Food is the essence of so many facets of life, love and death, a glue that brings us together into a multitude of shared experiences. From the creators of one of Sydney Festival’s standout shows in 2014, The Serpent’s Table, Contemporary Asian Australian Performance captures that experience and so much more in latest offering Double Delicious, a world premiere presented at this year’s Festival.

Heather Jeong. Photos © Victor Frankowski 

Five storytellers, Korean chef and kimchi specialist Heather Jeong, interdisciplinary performance maker Valerie Berry, choreographer and performer Raghav Handa, writer Benjamin Law and chef Elizabeth Chong take the audience on a journey through the stories of their chosen dishes, in a series of vignettes that encompass tales of family, love, change, death and life.

Overwhelmingly this is a piece that asks us and the performers to question what and how we create a legacy and how these rich cultural tapestries, which are skilfully woven together, have impacted not only the storytellers but the cultures they represent, touching also on the pressure that is perhaps unique to the immigrant experience of a desire to preserve these traditions.

The production manages to avoid clichés and the stories are heartfelt, warm and in many instances touching. A highlight is getting to taste the dishes in a banquet setting, sharing a meal and conversation with the audience around us, which brings a level of intimacy and allows for moments of real connection.

The show opens with Jeong who invites the audience to really listen to the sounds of the food being prepared, focusing on the tear of cabbage being shredded to make the kimchi. For many cultures food and how it is prepared is more than a simple act of service, it is imbued with emotion or “Han” as it is called in Korean. Her story is one of a father she didn’t meet until she was nine years old and her sometimes fraught relationship with him. She teaches us about Budae Jjigae or Korean Army Stew which originated from making the best of the poor supplies on hand at army bases during the war, which includes Spam, frankfurts, processed meats combining with the flavours of kimchi to create a flavourful dish that I am sure surprised the even the most ardent sceptics in the audience, with Jeong reminding us that “it’s not a crime to like Spam.”

Next up Berry bursts onto the stage to the familiar tune of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, telling a story about regional Australia and four kids in matching tan suits. Her delivery was effervescent and full of energy, her skill as a performer evident in her ability to move from a fast-paced comedic delivery to a more restrained approach as she talks about the things that are so often unseen in households and the toll in particular on women.

Raghav Handa

Perhaps the highlight was dancer and choreographer Handa’s performance, which seamlessly merged dance with verbal storytelling in a stunning vignette. It is in this piece you see the visuals and use of projections to full effect as Handa takes us on a journey of ceremony and the cultural significance of chole, a wholesome chickpea curry. The dish and story he tells explores one of the themes of the show, which is the role food can play in the cycle of life. Chole is a dish prepared and served at births, marriages and death, the preparation of which Handa was keen to emphasise combines all the senses and can be akin to an act of seduction.

Lighting and production designer Verity Hampson makes the most of the cavernous space at Carriageworks, with large-scale projections of family photos, tumbling spices and chickpeas and old postcards adding to the stories. Overall there is a simplicity to the set design, and indeed nothing more is needed as the storytellers and the food are the true stars of the show. There is a definite art in being able to serve and plate up over 100 dishes while we move from one story to the next. Music and sound are also cleverly employed to not just anchor the stories, but also help create atmosphere and help with some of the staging transitions.

Director Darren Yap and dramaturg Annette Shun Wah have created a piece that breaks through the fourth wall to create a lush and evocative series of skilfully narrated performances, tantalising all the senses whilst also delivering moments of real human connection.

Double Delicious is at Carriageworks until January 12


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