Sabrina Mahfouz’s play Chef has a bite to it. Jade Anouka plays a former head-chef who is now running the kitchen of a prison where she is an inmate. The writing has a poetic quality; we hear of the man who ‘cut shapes into skin cos his words didn’t work’, of a darkness so black it’s blue. It’s a story of ambition and abuse, of holding back and not letting go. Knives cut fruit and skin, and words pierce sharply whilst we hear of curried coconut tofu, hibiscus flower sorbet and the ultimate, perfectly ripe peach.
Anouka speaks to us from in front of her kitchen trolley, subtly shining silver, clean and sparse. We hear of boat kitchens, take-away food spread on the floor after a domestic fight, tongues acting as paintbrushes and relationships gone sour. This is a performance of and about circumstance; the ambitions that attempt to shift a person’s position, and the events that keep getting in the way.
Chef turns food into a dramaturgical device; plot and description are woven into stories that hold real weight, though there’s never any commitment to any one narrative. In the same way Anouka speaks from no place in particular, the piece itself resists any attempts to puzzle drama together. We remain grounded, and in this grounding we’re invited to confront this meditation on choice – who holds it, who legislates it, and who is unable to have it.
Chef ‘s identity lies in the meeting point between poetics and theatricality; Anouka brings energy and depth of character to the piece, whilst Kirsty Patrick Ward’s direction plays with a choreography of attention, shifting from language to action, drama to narrative. The resolute intimacy of both performance and story are not only tied to the ways in which the language evokes emotion through food, but also in the way these things are softened, the way it resists the urge to over-dramatize these stories.
Yet Chef also remains a light piece, despite the confrontations it depicts. We taste everything so quickly, that there’s little lingering flavour. Chef is more portrait than interrogation; it makes a gesture towards the questions one might ask, but doesn’t ask them too intently. Racial and prison politics, circumstances and pressures remain underexplored themes. That being said, it’s generous and rich in its poetry, evocative in its narrative and candid in its exploration.