Chef, Soho Theatre
Wednesday 17th June 2015
There are no soft gigs in prison. Yet when we first meet Chef, played by Jade Anouka with a shining enthusiasm that is immediately infectious, it seems she has found that a prison kitchen is a perfect safe haven in a difficult world. Amid the cold steel benches and bright lighting, she takes us through Sabrina Mahfouz’s 50-minute monologue, which opens with a mouthwatering description of the perfect peach (along with its humorous tag: “respect the peach”), and then expands into stories from Chef’s life, each one tied in some way to a dish — coconut curried tofu, yellowtail sashimi (on shaved turnip with rhubarb gravy), red wine risotto. It’s imaginative, vigorous and emotionally true: you can see why the show won a well-deserved Fringe First Award in Edinburgh last year.
Dressed in her whites, Chef writes out her menus as she recalls the events that have led her to be incarcerated. From her fractured family — her dad was “an army man, an angry man” and thus frequently absent (“definitely not much of a family man”), with a history of domestic violence to boot — to her getting involved with young men who are into drugs and crime, and use guns. But, and this is a clever twist in the story, Mahfouz shows how Chef ends up in prison because of a very different set of circumstances — this is definitely not a clichéd account of a young black woman on the skids.
In the prison kitchen, Chef mentors other prisoners, such as the troubled Candice. In Anouka’s winning performance, her love of food and cooking comes across with all the energy of a young life’s mission. In one episode, she remembers cooking a little breakfast feast for a friend, and we can instantly appreciate the symbolism of this act of kindness.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t use any food metaphors in any part of this review, but halfway through the show my resolve weakened. Chef shows how her receipes make life taste better, and Mahfouz’s writing — observant, poetic yet grounded in feeling — lights up the palette and makes you hungry for more. The writing turns the ordinary into the magical, and the discipline of cooking gradually turns into a perfect metaphor for a well ordered life, and an escape from the choas of violence. Except that, in prison, violence is never very far away.
Chef is based on Mahfouz’s work with ex-inmates of women’s prisons, allied to her interview with Michelin-starred superchef Ollie Dabbous, and the result not only feels authentic, but is lyrical with it. Kirsty Patrick Ward’s slightly static, but brilliantly acted production, brings out the laughter as well as the shredded nerves of the story, and Anouka not only explores the sensuous nature of food, but expertly follows the text’s sudden accelerations and bursts of excitement. Likewise, she’s punchy when her character’s bursts of anger call for it. With a lively soundtrack, and such a marvellous text, we gradually get a taste of the complexity of the play, which is about moral choices that affect life and death. Slowly we become aware of Chef’s bad points as well as her good ones. And at the end we’re left with a strange sense of healing — and that is very moving indeed.
© Aleks Sierz