We do not generally review shows here,being a food-centric blog, but Comfort Food Cabaret was an interesting intersection. We were invited to the show by Interactive Theatre Australia, and were immediately intrigued by the premise.
Michelle Pearson, the creator and star of the show, has brought Comfort Food Cabaret to other parts of Australia and the world, including the Adelaide Fringe Festival, the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (yes, it is Festival Fringe and not Fringe Festival). The blurb for the show said that the show would feature her singing and creating a three course menu for guests. We wondered how that was going to work, as cooking for a large number of people can be a challenge, let alone cooking and entertaining simultaneously.
The show in Brisbane was held at Jojo’s Restaurant in South Brisbane. That was a venue we had not been to either, although we knew that they had moved from their previous location in the Brisbane CBD. We walked in to something a bit different from your usual restaurant setting. It was a converted warehouse-like area, with high ceilings, and lifted roller doors opening it up to the outside. Neon lights in different colours forming star shapes hung from the exposed rafters, and festoon lights were suspended between pillars, giving the place a festive feel. Walls of small tree branches served as partitions to divide the quite large open section into smaller, more intimate sections. Although we didn’t realise it at the time, we had come in through the back entrance, guided by Google Maps. It was quite appropriate in this instance, as this was where the event was being held, but there is also a more closed indoor area, which can be reached from Melbourne Street itself.
This was certainly a more cosy venue than a large theatre. A few long communal tables were set up for patrons to be seated at, with plates, cutlery, and bookmarks with information about the show and the charity it was supporting that evening, Little Lives. At the front of the area was another white-clothed long table, which held an assortment of foodstuffs and a portable induction hotplate. A standing banner indicated that this was indeed Comfort Food Cabaret (for those that might be unsure). Two musicians, one on the electric piano, and one on an electric guitar, played as diners seated themselves.
The show included three courses of food, but not drinks, which could be separately ordered from Jojo’s. The drinks others at our table ordered were prettily presented, and the verdict was also that they had good flavour (particularly the Pavlova Martini), so we allowed ourselves to be tempted into ordering The Island mocktail.
The Island mocktail was listed as having lime, Coco Lopez, apple, mint, and lemonade. The cloudy mix was served in a glass that had the form of a can, topped with foam and a wedge of lime, and garnished with mint. There were mint leaves muddled in the mix as well. The drink had distinct coconut, lime, and mint flavours, and was well balanced, refreshing, and not too sweet. We had been concerned that it might just taste like a minty lemonade, but it was a better blend than that.
As everyone settled in with their drinks, Michelle Pearson appeared from behind the banner, drawing everyone’s attention as she began the show with a song. Without giving things away, that set the scene for what would follow. Modern pop and familiar classics were given clever tweaks of song lyrics. There was energy in the performance, and, clearly, she can sing.
The show was a mix of storytelling and song. She built a good rapport with the audience, injecting plenty of humour and warmth into the narrative. Appropriately for the show, the underlying theme to the stories shared was the relationship with food, and how it wove into common shared life experiences.
The first dish prepared was an entree of pears and haloumi. As she cooked the components in a pan over the induction hotplate, she talked about why each element was being cooked a particular way and why. It was like being in a cooking class, but it flowed with the rest of the show, rather than being jarring. Smooth segues from section to section brought the audience along, rather than losing people along the way with transitions, so that it seemed quite natural to be listening to a life experience then hearing about cooking tips and tricks.
The sizzling of ingredients cooking on the pan and the rising aromas as components were caramelised wheted everyone’s appetites, and when she plated up the fried haloumi and seared pear slices, topped with walnuts, on a bed of rocket leaves, drizzled with balsamic vinegar, we could not wait to taste it.
Waitstaff shortly appeared from around the corner, likely from the restaurant kitchen, bearing plates of the entree. As they set the plates down, the first thing we noticed was now markedly less seared the pieces of haloumi were. After hearing Michelle Pearson describe the deliciousness of perfectly cooked haloumi, with a just crisp crust and soft inside, we were looking forward to eating just that. This was not quite it, however, and it unfortunately sat on the cold and rubbery side instead. The sliced pears were cooked closer to what was described though, retaining firmness, and giving the dish a sweet and salty flavour mix.
The main dish was a ragu pasta. This was a self-explanatory connection to the title of the show, pasta having established status as a comfort food. The demonstration of the cooking of the ragu did take a little shortcut, as cooking shows are wont to do, as stewing the meat for four or so hours was quite a bit beyond the duration of the show. With the energy of the show and the charisma of the performer, she would probably have been able to keep the audience engaged for that long, but it would have taken a significant amount more work to prepare that much more material.
Dishes of the beef ragu pasta were brought out to us, and shared pinch bowls of grated cheese placed in the middle of the tables. The dishes had a visibly uneven distribution of food, with some having a notably more generous serve of the ragu than others. The ragu was certainly meaty, being more pulled meat fibres than liquid tomatoey sauce. We did want it to be more seasoned though. The linguini was well-cooked, supple and springy.
The preparation of dessert was accompanied by a less lighthearted, but also meaningful narrative. This broadened the emotional scope of the show, so that overall, it became more than lighthearted theatre. Michelle Pearson’s voice carried emotional power, taking the audience on the journey.
Again, like a cooking show, the preparation of the dish in its entirety was not done at the time, at least in part due to equipment limitation, as the coffee crumb component had to be baked in an oven, which was not part of the stage setup. The chocolate ganache was mixed with the cream to make the chocolate mousse as part of the show though.
This time, when the dish was brought out to guests, the presentation was prettier than what had been seen on stage (and more complete). The chocolate mousse was served in a wineglass, topped with coffee crumb, berries, and a sprig of mint leaves. This looked good, and ate well. The chocolate mousse was smooth, and only mildly sweet, so that it did not get cloying. The coffee crumb had bits of salt in it, which were a little flavour punch that enhanced the chocolate. The berries were a little tart, which cut the richness of the mousse.
Overall, we enjoyed Comfort Food Cabaret. It fell down a little bit in food, similar to the issue theatre restaurants run into. This isn’t really your exquisitely done fine dining. It is also not what they are pitching though. It does much better than theatre restaurants in that it is a truly engaging, heartwarming show. It does what comfort food does. It was a lovely evening out, and we found ourselves wishing that the show went on for longer.
While the Brisbane show was a one night only performance, Comfort Food Cabaret will be heading to Edinburgh in August. You can also check the Facebook page for updates on performances closer to home.