Monday, October 9, 2017

How to Use a Knife is Searingly Honest about Life as a Chef

The life of a chef seems to be on everybody's media radar these days. 

Photo courtesy of Mixed Blood Theatre

Whether it's thanks to Anthony Bourdain's eternally successful Kitchen Confidential, the explosion of interest in the Food Network, or simply the romance of quitting the office hamster wheel and using our hands all day, the life of a chef has become one of the most romanticized professions in America's daydreams.

What's the problem with all of this?

As a partner of a chef, I can tell you firsthand what no one (except Kitchen Confidential, oddly enough as everyone wants to forget the real parts of the book...) wants to tell you: this is one of the hardest jobs out there. It's not sexy. Most chefs will tell anyone interested that they're insane for wanting to get into this field.


Let me count the ways: the hours are brutal, particularly in terms of lack of rest and no holidays off. There are almost never benefits for work in restaurant kitchens, and cooking staff is notoriously underpaid. Tips almost never make their way to the people making the food, despite the fact that they do the lion's share of keeping up a restaurant. There is no such thing as sick days, making working in a hot, damp, smelly environment even worse when you're ill. It's an incredibly dangerous job, particularly for people without healthcare, and there's a good chance you'll have serious burns and cuts within the first few months. Mental health is a huge problem among people working in kitchens, as is rampant substance abuse.

So why does anyone do this kind of work?

How to Use a Knife, now showing at Mixed Blood Theatre, acknowledges all of these difficulties in stark reality, but shows some of the brighter sides of this world as well. The kitchen is a place where anyone can start over and find employment, regardless of how far they have fallen in their personal life. It's a place of brutal honesty, where no word is too profane and tension must be confronted head on. It creates a tough skin, helping people develop resilience that can carry them through other parts of their lives. At any given time you can hear multiple different languages and dialects all competing with each other. It's one of the few areas in which everyone is on an equal playing field despite their race, gender or economic status.  All that matters in a kitchen is if you have the skills; anything else is just window dressing.

How to Use a Knife follows chef George, formerly a Michelin starred chef who is starting over after losing his career (and daughter) through his addiction and has recently become stone cold sober. George is hired by Michael, one of his least talented former line cooks, to run a casual burger and sandwich restaurant staffed by Miguel and Carlos. Washing dishes is Steve, a mysterious African immigrant who never engages with his fellow staff. George insists on elevating the level of cooking in the kitchen despite the lowbrow reputation, infusing the staff with the discipline of a traditionally trained chef. After hours, George befriends Steve, where they trade lessons in cooking and meditation and create an unlikely partnership. As the details of Steve's dark past unravel, George unravels himself. This is a show with no easy answers - I'll leave the denouement out for audiences to learn for themselves - but suffice it to say, it's an impressively subtle approach to many searingly difficult issues. Civil war, mental health, substance abuse, the death of a child, the desire for revenge, the evil path revenge can take you on; all of these problems are divulged here with despairing honesty, and this play will really have you thinking by the time it's finished.

The cast wields the script with gravitas. Ansa Akyea brings his trademark subtlety to his role as Steve, managing to make this a complex, intricate role that demands the audience pay attention. It's a bravado performance, and few actors could convey such complexity into this part. This was my first time seeing Zack Myers on stage (as George), and I hope it's not the last. Myers brings a bombastic passion to his part that is the yin to Akyea's serene yang, and their performances together are like watching fire and ice. Raúl  Ramos and Jake Caceres are this show's beating heart as Carlos and Miguel, respectively. Each has moments of true, winsome comedy, and I was glad they were there throughout the show. Michael Booth is dishearteningly convincing as the inept, egotistical owner Michael. It's my understanding that Booth's portrayal of irresponsible restaurant owners is distressingly accurate, and his antics are sure to be enlightening to audience members unfamiliar with what really happens behind a kitchen's swinging double doors.

The set, designed by Joseph Stanley, has a strong resemblance to real working kitchens. The space is used beautifully throughout the tight 100 minute performance, with all scene transitions depicting the restaurant at a different time of day and state of use. The effect is to provide a true window into the lifecycle of a restaurant, and it's a fun foray for voyeurs of the industry. Karin Olson's lighting adds to this cyclical effect, and Janet O'Neill's costumes are appropriately uniform for this environment.

I was really looking forward to taking my chef to How to Use a Knife, and I wasn't disappointed. Mixed Blood always offers thought provoking, diverse, difficult work, and How to Use a Knife is no different. For those in the cooking world, this will be a familiar journey with an added political perspective. For those of us outside of that profession, How to Use a Knife is an honest, illuminating portrait of how difficult work in a kitchen is and how deeply politics seeps through every aspect of our lives, even those hidden behind double doors. How to Use a Knife only runs for one more week and closes October 15. For more information and to get tickets, click on this link.

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