A Taste of Empire by Jovanni Sy (Talonbooks $16.95)

Review by Paul Durras

Jovanni Sy's A Taste of Empire was nominated for two Dora Mavor Moore Awards, including Outstanding New Play, when he first performed his one-man show in 2010.

Remounted outdoors by Boca del Lupo Theatre at Granville Island Market in 2014, A Taste of Empire is an amalgam of cuisine and geo-politics. Although A Taste of Empire is limited to one character who cooks a fish for an hour-and-a-half, it's one of the most expansive evenings of Canadian theatre in terms of geographical reach and political scope.

It begins as a spoof. The canned voice of an overly enthusiastic emcee whips up enthusiasm for the entrance of Chef Maximo Cortez-Kitchen Gangsta! Ludicrous slides of this self-satisfied celebrity chef are part of the advance hype. Chef Maximo has an extensive product line. We learn this Messiah in an apron unabashedly favours Imperialist Cuisine-described as food made cheaper and more plentiful by mass production, combined with political oppression.

But the wunderkind Chef Maximo can't make it! Our kitchen guru has been called away to cook for one of his celebrity clients! Not unlike Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, an underling sous-chef must simulate the presentation of the master.

At first it appears our substitute chef is the sort of sycophantic underling who would have followed Jim Jones to Guyana. He has drunk the kool-aid. The sous-chef is not at liberty to expose the identity of any of Chef Maximo's private customers, but he does say, "I can tell you that Bono just loves his empanadas.";

He hasn't had a day off work for years, but Chef Maximo's primo lackey is ever-grateful just to be granted proximity to greatness. That one time when Chef Maximo locked him overnight in the freezer as punishment, well, he deserved it. And so the humble sous-chef proceeds to emulate his master by making a Filipino dish from Northern Luzon called "Rellenog Bangus"; (stuffed milkfish).

The first clue that we can expect something more wide-ranging than comic satire occurs when sous-chef confides he has been in the service of Chef Maximo ever since he was rescued from a Romanian orphanage at age ten. This guy certainly doesn't look Romanian...
It turns out A Taste of Empire is largely about looking beneath the surface of things.
As the sous-chef proceeds to dissect the origins of his monkfish recipe, he describes the Ita tribe that traditionally caught the fish. We are enthusiastically told it is surely a good thing that Ita fishermen were supplanted by a corporation called Imperial Seafood. It is a good thing fish farms have increased the yield more than a thousand-fold. "Everybody's a winner!";

The cooking narratives are spiced with history. Thousands of islands off the coast of Asia were named the Philippines by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 to honour King Phillip the Second of Spain. You already knew that, right?

After the Spanish generously brought "the gift of eternal salvation and the gift of Christian modesty"; to the heathens of the Philippines in the 17th century-as they had done for both Americas-there was fifty years of American domination in the wake of Teddy Roosevelt's propaganda-inflated victory in the so-called Spanish American war (actually it was the Cuban-Filipino-Spanish-American War but the people upon whose homelands the wars were fought didn't get equal billing).
Then came the Japanese Occupation...

It has all worked out for the best. Our chef gleefully outlines how conquering cultures have enhanced the diversity of global cuisine. Did you know the tomato became popular in Spain only after seeds from Central America were first taken to the Philippines? And the Americans gave the Filipinos spam and Heinz ketchup?
Did you know 15% of Filipinos now have diabetes?

It takes the sous-chef ninety minutes to prepare one dish that will ultimately be shared by the audience. Even someone who is foodie-phobic cannot help but marvel at the deft intricacies of the sous-chef's skill. This is not an actor pretending to be a chef; it's a chef doubling as an actor.

First, he massages the fish scales, making sure he doesn't puncture it. He loosens the flesh from the skin with a special knife. Then he carefully squeezes out the innards through a small slit. The fish meat is steamed on a banana leaf while the carcass is marinated in a soy sauce marinade.

Then the fish meat is added to the sofrito (garlic, olive oil, onion, tomato, raisin mixture) and cooled. At one point, he literally turns the fish outside in, the way one would unravel a sock from the dryer. The various fixings are all piped back into the empty fish skin, dredged in flour and panko breadcrumbs and fried golden, to be garnished with a tomato rose.

During this process we learn that most of the components of the Filipino milkfish recipe that are seemingly Spanish-such as the sofrito marinade, or stuffing-are derived from products that were originally Asian. And did you know 80% of the world's garlic comes from China?

While cooking, the sous-chef delivers a seamless monologue that doubles as a history lesson and a parody of the cooking show genre. The more he espouses the benefits of "imperial cuisine,"; essentially defending unbridled capitalism, the more we are being prepared for an ending that cannot be revealed.

Along the way there are unexpected asides about the nature of torture-specifically the evolution of waterboarding by the Americans-and yet somehow the protagonist manages to avoid didacticism by maintaining his façade of gleeful diligence.

The show hits home when the sous-chef starts telling us about Carlos, the Mexican tomato picker, who arrives in B.C. courtesy of the federal Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

Similarly vulnerable to exploitation are the thousands of Filipina nannies who come to B.C. under the federal Live-in Caregiver Program.

The extent to which Jovanni Sy's A Taste of Empire has anti-racist underpinnings is one of the fascinating aspects of the piece-clowning as a socially acceptable alternative to anger.

A Taste of Empire was remounted for a Cantonese version in Richmond at the Gateway Theatre, translated and performed by Derek Chan, with Jovanni Sy directing, in 2016.

9781772011609