Review: 食盡天下 (A Taste of Empire) (Cahoots Theatre/rice & beans theatre)

Toronto’s Cahoots Theatre presents Jovanni Sy’s cross between a play and a cooking demo

Something delicious is cooking on stage at the Factory Theatre where Cahoots Theatre is presenting a new Cantonese-language version of its 2010 show 食盡天下 (A Taste of Empire). The show is essentially a satirical, comedic play mixed with a live cooking demonstration mixed with a TED talk and somehow manages to pull off all three of those aspects well; the end result is funny, delicious and eye-opening.

Writer/director Jovanni Sy draws from his own Filipino-Chinese background to pen an irreverent satirical script unpacking how imperialism—both historical and contemporary—underlies the food we eat. However, like a master chef, Sy carefully metes out hard facts in appetizing, bite-sized morsels and coats them with just enough humour to take the bitter edge off, making the dish more palatable. 

At the top of the show, we are told we’re guests at a private, live cooking demonstration by Chef Maximo; a superstar chef with an outsized persona vaguely reminiscent of Toronto’s own celebrity chefs like Susur Lee or “Demon Chef” Alvin Leung, when in stumbles a meek, awkward man (Derek Chan) who introduces himself as Maximo’s sous-chef and apologizes for the celeb’s unexpected absence before taking over the cooking demo in his place.

Chan’s affable presence, frenetic energy and “aww-shucks” schoolboy charm immediately wins the audience over.

Throughout the show, Chan delivers his monologue while preparing Rellenong Bangus; a notoriously difficult and labour-intensive Filipino dish of stuffed milkfish. The multi-step preparation process starts with a whole fish and includes deboning, flaking, sautéing, stuffing, battering and frying to achieve the finished product. The fact that Chan is able to prep and cook while delivering his lines and hitting all the right beats for the comedy is a mighty impressive feat.

Sy’s densely-packed script meanders between a variety of topics, including how the cuisine of the Philippines became heavily influenced by Spanish and American colonists, the economics of large scale aquaculture, and Canada’s temporary foreign workers program. 

As a director, Sy keeps the show very tightly-paced. The satirical delivery ensures that even the harder-hitting moments don’t land too heavily even though there is the occasional abrupt change in tone that lands a little awkwardly. Fortunately, Chan effortlessly keeps up the relentless pace of the show with his charm, he easily glazes over any minor misstep along the way. 

Though the show is performed almost entirely in Cantonese the overhead surtitles in English and Simplified Chinese ensured that non-Canto speakers are able to follow along easily.

By the end of the show, the audience arrives with a deeper understanding and appreciation for where our food comes from and is even invited up for a taste of Chan’s finished dish.

This show sits neatly at the intersection of several of my interests: food, Asian culture, history and social awareness, so I was easily won over by it. If you share any of these interests, there’s a good chance the show will win you over too. 

Details:

  • 食盡天下 (A Taste of Empire) is playing at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide) through May 6, 2018
  • Shows run Tuesday – Saturday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm
  • Presented in Cantonese with open captions in English and Simplified Chinese
  • Tickets Tickets $35, Saturday Matinee Pay-What-You-Can, includes all taxes and ticket fees
  • Tickets can be purchased online at www.factorytheatre.ca, by phone at 416.504.9971, or in-person at Factory’s Box Office

Photo of Derek Chan by Brenda Nicole Kent and Jules Le Masson