Cookin’ NANTA!

May 1, 2009 at 2:27 am (Uncategorized)

Over the past few months I’ve become a regular reader of several of the expat magazines that are published in Seoul.  It’s yet another one of those things I wish I’d known about when we fir0st arrived.  The magazines provide a wealth of knowledge about things to do, places to visit and general information about life as a foreigner in Korea. 

One of my favourite magazines is called Groove (http://groovekorea.com/index.htm), and is published once a month.  The last few issues have consistently had an ad for a theatre show in Seoul called Cookin’ NANTA, and featured four chefs dressed in white hats and coats with food literally flying in the air all around them.  I was intrigued, especially since the ad’s tag line read “More fun than should legally be allowed!”  Could a theatre show about Korean cooking really be fun??

It turns out Angela and Anthony had been thinking the very same thing.  We decided to bite the bullet and check it out, even though the price tag was pretty high considering our frugal monthly budget.  Groove magazine offered a 20% discount for groups up to four people, so we figured the time was right.  I made a quick call and reserved for four seats on Sunday, April 19th – let the fun begin!

The show was at 5:00, but tickets were handed out on a first-come-first-served basis, so we met at the theatre just before 4:00.  Dave and I splurged on a cab ride from our house to the theatre, and it was well worth the extra money – we rarely ever see the city above ground, since we’re joined at the hip to the metro system, and it was wonderful to take in the sights of the city during the day.  We had reserved VIP seats, which were an extra 10,000 won, and ended up getting seats B11-B14 – not bad!  Here’s the theatre layout: http://nanta.i-pmc.co.kr/en/cultinfo/seat.asp.  The seats were on a pretty steep grade, so we were literally ten feet from the stage. 

*NB – I had our new camera on the wrong setting, so the pictures are all a little blurry.  Sorry.*

NANTA theatre:

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Just before 5:00 the lights went down and a large projection screen was lowered in front of the stage.  It explained, in very basic English, Korean, and Japanese the story behind NANTA.  A wedding ceremony was about to take place, and four chefs had to race against time to cook all the food in only an hour.  The messages on the screen told us to actively participate in the performance as much as possible by cheering and clapping, which we then practiced by singing “Happy Birthday” to one of the actors back stage.  My inner skeptic kicked in – I had a feeling then this was either going to be a really cheesy or a really amazing show.  The screen was pulled up, the theatre went black, and the show began.

The lights went up and the stage was set – directly in front of us was a small hand-held drum, a low table with over-turned metal cups, a bowl filled with water, and a large drum.  Four figures walked slowly onto the stage holding candles that quickly filled the stage with smoke.  Each person took to their station; the man at the large drum began slowly worked up a beat, while the man in front of the cups began chiming away with a pair of chopsticks.  The woman seated in front of the bowl of water turned over a smaller bowl and used it to build the rhythm.  The third man at the hand-held drum then joined in as the music grew with more and depth.  It felt so solemn and even a little spiritual to watch – they were all so intent in their tasks and the sounds they created were really amazing.  Now I was even more confused…this wasn’t exactly “fun”, per se, and where were the chefs??

The prelude ended, rock music started blaring from the speakers and the four people stood up and ripped off their robes – underneath were stark white chef’s coats.  A ha!  Now it all made sense.  The cast was made up of five different players:

1.  The Manager

manager

2.  The Head Chef

head-chef

3.  The Sexy Guy (he has a moustache and goatee now)

sexy-guy

4.  The Female (how creative)

female

5.  The Nephew

nephew

nanta-cast

Although this was a non-verbal performance, the actors still used a few English and Korean words here and there, plus a lot of sounds to get their point across.  The Head Chef, the Sexy Guy and the Female had just arrived at work and had begun to set up their kitchen stations when the Manager walked in.  He unrolled a huge scroll that listed all the foods required for the evening’s wedding reception, and there was one catch – all the food had to be complete within an hour.  Just to add to their stress, the Manager had invited his bumbling, half-wit nephew to join the team of chefs for the day. 

The first step was to make a soup, and the Head Chef pulled out a large rolling cart to the middle of the stage and began boiling water.  This was all real, mind you, and we could smell all the spices and vegetables he was throwing into the mix.  Meanwhile the Sexy Guy, the Female and the Nephew worked at stations behind him cutting up vegetables and kept time with their knives hitting the cutting boards.  They would spontaneously break out various other items – brooms, plastic water jugs, pots and pans – to expand the rhythm. 

