The People’s Cook: Robert Karimi Rallies Communities Around Food, Theater

Playwright and performance artist Robert Karimi is a National Poetry Slam champion, a Def Poetry Jam alumnus and creator of the episodic theatrical experience “The Cooking Show con Karimi and Comrades.” Through the character of his alter ego, a chef named Mero Cocinero, the San Francisco Bay Area-born Iranian-Guatemalan trans-media artist brings people and food together for interactive evenings of storytelling, culinary adventure, nutrition, wellness and community. Karimi speaks at IdeaFestival  at 10:30 a.m Thursday as part of a panel, “Art on the Edge.”

He spoke with WFPL’s Erin Keane from Minnesota Public Radio’s studios in St. Paul, where he lives.

Connecting people through comedy, theater and food:

“I started ‘The Cooking Show’ 20-something years ago as a way of talking about the things I saw in the world, using a comedy cooking show as a platform to talk about the world. All I would do is feed people, and they would come and we could talk about anything. Five years ago, I started focusing ‘The Cooking Show’ on taking on a health issue, Type 2 diabetes in at-risk communities. My father acquired it and also a lot of friends around me and then I became pre-diabetic, so I was starting to notice all around me and I said how can I use comedy and art and everything I do to take this on?

“As I did it, I thought I was just going to make a theater show, but instead it started evolving into a series of experiences going into towns, learning and hearing stories. Really, what I wanted to do was get people to connect to their own cultural stories and rituals to take on the disease.”

What foodie culture gets wrong:

“I think the foodie world is filled with experts who want to save us. As someone who’s half-Latino and half-Asian, I’ve had a lot of people who’ve tried to save me throughout my life. I don’t think people want to get saved. Nobody’s looking for a savior when it comes to health. What I’m really about is how to get us to honor who’s already in the room. And right now, the food conversation doesn’t do that. It honors people who went to culinary school.”

The power of the story:

“I’m currently working with Hmong elders here in St Paul, Minnesota. And everyone’s like what is doing theater with Hmong elders have anything to do with food and what you’re doing with your cooking show? I say everything. Because it’s not just about the show, it’s about how to use theater to get people to remember. These elders are telling stories, sharing recipes. And who’s their audience? Younger people. We told them it was a theater show so they would come, but instead what it’s become is a dialog between generations to talk about what cannot be lost when it comes to food and culture. The chefs of the world aren’t going to help us with that. It’s us in our communities, it’s the artists, it’s all of us together.”

We’ll have more interviews with IdeaFestival speakers throughout the week. Find them online here, and tune in to 89.3 at 1 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday to hear the interviews.