Seattle’s experimental dinner theatre settles in but doesn’t settle down.
The sixth act of Don Nordo del Midwest, the new production by experimental dinner theatre company Café Nordo, brings up a quintessentially Nordoesque conundrum: What the hell is this stuff we’re drinking?
According to the storyline, Don Nordo and his sidekick Sancho are treated to homemade hooch “micro-distilled” in a junkyard carburetor by an insane-genius chef. At this point in the show, a cadre of jocular hobos will enter the theatre/dining room, bottles in hand, circulating among the tables where the audience/diners are seated. Into their awaiting wine glasses they’ll pour what appears to be the same bootlegged liquor as our heroes are drinking.
This fiction throws off the audience from an important fact. “It’s actually really good sherry,” says playwright Terry Podgorski. “Nice amontillado from Spain.”
Overseeing a full-cast rehearsal in the Bullitt Cabaret below ACT theatre one Tuesday night in early February, Podgorski and director Erin Brindley agree to defer the question of how to present the sherry. Don Nordo del Midwest is more than a month from opening and, as experience has taught them, this detail will make its solution known in time. Right now they’re more focused on another scene, one that culminates in a brawl straight out of The Three Stooges. With nine actors playing attendees of the Southwest Convention of Servers, punches fly, nipples are twisted, serving trays are thrown and Don Nordo suffers a giant kick in the nuts. The scene—the fourth out of 20—requires meticulous fight choreography; tonight they run through at half-speed for more than an hour.
Café Nordo exists in an uncanny valley of gastronomic disbelief. Not just in Don Nordo del Midwest, which is currently scheduled to open this spring, but in each of the productions they’ve put on over the last five years. In Nordo’s immersive brand of dinner theatre, food and drink isn’t simply for eating and drinking. It’s for character. Sherry as moonshine. Squid-ink custard as primordial ooze. Mashed potatoes and gravy as donut and coffee. The dinner plate as a tiny stage. You eat the performance, multiple courses per show.
Of course you also watch the performance, typically by a cast of a dozen or so veterans of Seattle’s theatre, comedy and dance scenes. Podgorski’s Nordo plays tend toward absurdist musical edutainment, setting up stories that involve the history, legend and social context around a particular type of food or food trend. The post-WWII development of pre-packaged foods, for instance, or the history of the restaurant, or the dangers—and benefits—of factory farming. And there’s live music, singing and dancing—provided by your servers.
Don Nordo del Midwest details Chef Nordo Lefesczki’s origin story, which mirrors Café Nordo’s real-life mission: Both are intent on exploring the intersection of food and art. The company’s namesake is a mystery, possibly a fabrication, based on airline-pilot jargon for a plane flying with no radio. As such, Nordo is a cypher for the complicated nature of Café Nordo itself: He’s a mad gourmet championing real food prepared imaginatively, presented in a fictional context with factual basis.
More than any other Café Nordo play, this one is self-reflective, self-mythologizing. It is not coincidentally a riff on Don Quixote. The menu: “Midwestern tapas.”
More significantly, Don Nordo del Midwest is the first production to be staged in Café Nordo’s new, permanent location. Dubbed the Culinarium, the 4,000-square-foot space occupies part of the former Elliott Bay Books in Pioneer Square. It’s the first theatre to open in the neighborhood since the Pioneer Square Theater closed in 1989 and it sets a precedent for Café Nordo.
For its first five years, the company was itinerant, staging productions at different spaces around the city—the warehouse of Theo Chocolate, West of Lenin, Theatre Off Jackson. None of these places had a full-time kitchen. With each new show, Café Nordo attempted a molecular-gastronomic Teatro ZinZanni with a pop-up budget. All along, a permanent space was calling.
As we sit in the high-ceilinged, brick-walled Culinarium, occasionally flinching to the cacophony of heavy construction in the unfinished space, Brindley and Podgorski tell me how they found their home. Two years ago, looking for a location for their new production, the pair met with Karen True, director of business development for the Alliance for Pioneer Square. She showed them several spaces around the neighborhood; they eventually settled on a private dining space run by the owners of Delicatus. There they put on a show called “Smoked!” to tremendous response.
“We were doing this spaghetti western, and the space has a saloon vibe,” Brindley says. “First time we had an on-site kitchen. It was perfect. So we did the show there and the response from the neighborhood was amazing.”
“We ran at like 99 percent capacity,” Podgorski says.
“It was a lot of neighborhood people,” are so excited for art and interesting things to come down here. We fell in love with the neighborhood.”
A few months later, Nordo took over Washington Hall for a show that featured a poultry course prepped at a commissary kitchen on the other side of I-5, hauled to the Hall and served out of a coffin. True attended and brought with her Ilze Jones, owner of the Elliott Bay Books building.
