Jisel Soleil Ayon in Waitress. Jeremy Daniel Photo.
Step one. Dust a clean, flat surface with flour and book a Broadway show for your theater. Cross your fingers. Find a rolling pin and a favorite recipe.
Step two. Ask the cooks down the street for help. Watch them mix flour and sugar, cut in the butter. Preheat the ovens and savor their orderly hum and purr. Fold in apples. Blueberries. A warmup.
Step three: Well before the curtain opens, share the pie. Think of the small sweetness of community. Let your voice reach the rafters when you sing about it—because you will.
That recipe came to the Shubert Theatre Friday night, as students in Gateway Community College’s Culinary Arts Program baked dozens of pies for a long-awaited performance of Waitress at the College Street venue. After two years of pandemic-era postponements, the play arrived in New Haven Friday night, playing to a house of over 1,200 people. It ran through Sunday.
Friday, the audience included musician and lyricist Sara Bareilles, who has played the lead role on Broadway, music supervisor and arranger Nadia DiGiallonardo, and choreographers Lorin Latarro and Abbey O’Brien. Over 300 pieces of pie greeted participants in the theater’s CAPA Community Connections (CCC) program, which provides free tickets to groups across the community, from New Haven Adult Education to the Girl Scouts of Connecticut.
Brianna Perez and Nora Dudley, students in Gateway Community College's Culinary Arts Associate degree program. Lucy Gellman Photo.
Waitress, which opened on Broadway in 2016 and is based on the 2007 film of the same name, follows waitress Jenna Hunterson (Jisel Soleil Ayon), a gifted pie baker who becomes unexpectedly pregnant by her abusive husband Earl (Shawn Smith) and mixes butter, sugar and flour into an escape plan as sweet and surprising as one of her daily specials. Along the way, she manages to have an affair with her goofy but affable obstetrician (David Socolar), dream up pies based on her literally growing predicament, and endear herself to every member of the audience.
The play rotates between Joe’s Diner, where she works, her home, her obstetrician's office, and the twilight-kissed back roads of the small town she calls home. Props to Scott Pask, whose set design felt transporting on a bitterly cold New Haven night.
Like the students at Gateway, Jenna doesn’t have to do any of it alone: she has her colleagues Becky (Dominique Kent) and Dawn (Gabriella Marzetta), the gruff-but-loveable line cook Cal (Jake Mills) and regular patron Joe (Michael R. Douglass), who happens to own the diner and half of main street. Like them, she works with what she has to turn out magic, with creations that include a “Deep (Shit) Dish Blueberry Bacon Pie,” “Pineapple Upside Down Pie,” “Mermaid Marshmallow Pie” and pies studded with glistening fruit, chopped and crumbled chocolate, and meringues that are as light as clouds. Cue the music.
Azaria Samuels in Gateway's kitchen. Lucy Gellman Photo.
Well before the show graced the Shubert’s stage, Shubert Group Sales and Business Development Associate Azaria Samuels started thinking about Gateway’s Culinary Arts program, which runs just a few blocks away from the theater at the corner of Church and George Streets. She built a small collection of recipes, all based on pies that appear in the show (Waitress fandom is so extensive that there are dozens of pie recreations online, Samuels said). Then she handed them over to chef Christopher Gentile, chair of the Culinary Arts Department at the school. He worked with students to standardize the recipes and get them into Gateway’s online system.
“To me, pie is so special,” Samuels said. She nodded to her own great grandmother’s “coconut splash pie,” a family recipe that started in small-town Alabama four generations ago. “You’re able to pour so much creativity and love into this … it takes so much.”
That kind of reverence for pie ran among the culinary students last Thursday, as they buzzed around a large kitchen at Gateway in their clean white coats, pinstripe aprons and blue Gateway baseball caps. At the center of the action, Gentile mixed strawberries, sugar, lemon zest and tapioca starch in a huge, glistening steel bowl. As he directed students to stations, it seemed that there was no place he’d rather be.
Ruth Green and Seth Warner. Lucy Gellman Photo.
