This week, Fiona considers the unlikely parallels between food and theatre...
Earlier this week I drove up the M6 to Manchester and spent time in The Royal Exchange Theatre. It was my first visit to both city and venue. The Royal Exchange is breathtakingly exquisite and such an exciting blend of differing architectural tradition and style.
The theatre sits within the heart of a Grade II listed building and you can feel its pulse as soon as you enter the space. The creative combustion between the doric columns of the old cotton exchange and the seven-sided steel and glass module is palpable. It was thrilling to be there.
The current show in the repertoire is The Crucible with Jonjo O’Neill (As You Like It) as Proctor and Sam Cox (Lovesong) as Giles Corey. The in-the-round space is wrapped by a sharp golden ribbon of light that runs around the perimeter of the stage and Max Jones’ set is a cauldron of tension. My mind jumped back a year to Yaël Farber’s magnificent production of the play at The Old Vic and her forensic examination of the Miller classic.
However the purpose of my visit wasn’t to watch this Crucible. I’d been invited by Ebury/Random House to interview chef and restauranteur Yotam Ottolenghi and his collaborator Ramael Scully to celebrate the launch of their new cookbook Nopi, based on the food presented in their restaurant of the same name. It felt entirely appropriate to be having this conversation with two of the culinary world's leading men, on a stage. Like the best performers, their work is bold, risk-taking, irreverent and inspirational and, like the best dramatists, they take familiar things and explore and exploit their potential, food produce being the tools of their trade. They create show-stopping dishes that are a hybrid of virtuosity and flair, which call upon their unique food heritage and cultural experience.
Theatre became the ongoing metaphor of the evening and it wasn’t difficult to draw comparisons between the theatre of the kitchen and that of the stage. The best chefs are consummate artists who passionately blend and mix flavours, textures and colour with scientific precision and Yotam and Ramael were no exception. It was interesting to hear them describe the choreography of a restaurant as it approaches service and the need to wow and please their audience. How similar this is to the process of making theatre. Teamwork, instinct, trial and error, practice and timing all play a central role in bringing great dishes out of the kitchen and sharing them with others. Each new recipe goes through a taste-testing phase before it’s signed off. This is very similar to a theatre preview schedule and is the time for securing what works and what doesn’t.
Yotam and Ramael told their story whilst cooking up a feast. The menu was burnt cauliflower with celeriac purée and quail's eggs, followed by venison with blackberry crumble served on caramelised yoghurt. It tasted stunning and was pure theatre in its preparation and delivery. Who’d have thought those combinations would create such a stunning sensation on the palate?
Sitting on the set for The Crucible, being seduced by the smells, sight and sounds of food preparation, I remembered my conversation with theatre director Yaël Farber during our interview last year. She invests massively in encouraging her performers to awaken their senses in the rehearsal room and talked about sensory transference from actor to audience. I’m sure she would have applauded Yotam and Ramael in this regard. Today we publish the transcript of her interview, in which she details her play-making process. So much food for thought. Enjoy.