Then they pulled two people from the audience to try the first course.  The man and woman were outfitted in mock-traditional Korean wedding outfits and were given bowls and ladles.  The four chefs then stood in a line beside the happy couple and belted out one of the most hilarious renditions of a Buddhist chant I’ve ever heard, complete with the Nephew slapping himself in the forehead with a very large wooden pole to keep the beat. 

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Next the chefs encouraged them to try the soup, and suddenly the sound of a very large fly filled the stage.  A strobe light filled the stage as the actors moved in ultra slow-motion to try and catch the fly – their actions were all extremely over-exaggerated, and at one point the Sexy Guy smacked the Nephew across the head and the butt with the large pole from the Buddhist chant.  It was so ridiculously funny.  The slow-motion came to an abrupt halt, and the chefs followed the sound with their eyes and bodies, and it eventually came to land in the woman’s soup.  The Nephew and the Sexy Guy quickly grabbed the man and the woman and whirled them around a few times, while the Female switched the two bowls.  Then the audience got a good laugh while the man slurped up some soup which now had a fly in it. 

The second course was a traditional Korean barbeque, so all four chefs pulled out their stations and began cutting vegetables like mad.  Cabbage was flying all over the place, carrots were being pulverized, and all the while they were making music.  It was pretty incredible.  There was obvious physical attraction between the Female and the Sexy Guy, but the Nephew also had a thing for the Female, so there were several interludes of broom fighting to determine the alpha male. 

nanta-51

Every once in a while the Manager would burst onto the scene to make sure the chefs were hard at work, then he would give his hair a quick comb-through and be on his way.  During the second course preparations he came flying out carrying a huge stack of plates.  He passed them along to his Nephew, who in turn gave them to the Sexy Guy, who then handed them off to the Head Chef.  So began an amazing routine of plate throwing between all four chefs – they spun in circles throwing plates to each other, the Female climbed on top of the Sexy Guy’s shoulders and threw plates around, and the finale was the Nephew catching plates between his fingers in incredibly rapid succession. 

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The next step for the main course was the preparation of the meat.  The Nephew ran out on stage carrying a fake duck, which was honking and spewing feathers all over the place.  He exited the stage, feathers still flying, as the other chefs looked at each other with fear in their eyes.  A huge butcher knife was quickly passed between them, the final holder stuck with the gruesome task of killing the bird. 

The Sexy Guy ended up with the knife, which he hid behind his back when the Nephew came back on stage; he stuffed it into the Nephew’s hands and ran off.  The three chefs watched with fear as the Nephew dragged his feet; obscene amounts of honking and feathers came from just off stage, then the Nephew re-emerged, weeping and holding a funeral picture of the duck.  It was so funny!  Suddenly the honking filled the air again, and the chefs followed the sound with their eyes as the bird somehow escaped the kitchen and flew away.  PETA would be so happy 🙂

Another fight between the Sexy Guy and the Nephew quickly broke out, while the Female ran around them trying to stop yet another outburst.  The stage cleared, except for the Head Chef, who gave a deep sigh and started to clean up the food strewn all over the floor.  As he leaned up against the sink he suddenly slipped, and fell butt-first into a huge Rubbermaid garbage can.  Now this incredibly tall and skinny man was stuck with his legs and torso sticking out of a plastic tube.  He tried desperately to will himself out of the can, but he had no leverage and only succeeded in pointing his feet and arms in the direction he wanted to go.  I haven’t laughed that hard in a long, long time. 

He managed to turn himself over so he could scuttle around like a crab with a huge shell on its back, and made his way to the front row of the audience.  He begged a woman sitting there to come up on stage and help him, but although she pulled with all her might the can wouldn’t budge.  All of a sudden two little Korean boys ran on stage – one pulled at the Head Chef’s arms while the other pulled on the can.  This definitely wasn’t planned, because the look on the Head Chef’s face was priceless – he was trying hard not to laugh and shoo them away.  They succeeded in pulling him out, and the audience cheered like crazy.  The Head Chef walked to the back of the stage and pulled out a bottle of beer he’d hidden.  He was just about to take a swig when the Manager strutted back on stage.  The Head Chef tried in vain to hide the beer, and dropped it into the Rubbermaid can.  When the Manager got too close to the can the Head Chef did the only thing he could think of – he sat back down inside the can and got himself stuck all over again!