At a piping station, Seth Warner filled a bag with thick white cream as his colleague Ruth Green looked on. In front of them, four perfect versions of “Jenna’s Devil Food Chocolate Oasis Pie” sat expectantly across a huge baking sheet, freshly chilled from time in the program’s walk-in refrigerator. An Oreo cookie crust teased them from underneath. Chocolate mousse, still a little melty, glistened at the edges. Strawberries made a red firework across the top.
Warner, who began working in kitchens when he was 15, saw the task as one more stepping stone to the restaurant industry. Nine years ago, he joined the staff at a cafe in Clinton because he needed work, and fell in love with restaurants. From a dishwasher at the cafe, he worked his way up to head bartender at another spot, where he still is today. Now 24, he’s trying to move his career forward with Gateway’s help.
Beside him, Green took the piping bag, and gently squeezed a clockwork of whipped cream stars onto each pie. Chatting—reluctantly at first, and then with more ease as the stars bloomed one by one—she recalled moving to New Haven from Brooklyn seven years ago, to take care of her young grandson. After years as a mom to four growing boys, “I was always a cook,” she said. But she never had the patience for baking. Gateway’s program, which she sees as a retirement project, is helping her learn it.
Chef Christopher (Chris) Gentile and student Stella Blanchard. Lucy Gellman Photo.
At the center of it all, Gentile moved around students, relaxed even as a pie shell crumbled at one end of the room, and two bags of marshmallows remained inexplicably unopened at the other. Born and raised in Brooklyn and then Hamden, Gentile learned to cook formally in high school, when a drafting class got bumped for culinary arts. At home, he was soon putting spins on his grandmother’s tomato sauce and cooking dinner for his mom and younger siblings. He still has the first set of knives his grandparents gifted him as a young chef.
“I’ve always loved working with other people,” he said. After stints in kitchens across New Haven and Hamden at training at the University of New Haven, Gateway became his culinary home 10 years ago. During his time there, he’s helped grow the program from 28 students to 76, and is working through accreditation with the American Culinary Federation.
Thursday, he was in his element. As pies rotated in a large industrial oven, he checked in on student Stella Blanchard as she zested a lemon so quickly the fruit whispered against the side of the grater. He bounced to another station, and described the warm harmony between tapioca starch, egg white and a top crust as “magic.” When Nora Dudley watched a pie shell crack in her hands, he was there to reassure her that not all was lost.
“If they break, that’s fine,” he said, peeling the wax paper from the chilled shells to work twice as quickly. He explained that on fruit pies, a top crust may get messy anyway—that helps it look rustic. In the “Big Guy Strawberry Pie,” where sweet, oven-softened fruit and lemon do a waltz on the tongue, rustic is okay.
Trays of "Big Guy Strawberry Pie" come out of the oven.
As she took mental notes, Dudley said that she thinks of pie as “dear to my heart,” because of the time and effort that goes into making the dessert. A lifelong West Havener, she learned to cook from watching her mom and grandmother at the stove, perfecting Jamaican dishes that she now makes for them. Working quietly beside her, fellow student Brianna Perez also credited her mom as an early culinary influence. Growing up in a Puerto Rican household, she knew how to make mofongo, rice and beans, and empanadas before she got to pie. She’s just now growing into baking, she said.
“There are so many things you can put inside a crust,” she said. For a moment, she channeled Jenna herself, whose culinary inspiration jumps from sweet pies crammed with berries and chocolate to straight up savory recipes (“Betrayed By My Eggs” pie may be the best title in the show).
As she nibbled on a sandwich in an adjoining kitchen, Blanchard said that she “just love[s] everything about food,” and was excited to hop on the collaboration with the Shubert. As a kid, she grew up hearing stories of a great-grandmother who owned a farm and a grandmother who designed wedding cakes. She was helping in the kitchen as soon as she could walk, she said—if not “literally since I was born.” Before the pandemic, she worked in a bakery and ice cream shop where she learned to decorate cakes.
