les Halles) for two decades before writing his way out of obscurity, makes no bones about where his bread is now buttered - as an outspoken entertainer.
"I wrote Kitchen Confidential because I didn't have much of a reputation to lose," he said. "And I've been lavishly rewarded for speaking my mind, so I see no reason to change."
Food critics (like Richman) have been among his favorite targets. But so have other TV food personalities including Paula Deen, Rachael Ray, and the frosty-haired Guy Fieri - another pioneer of the stand-up chef tour whose own show at the Merriam in 2009 featured a juggling Australian bartender as a warm-up act.
"If you can't laugh at Guy Fieri, then comedy's dead," says Bourdain. "But, of course, I'm fair game for satire, too."
Taking the stage with a respected sidekick and quasi-hometown figure like Ripert, meanwhile, can only enhance the dubious dramatic possibilities of two chefs who essentially sit around and talk. At the very least, the audience will be hungry.
"I guess we can't help but hope," says Rosemarie Fabien, "that they're going to throw some food out into the audience."