After the Head Chef removed himself yet again from the Rubbermaid can the other three chefs came back on stage and prepared a wedding cake, which they put into a large oven.  Next they wheeled two cooking stations to either side of the stage, and brought out long conveyor belts.  It was time for the mandu competition!  Mandu are a Korean dietary staple (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandu_(dumpling)), and are very similar to Polish pierogies, except they are filled with meat and vegetables instead of potatoes.  The Female and the Sexy Guy walked down into the audience to find some helpers for the competition.  My jaw dropped to the floor when the Female motioned to Anthony and Angela to join her – our friends were going to take part in the show! 

They were given chef hats and assigned to two tasks – Angela would be filling the mandu and sending the finished product down the conveyor belt while Anthony collected the trays and stacked them at the front of the stage.  It was so much fun to watch the two teams race against each other to finish the most amount of mandu.  At one point Angela sent the mandu too far down the conveyor belt and the whole tray fell on the floor.  Anthony, being the crafty guy he is, quickly scooped the contents back into the tray and added it to our stack.  The crowd on our side of the theatre went wild!  In the end our team barely lost, but it was still an amazing part of the show.

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Angela and Anthony with their chef hats:

angela-anthony

The stage clock read 5:55, so the chefs were really scrambling to complete the wedding cake.  It turns out that the Nephew had forgotten to plug in the oven, so they pulled out a huge microwave and began drumming in a circle around the microwave using chopsticks.  Suddenly a huge, fully decorated cake popped out of the top of the microwave, just as the clock struck 6:00.  Hooray!  The Manager came on to the stage to view the end results and gave everything a smug nod of approval. 

The Chefs and the Manager then wheeled five enormous barrels onto the stage, and each person grabbed a huge mesh sieve.  They opened up the barrels and began throwing massive quantities of small plastic balls into the audience.  We definitely didn’t see that coming!  After throwing out several hundred balls the actors then turned their sieves around to cover their faces like baseball catchers, and taunted the audience to try and hit them with the balls.  This insanity went on for a few minutes, and quickly had us all standing up, laughing hysterically and whipping balls at the Chefs and the Manager. 

The Grand Finale began with the five actors standing on different levels within the wooden stage backdrop.  They pounded out traditional drumming on water jugs fixed to the backdrop, and they were back-lit to create some really cool lighting.  Next they jumped onto the stage and took up posts at the huge barrels.  The drumming continued at a furious pace.  All of a sudden the whole theatre went black.  A few moments later the strobe light came on again and the Female and the Sexy Guy had filled the tops of their barrels with water, so that each mallet strike sent a spray of water flying into the air.  It was an amazing sight. 

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This was a truly wonderful experience – my initial skepticism was forgotten within the first two minutes of the show.  I was astounded at the actors’ artistic and musical talents, and their ability to make us all laugh so hard we cried!  The show has been featured on American t.v. shows like “The Today Show” and “Regis and Kelly”, and even had a stint on Broadway!  NANTA is a cultural icon in Korea, as well as around the globe.  We are already thinking about seeing the show again; it was just that good.  Every expat living in Korea should pony up the 50,000 won or so to experience this fantastic feast for the senses.  NANTA is amazing!

Dave, me, Angela & Anthony after the show:

dave-lisa-angela-anthony

Media collage:

nanta-collage

This promo video, while a little long, gives a really good overview of the show.  If you’d like to take a peek at clips from the actual show, fast-forward to about the 1:15 mark to see the introduction ceremony, knife drumming and the Grand Finale, or go to the 6:00 mark to see what the show looked like on Broadway.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XQ-hFrhE_Q

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2 Comments

  1. 3 in dreams said,

    It’s a very fantastic show I’ve never seen before. 22 to 26 July 2009 at Thailand. I’ve got a chance to experience this great performance. Next time at Seoul I promise I’ll be there to see great COOKIN’ NANTA.

  2. Pete said,

    “Cookin” toured the US about 5 years ago. We need to get them back. They were well received here. It is a crime they have not returned. Some promoter is missing the boat here.

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