“I literally love everything about cooking,” she said. “It warms my heart when I see other people enjoying what I do.”
She added that her favorite pie crust is a sturdy chocolate one. “I feel like it’s just such a warm, welcoming hello,” she said. “It’s such a gift.”
From Bustling Kitchen To Opening Night
Top: Evan Zanders and his mom, Olga Digsby. Bottom: A "You're Beautiful Blueberry Pie." In the play, Jenna names her creation "Deep (Shit) Dish Blueberry Bacon Pie." Lucy Gellman Photos.
Friday night, not a sign remained of the hustle and bustle of the day before. At a table stacked with slices of pie, Shubert Director of Education and Engagement Kelly Wuzzardo greeted CCC members, ready with forks and pre-packed boxes. Gateway students Evan Zanders and his mom, Olga Digsby, took a moment before they made their pick.
Zanders, an aspiring marine biologist, beamed between bites of chocolate pie. Since a friend turned him on to Waitress a few years ago, he’s wanted to see the show, and learned his way through a particularly earwormy soundtrack (“It’s true!” Digsby laughed. “I hear him singing it downstairs!”). While the two have seen plays before, Digsby said that it’s the first production at the Shubert that they’ve been to. Zanders is particularly fond of the track “Never Ever Getting Rid Of Me,” a starry-eyed ballad that belongs to the wonderfully dorky Ogie (Brian Lundy).
Ana Ruiz (center) with fellow students from the New Haven Adult Education Center. Adult Ed is one of the partners in the Shubert's CCC program.
Across the room, Ana Ruiz savored her last bite of Oreo crust and angled for another slice with Michael Twitty, a student support specialist at the New Haven Adult Education Center. Three years ago, Ruiz fled Ecuador with her husband, after they struggled to find work and suffered under President Lenín Moreno’s austerity measures. Trained as an engineer, “we came here for a new life,” and stayed in Connecticut for their young son. She learned about the CCC program from Twitty and New Haven Adult Ed, where she has been studying English for the last 10 months.
“In my country, in Ecuador, it is not common, the pie,” she said. “It’s so delicious. I love the strawberry and chocolate. I love it.”
She was grateful to have a night off, she added. Since moving to New Haven, she has worked jobs in cleaning and building while balancing classes and motherhood. She exploded into a smile when Twitty secreted away a second piece and slipped it to her. The chocolate mouse yielded willingly beneath her fork.
Jisel Soleil Ayon, Kennedy Salters and Gabriella Marzetta in Waitress. Jeremy Daniel Photo.
When audience members slipped into their seats and curtains opened minutes later, she watched as Ayon stood center stage, hundreds of stories resting in her flour-dusted hands. Ayon mixed sugar and flour methodically into each other and conjured a vision of an easier time, her voice soaring through the dark house. She cut in the butter and her late mother appeared, as vivid as the ingredients before her.
It was not so different from Dudley, cooking for the matriarchs she loves most in the world. Or Zanders, who could match Lundy word for word as he belted from the stage. Or Ruiz, who laughed with the audience as Dr. Pomatter dipped his stethoscope into the cream of a mermaid marshmallow pie and began to scoop it into his mouth. Who knew how he felt when he tasted an entire story in a single bite.
No wonder, then, that the audience seemed to crawl right into the lyrics and stay there for the next three hours. For that time, it was possible to forget that there was war outside, that the twin pandemics of Covid-19 and white supremacy were still raging, that "normal" was never going to be normal in the same way again. In the work, characters never shy away from the harshness of the world around them—there is physical abuse, gaslighting, extramarital sex, a reminder of aging and mortal bodies, and more sugar than the American Heart Association recommends in a year.
But they sing and dance through it, aware of the hard-fought joy in every two-step, every leap, every slow dance and every behind-the-counter rendezvous. They turn their bitterness into confections sparkling with sugar, piled with cream and velvety fluff, stacked with fresh fruit. They choose to love themselves, a process far more messy and imprecise than baking.
As the curtain fell, it meant that the audience got to return to a New Haven that was, in its own way, a little sweeter.