Hardeep Singh Kohli: The Nearly Naked Chef | North Wall Arts Centre, July 14th 2011
No typical curry night for us on Thursday at the North Wall. We, the audience, the good folk of ‘North Oxford, Bohemian Oxford’, as Hardeep repeatedly referred to us, with a gently mocking but always warm and conspiratorial tone, were treated to a healthy serving of humour, social and political comment, snippets of a life story, culinary wisdom, sage advice about human interaction, sincerity and more than a pinch of spice, both in the food that was prepared before us on stage, and in the delivery of Hardeep’s one man show.
Whilst certainly being the only man on stage most of the time, Hardeep certainly didn’t work alone. As well as his trusty lighting engineer Natalie, who nimbly raised and lowered the house lights on numerous occasions, so that Hardeep could see and connect with the audience (or shame the guilty party when a mobile phone went off rather obtrusively), he gathered a mini army of willing and responsive amateur sidekicks from the audience and took them, and their relative idiosyncrasies with him all the way through his performance.
Andre the supposedly impressionable teenager, with the surname that Hardeep referred to as closer to an unsolvable anagram, or at least a very high scoring Scrabble word than a real name; the feisty Palestinian lady who was up for a heated discussion about how the Israelis stole their cuisine; and Bobby, the Tweeting fan who had ‘had a hard day’, which Hardeep acknowledged and hoped to make better for her by the end of the show, were wonderful added ingredients, plucked almost at random for inclusion in the comedic feast.
Also in the audience, and eventually on stage, helping to dish out paper plates of slightly overcooked rice (her words!), was Sophie Grigson, celebrated cookbook author, vegetable enthusiast and one of the very first of the TV cookery show gurus. She, the chosen few and so many others amongst the audience, shared in the enjoyment of Hardeep’s wonderfully inclusive, almost intimate style. From the gallery I had a perfect, bird’s eye view of the stage, and the pans of tantalizing bubbling, steaming, aromatic dahl and beef curry, and thankfully not a ground level view of those fluorescent trainers, purple kilt, and who knows what lay beneath. I felt sure that Hardeep caught my eye a few times. I hoped that he could see me smiling, so he would know that I was fully appreciating his easy charm, his love of storytelling and sharing of learnt truths.
Much like his style of cookery, whilst following some established ground rules (don’t use olive oil – olives don’t grow in India), Hardeep very successfully takes the best of the available, pertinent produce – his audience - and puts it together with the more traditional elements of anecdotal comedy, in a somewhat risky but ultimately very satisfying experimental fashion.
I am pretty sure that Bobby’s day improved significantly by the time she was tucking into Hardeep’s apple and mint chutney. If the healing powers of laughter hadn’t done the trick, the restorative powers of that chutney, based on his mum’s recipe and served in Hardeep’s childhood as a peace keeping addition to the midweek tedium of leftover lamb curry, will have worked their magic.
As well as those more actively participating audience members, the rest of us were all along for the ride, laughing throughout, and most certainly leaving, if not on a fuller stomach –if you happened not to be in the first twenty people to storm the stage at the end of the show to sample the food - still replete with a great experience and the warm and satisfied glow that laughter, much like a decent meal, can produce!