“She came to the show, ate the chicken that crossed the road, had lots of wine,” Brindley says. “We went up to her afterwards and she was like, ‘You belong in my building. Let’s start talking.’”
Brindley and Podgorski had met years earlier working with the now-defunct Circus Contraption, one of Seattle’s most well-loved circus-arts groups, where Podgorski was technical director and Brindley managing director. Contraption’s final shows took place at the Theo Warehouse, so the space transitioned easily to accommodate their first foray as Café Nordo. The pair collaborated on the general storyline—it was called The Modern American Chicken—and then Podgorski wrote the script and Brindley prepared the menu. One show led to another: Sauced traced the history of the cocktail; Bounty! was an evolutionary ode to seafood that began with the earth cooling and oceans forming. Nordo piqued media interest and earned a loyal audience. After a few years, they believed they could sustain a year-round lease. They were working as a nonprofit with a minimal budget, a small board of directors and a loyal team of actors and volunteers. Then Jones came knocking with the keys to the building.
“We’d been growing our board that whole time, collecting people that we knew would donate when the time came,” Podgorski says. (He himself was growing his skills in technical directing with Degenerate Art Ensemble and Washington Ensemble Theatre.) Several new board members, including current president John Tynes, work at Microsoft, which matches donations made by employees to nonprofits. Through individual donations, matching funds and ticket-subscription sales, Nordo has collectively raised almost $290,000 in less than a year. That sum covers technical additions to the space—light grid, sound gear, electrical and plumbing improvements. It pays for Podgorski and Brindley to go full-time so they don’t have to work other jobs. And, along with a significant investment from Jones, it pays for the brand-new kitchen downstairs.
What will open in April is a fully equipped theatre space with an adjoining professional kitchen—walk-in fridge, commercial-grade gas stove, ovens, prep stations, and room for a half-dozen cooks and servers. Two-thousand-square-feet upstairs, 2,000-square feet downstairs.
During the eight months out of the year when Nordo isn’t running one of their own productions in the Culinarium, Brindley and Podgorski will open it to what they’re calling “interstitial programming.” They imagine hosting podcast recordings with celebrity chefs, curated food-and-movie nights, neighborhood cooking classes and salon-style conversations pairing luminaries in art, politics or science with accomplished bartenders.
“Think TED Talks with alcohol,” Podgorski says.
“We’ve never had the sandbox that we always wanted to play in,” Brindley says.
As Nordo’s menu designer and head cook, Brindley is looking forward to cooking less and designing more. “But I’m sure I’ll still be in the kitchen, especially now that it’s mine.”
At first I’m surprised to learn that Brindley is almost entirely self-taught. She says she worked in her mom’s bakery growing up and learned by osmosis while living in New York with a boyfriend who cooked at some of New York’s most celebrated restaurants. But then again, her Nordo creations barely adhere to the dogma of “good taste” instilled by restaurant cooking. Her food is based equally in creative concept and flavor, a daring sort of stunt-cuisine that works not only because it tastes good but because Nordo is as much a theatre experience as a dining one.
“Our tongue is firmly planted in our cheek most of the time,” Brindley says. “We take ourselves less seriously than anyone thinks we do. I was doing serious, avant-garde theatre in New York, which no one ever came to. Then I started working at Circus Contraption and seeing people leave with this beautiful sense of joy. It became clear that giving people something they enjoy is better than giving them something to figure out.”
Which is not to say Café Nordo is easy to digest. Especially Don Nordo del Midwest—at nine small courses, it’s Nordo’s most complex menu yet. Along with carburetor sherry, expect pigs-in-a-blanket made with house-made chorizo, “Chicken McCroqeuttes” served in a fast-food takeout box and “Bacalao Tater Tots” served family-style and unraveled from a hobo’s bindle.
Podgorski describes how the stage will be set for the show but, because it’s rather unusual, asks that I don’t divulge too much. Suffice it to say the room won’t look like a restaurant or a theatre but rather a big, dark, blank canvas beckoning interaction between guests.
“It’s going to challenge people,” Podgorski says. “We want people to know that when they come to our shows they’re not going to be spoon-fed.”
“I think it’s going to turn out really beautifully,” Brindley says, “but people are going to be like…”
“‘Where’s my chair? Where do I sit? Can I sit with my friends?’”
“‘Is it going to be like this the whole time? How will the servers know I’m gluten free?’”
“It’s all these things that people get really uptight about with their dinner experience,” Podgorski says. “We just want to tell them, ‘It’s fun, let go. Trust us, it’s going to be awesome. Here’s a glass of wine.’”