You’re seated aboard Pan Am Flight 892, about to take off from Honolulu bound for Seattle. You’ve just listened to President Kennedy announce the opening of the World’s Fair. It’s 1962.
Creating an intimate fantasy world, filled with stunning stewardesses, communist spies, CIA plots, and some of the best cocktail fare in town, Café Nordo launched its fourth dinner theater extravaganza in Fremont’s West of Lenin theater on Oct. 28. A Café Nordo production isn’t a typical kitschy dinner-and-show. Focused on the food, but with an eye to entertaining, the company has been creating audience-immersion experiences centered on eating since late 2009. Their latest, To Savor Tomorrow, recalls a time when passengers kept their shoes on, airline security kept their hands to themselves, and there was more on the in-flight menu than just peanuts.
Upon arrival, the audience is seated in a three-quarter round horseshoe by in-character flight attendants (Joanna Hardie and Hillary Milo), who present the safety procedures through the first of several interpretive dances. Then the show takes off. Sultry Russian spy Svetlana Romanova (Aimee Bruneau) boards the plane, masquerading as a stewardess, while Chinese spy Lin Biao (Max Davis) and double-agent Saul Needle (Ray Tagavilla) slip in among the crew, passing more or less successfully as airline waiters. Along for the three-hour ride with the audience is handsome and dense CIA agent Bob Trippe (Mark Siano), disguised as a Pan Am pilot. And then the food — the real star of the show — makes its appearance.
The brainchild of “Chef Nordo Lefesczki,” who may or may not be a real person, the menu of To Savor Tomorrow is steeped in the ‘60s, as seen through the lens of a local, sustainable cooking style. Food designer and show director Erin Brindley brings the period vividly to life with three courses of modernist cocktail appetizers along with dessert and, naturally, airline peanuts.
Though the early 1960s marked the rise of the global superpowers, the space race, and the menace of the Cold War, it was also the era of the Green Revolution, which dramatically increased agricultural output worldwide and completely changed the way America ate. “The earth is a machine. It can be improved upon,” explains Professor Petra Proudhurst (Opal Peachey), a “modern food scientist” and a pawn in the spies’ dangerous game. “We can alter the very structure of life to suit our needs.”
Proudhurst’s goal is to create a global agriculture industry, sustained by new plant breeds, genetically engineered crops, inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. The “modern” produce that results is the secret ingredient in a weapon that all of the spies are on a mission to obtain. “It will infiltrate their homes. It will infiltrate their very bodies with a foreign substance,” Svetlana says. “It is their very food that is the weapon.”
Though this announcement ought to make the audience uneasy, the first course of “Bolshevik Blinis” accompanied by a “Red” martini, and the second of equally communist “Deconstructed Dim Sum” with “The People’s” mai tai are clever riffs on international classics. Perched atop two tiny pancakes are “plane-made” sauerkraut with crème fraîche, and smoked salmon with blueberries. Caviar made from beets rests on half a hard boiled egg, rounding out the dish. The “dim sum” is a won ton soup, wittily re-imagined as a small, molded aspic of broth with chunks of Dungeness crab and vegetables embedded throughout, seated on a round of won ton noodle dough.
Between courses, alliances are formed and broken on the stage floor of the small theater space. As the Chinese and British spies perform covert espionage, CIA agent Trippe engages in lewd badinage with Svetlana. “You fly solo?” she inquires. “I do, but my cockpit’s always open,” he winks. There’s a reason, besides the cocktails paired with each dish, that the show is 21 and over.
The final course, called the “Patriot Plate,” appears to be typical American meat and potatoes at first glance. However the meatloaf, as envisioned by Chef Nordo, is a complex blend of meats, with the texture and mineral flavor of an accessible version of haggis. Braised pork belly, sirloin, and chicken liver were encased in caul fat, accompanied by a small dollop of mashed potatoes and a crisp disk made from pureed peas.
When at last the nature of the great and terrible weapon is revealed, it’s time for dessert. Lauded by Professor Proudhurst as the savior of mankind, the deadly creation sought by the Communist Bloc is, in fact, convenience food. That’s when Chef Nordo sends out the “Dwinkies,” which might be short for “Drunken Twinkies,” as they are drenched in Bailey’s Irish Cream. The choice of final dish is brilliant: though delicious, the “Dwinkies” are somewhat grotesque when compared to the hand-crafted dishes that came before. Maybe they’re actually “Deadly Twinkies.” They are everything Chef Nordo’s cuisine isn’t: sickeningly sweet, mass produced, loaded with artificial ingredients and a little nauseating. Without a doubt, they are the weapon.
If you go: Café Nordo: To Savor Tomorrow runs through Nov 20 at West of Lenin. $40-$65. For tickets, visit www.cafenordo.com.