Playing with food has led Razif Hashim and Hester Welch to whip up theatre built around ingredients, recipes and stories that pique the appetite. Guests at their dinner shows get to play along too, as family members at a wedding party, diners unwittingly drawn into a whodunnit and, this week, trainees learning the ropes at a restaurant.
The pair co-founded Wayang Kitchen in 2019 after a couple of years of doing Food Play, which uses food to tell stories. That went really well with viewers and they were inspired to team up and work with other performers.
Razif does not mince words when it comes to what they aim to do. “In the beginning, I was trying to create an alternative to the really bad tourist trap shows: lots of cultural dances with people dressing up in multi-ethnic clothes that don’t reflect the country at all.”
“You already have such a rich culture here and the food itself is inspiring,” Welch chips in. What they do has more heart than those dances that people have seen millions of times and is also respectful of the locals, she adds. “As a foreigner, I am able to give insights on what might be interesting.”
Given all the enticing “ingredients” available, it was natural to gather and throw them into the pot and start a company that serves stories centred on food.
As for what particular stories they have in mind, Razif lays it straight on the table: “Anything that Tourism Malaysia tells, we tell the complete opposite.”
Theatre-goers will get a full taste of what he means at Welcome to Our Malaysia!, the company’s curtain-raiser for 2023, at Artisan’s Playground by Cookhouse on Jan 13 and 14. The Kuala Lumpur venue will be set up as a training day in a restaurant with the audience rolling up their sleeves and donning aprons as waiters and cooks. They will be introduced to delectable local dishes as they become part of the story.
Food for thought will also cut a groove between the dining floor and kitchen as the trainees are schooled on good service and industry standards, an issue Razif wants to slip between plates and cutlery. The UK-trained actor had responded to Welch’s callout for Food Play, which she conceptualised and directed.
“I was hosting a TV show on food [Best in the World, on the Asian Food Channel] and was desperate to get back into theatre.” Wanting to fuse his love for food and acting, he suggested that they form Wayang Kitchen.
“I’m more of a business head. I see this as a way to create foreign direct investments [laughs] by getting people interested in Malaysia and by understanding that, you know what, there are real Malaysians out there. That’s something I can connect with.”
Their business model involves working with a third party, either a restaurant or venue, and tapping into what is served there because that impacts the story. Smell and taste connect and form the basis of what they eventually present.
“We always start by asking our partners, ‘What’s your best dish?’ They might say, ‘Chicken chop.’ I will then start a script with what I remember about chicken chop and someone else may recall something else. Using our own memories and experiences, we create the story from there.”
Working with different set-ups brings inspiration and fresh ideas to the collaboration as well, whether they were doing a show live-streamed from London and KL during the pandemic, a wedding feast in Langkawi, or a fine-dining experience in the city. The virtual show was unusual in that instead of a restaurant, they worked with kitchen communities and sent out food kits to the audience, who could join the cooking demo and have a stirring time.
Razif and Welch both admit they are better storytellers than cut out for kitchen work. They are also aware that theatre does not sell well. But food does, so it makes sense to peg art to the commodity.
Welch, who hails from a country rich in theatre culture but not much in food, says this contrast makes their partnership interesting. “We bring both sides to it. It’s inspiring to spread that love of alternative performance and free people’s minds about [what theatre can be].
“I am a big foodie myself, though not a chef. My brother is one. My little nephew was a baby when I first started making Food Play. He was being weaned and going on solid food. He was smashing it around and exploring the texture and I thought, ‘Hah, that’s cool. Adults will be interested in this too.’”
The possibilities are enticing, especially with the variety of ingredients available here. A Greek restaurant has approached them to do something and already they are chewing on the idea of Greek refugees trying to escape to Italy.
“At the root of what we do, always, is how prominent Malaysian food culture is and how that affects the way people connect. Each show is different and we are getting closer to finding that ultimate balance between food and theatre,” Welch says.
Immersive edible theatre served with fresh ideas + familiar flavours
“Without giving too much away, patrons of Welcome to Our Malaysia! can expect to enjoy a classic teh tarik and experience nasi lemak like they’ve never before,” says Huen Su San, founder of Artisan’s Playground by Cookhouse. With Wayang Kitchen’s shows wrapped in the theme of cultures, the immersive theatre dining experience will tap into a familiar array of Malaysian-centric flavours.
“We are not trying too hard to reinvent the wheel with the recipes. We want to deliver the very best of what we know as Malaysians, but with a different perspective through theatre. On a side note, we do have a very refreshing story revolving around the mighty asam boi!”
As for what kind of spread would reflect “Our Malaysia”, Huen adds: “While Wayang Kitchen has taken some interesting perspectives on storytelling to portray a theatrical social commentary on our culture, for us ‘Our Malaysia’ is represented by a space where everyone can come together to enjoy a meal with friends and family. That is the one thing we can all share as a people from all corners of the country.”
As the venue host for the Jan 13 and 14 shows, how is Huen adding to the story created by the co-founders of the theatre company?
“We are working hand in hand with Razif [Hashim] and Hester [Welch], who have come up with exciting and creative ways to weave the story into our venue, environment and surroundings. Artisan’s Playground adds a whole new dimension to the dining experience as it will be the backdrop and ‘stage’ for the performances.”
The expansive 33,000 sq ft set-up at Riverside in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, lends another creative aspect for the pair to incorporate and play with, Huen adds. Her team has been planning the collaboration for some time now. If this combination of theatre and food proves popular, they plan to do more and give diners an experience to savour and remember.
Tickets for 'Welcome to Our Malaysia!' start at RM150 nett. For details, see here.
This article first appeared on Jan 9, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.