"We're gonna eat this together as a community. Mmmmm. That's the sound of revolution, everybody!" says Mero Cocinero ("best cook") to his audience. The chef — his apron emblazoned with a Gonzo-like hand clutching a spoon — drops to one knee, encouraging the onlookers to change the world via the power of food.
It's a typical scene from the raucous traveling show of Cocinero, the alter ego of Robert Karimi, an interdisciplinary playwright, performer and chef based in San Francisco. Though he also creates work with no culinary connections, Karimi's baby is The Cooking Show, an interactive stage performance combining elements of PBS-style food programming, comedy, music, storytelling and video.
Karimi's newest installment, "Viva La Banchan," comes to Philadelphia this week at the Asian Arts Initiative. Each episode touches on a social, political or health issue; "Viva La Banchan" follows suit with its focus on Type 2 diabetes. After his father was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes, Karimi set out to learn more about the disease. He discovered it's one of the leading causes of death in America, and it's particularly rampant in ethnic communities.
Karimi, who is of Guatemalan and Iranian descent, decided to incorporate diabetes education into his show. "After my father was diagnosed, he looked back to traditional [Iranian] family recipes and changed the way he ate," says Karimi. "Let's look back and find a solution. Let's not push aside culture when talking about healing and eating."
More than a ticketed performance, "Viva La Banchan" is designed to be an interactive pop-up restaurant that provides a full meal to audience members, who often go on stage to help Karimi's Cocinero character cook. The goal of the BYOB experience is to make people think about balanced portion sizes and how they plate their meals. Karimi's menu is a heavily guarded secret, but features traditional dishes from Iran, Guatemala, Mexico and the Philippines. (Karimi does divulge, however, that he's cooking a tribute recipe for the Beastie Boys' late Adam "MCA" Yauch.)
The show is geared toward informing diabetics, but people with all types of diets are encouraged to attend. And though the message is a serious one, that doesn't mean its delivery can't be fun. "Diabetes is unbalanced energy," says Karimi. "I want to balance that energy through laughing, feeling good and eating good, healthy food."
The Cooking Show, Thu., May 17, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., May 19, noon and 7:30 p.m., $20, Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St., 215-557-0455, asianartsinitiative.org.