In a world currently inundated with the most creative and innovative culinary reality shows streaming on cable networks, the Geffen Stayhouse takes a similar leap in presenting “Bollywood Kitchen: Culinary Theatre.” Distinguished writer/director/producer Sri Rao takes us on a dazzling, delicious journey through his home kitchen in a virtual show where life story meets cooking demo. One can ‘virtually’ taste the spices of curry, cumin, cocoa, and chai as they sizzle and come to life on screen. “Bollywood Kitchen,” based on the writer’s book of the same title, is the epitome of theatre in its rawest form.
As we zoom in from our own living room into Rao’s kitchen, we are transported into an intimate space, where we learn the secret recipe to the performer’s signature recipe, chicken curry, his Indian mother’s most prized dish. The audience immediately feels an emotional connection, as we enter Rao’s comfort zone and visceral memories of childhood, the most acute ones associated with the taste, smell, and nourishment of his cultures’s food, which defined his formative years. This one man show is a love letter, an homage of appreciation to his parents and a testimony to the grounded person he has come today, with both roots and wings. As many brilliant Indian directors and screenwriters such as Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala; Salaam Bombay,) this immersive show provides an opportunity to combine the art of cooking and entertainment, sure to please a foodie’s palate and a theatregoer’s experience. A central task in many spiritual practices is let go of fixed habits or rigid ideas such as a traditional theatre space, and the Geffen has faced the challenge of this pandemic in creating the ‘Stayhouse’ format. The new and unknown, always frightening, is handled amazingly, as we vicariously cook, eat, and live through Sri Rao’s colorful stories and family anecdotes.
In advance, the Geffen delivers an impressive “chef’s table Bollywood box,” package to the ticket patron’s door, a delectable, essential kit of Indian spices and ingredients, replete with recipe cards. If one dare wishes, he/she has everything needed to follow along with the live cooking demo in theatrical form. It’s clear how Rao has soul searched and kept true to his identity as a connection to his ancestors while also crafting his own life, career and passion in his daily work as an actor, performer and writer. Now he can add ‘culinary creator/chef’ to his impressive list of credits. It’s evident he was drawn to this pursuit almost as a calling, a history he never wanted to forget , yet also a way to reinvent and share this enthusiasm with others. The show is a clear, concrete way to offer the precious gift of his culture, a way to make an ordinary act into something extraordinary. Sri Rao literally brings to the table, the question of ‘who am I?’ and finds the answer: the power of self love. The show’s sights and sounds are brilliant and visceral, bursting off the screen. I found myself more than once, craving each dish and drink, inspiring my own culinary endeavors in the future. As Rao explores how his family, immigrants to America adopted their own way of life, to be themselves, work hard, integrate into the culture, yet remain connected to their past, so too, Rao reveals his way to blend into the melting pot and stay secure within his roots, in this innovative theatre construct.
In front of our eyes, we see this moment of blossoming and transformation. Theatre at its core exceeds all borders, as it taps into a solo show performer’s life journey, and “Bollywood Kitchen” is exquisite in doing just that. Experimenting and adding trendy twists of flavor to his childhood meals is a defining element of the show, not only revealing the close bond and respect for his parents, but also honoring their tradition. From generation to generation, he embraces his ‘inner Indian’ culture, feeds his soul, and becomes whole.
The central process of much theatre is self discovery and a coming of age, coming to terms with childhood and moving forward. Bollywood Kitchen is Rao’s therapeutic way to discover his life purpose. The story is one part talk/monologue, but chalk full of delicious memories and backstory, allowing each of us to relish and savor the foods and drinks of India’s cuisine, even including the proper way to cup a scoop of curry into the rice, using one’s hands, rather than utensils! He gives his parents the words they never had the chance to say verbally and this show will definitely change the way one thinks about food, love, and life, and how they constantly intertwine. The show is a universal art piece, filled with life lessons and cooking courses, sure to resonate with every culture, gender, and age. It’s a refreshingly new theatre story and premise, and so necessary at this time when we all seek spiritual nourishment and are hungry for meaning.Eat, drink, pray… sit back, have a cuppa chai and go see and taste “Bollywood Kitchen: Culinary Theatre.”