It’s the year of stories about Chefs.
First, there was The Bear, a moving show about a young chef who quits the fine dining world to take over his late brother’s sandwich shop. Then there was The Menu, a pulpy horror-comedy where chef Ralph Fiennes lures wealthy patrons to his exclusive island restaurant before killing them all.
Now, there’s Chef at KXT, a British one-woman play by Sabrina Mahfouz, directed by Victor Kalka and starring Alice Birbara. Produced by Victor Kalka, the play had a successful run at KXT in early 2022 as part of the Panimo Pandemonium festival and is back for another round. It should be one of the final shows in the Kings Cross venue (one of my favourite indie theatre spaces in Sydney) before bAKEHOUSE moves to Broadway.
Chef (we don’t get her name) has always loved cooking, and has big ambitions towards running her own restaurant and writing a cookbook. She’s also led a tough life, and there’s been many times where her relationship with abusive men has caused her career to be sidelined.
Chef once worked in a Michelin starred restaurant, but by the time the play opens, she’s working in a prison kitchen. Over the subsequent hour, we learn about where she’s come from, and how she got where she is.
Mahfouz’s script is episodic and non-linear, and Kalka’s direction smoothly moves the action across time and place, punctuated by compelling lighting design by Jasmin Borsovszky. The script jerks between past and present as Chef tells us the story of her life.
It’s a pretty unhappy life, and it’s worth noting for prospective viewers that heavy themes of domestic violence run through this script. It makes for intense viewing, and even though Mahfouz’s enduring message is one praising the strength and resilience of Chef, and women like her, this is by no means an easy watch.
Although a purposeful dramatic choice on Mahfouz’s part, I found the non-linear timeline and jumping-around of memories to be disarming, stopping you from getting too sucked into a moment before the pace and setting changed.
Ultimately, Chef was not for me. I found it hard to sit through the show’s grim tone and violent subject matter. While Birbara’s performance has been widely praised, I struggled to connect with her character and her performance. It is worth noting that I saw the production during previews, where actors are generally still finding their feet, and that may have prevented me from seeing the show at its best.
After all, the one-person show is an enormous challenge for an actor to pull off, and if the performer is not working at their best, they have no one else to rely on to pull them out of their funk. When you additionally consider the intense subject matter of the show, it’s a lot for Birbara to carry on her shoulders, and she should be proud of her work on a difficult script.
I’m not completely sure why I didn’t connect with Chef. Judging by other reviews I’ve seen, and the fact that KXT brought it back for a second season, I’m alone in my lukewarm reception to the piece.
Maybe the preview production I saw lacked the momentum of other nights. Or maybe, I found the Northern English accent grating in a venue I’ve come to fondly know as an exciting home of new Australian playwriting.
Whatever my reasons, they might not be yours. Chef is a bold and provocative one-person show, with tight direction and impressive lighting design. If that sounds like your thing, check it out at KXT before it closes on Feb 4.