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Wednesday October 2, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Wednesday October 2, 2013 MYT 9:02:26 AM
by julian baggini
Eating out is often theatrical – and now one theatre company is turning their stage into a restaurant, with spectators as the diners.
FROM old-school silver platters and steak diane flambeed tableside, to contemporary open kitchens and infeasibly elaborate towers of food presented on designer plates, eating out has always had its theatrical elements. But these are mere dramatic flourishes compared to what will happen tonight when Theatre Damfino’s The Table Of Delights turns the Bristol Old Vic into a fusion of restaurant and theatre. Punters will be both spectators and diners, sitting centre stage at a nine-metre table alongside a top chef and a four-piece band.
I met Theatre Damfino’s co-artistic director Katy Carmichael and the chef Matt Williamson during rehearsals, with the opening night a mere nine days away. But if they were worried that this five-act, five-course experiment could end up an artistic dog’s dinner, they weren’t showing it.
“It’s the same approach I take to cooking,” says Williamson, “which is why I don’t feel terribly stressed.”
Like many contemporary chefs, Williamson does not start with his menu and then work out how to execute it, but constructs dishes around the best ingredients available each day.
Similarly, Damfino rejects the traditional script-first approach and develops performances through workshops. Carmichael traces the growth of this form of theatre back to the success of Complicite, founded in 1983, while Williamson says Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray planted the seed of the ingredient-led approach at the River Cafe soon after, in 1987.
Still, Williamson’s involvement might surprise those who know his acclaimed restaurant, Flinty Red, which eschews modern dining’s more theatrical trappings: Williamson’s priority is food, not performance. Likewise, in The Table Of Delights, Carmichael says, “the food is the lead character”. This differentiates it from other recent productions with strong food themes.
“You can often go to these theatre food shows where it is quite high-concept but the food would be not great,” she says. There is no danger of that here.
In The Table of Delights, we start with the five “ancient humble foods” that Williamson and Carmichael chose to structure the evening: bread, eggs, beetroot, spices and honey. These will not be shoehorned into a pre-determined narrative. The aim is to get the audience to consider every aspect of each food, including its history and meaning.
In the spice course, coriander, cumin, cinnamon and black chilli will be introduced individually as single “notes” before being played together as a “chord” in the Turkish dish turlu turlu – the taste experience should be enhanced after sampling the spices separately. Williamson has prepared some chickpeas with oil and all four of the spices. I pick at some cumin seeds and enjoy a fresh, citrussy burst of flavour from a toasted coriander seed. Having attended to the component parts, I appreciate the depth and harmony when I take one of the spiced chickpeas.
The beetroot course features a more surreal love story of two vegetables mercilessly massacred by Williamson in a blender, under lights tinted blood-red by beetroot juice – if they prove hardy enough in rehearsals. Williamson’s beets have been steamed for a more pure and subtle flavour, compared with the intensity of the more usual roasted version. These are zapped quickly in the blender with oil, salt, yoghurt, cumin and a vinegar. Beetroot is one of my least favourite vegetables, but the result impresses even me with its wonderful balance of fresh, earthy and creamy.
Earthiness and humility are recurrent words in our conversation, reflected in the reluctance of Williamson, a butcher’s son, to describe what he does as art. “My background is very much an artisan, a tradesman.”
But if the rootedness of food, its connection with the brute necessities of nutrition, is an obstacle to people accepting cooking as an art form, it arguably also makes the culinary arts the most honest of all. As Carmichael puts it, there may well be real delights in taking “the humble ingredients of theatre, and the humble ingredients of food, and seeing what magic they create together”. – Guardian News & Media
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