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A collection of reviews

DIABOLICAL ROSES: Kaye Winwood and Sarah Baker Hamilton in collaboration with chef Chris Hughes - reviewed by Elisa Oliver.

Diabolical Roses was an immersive dining experience staged on Valentine’s Day 2016 in the Fazeley Street area of Birmingham. The title hints at a subversion of the traditional Valentine ritual of dinner and red roses, popular symbols in the communication of seduction and love and the preamble to other amorous appetites. 

Diabolical Roses certainly contained these elements: the promise of a ‘curated’ multi course meal, the aesthetic framing of roses and the resonate colour of red, were all pervasive. Beyond these immediate markers of a Valentines Dinner diner’s entered new territory as the experience provoked those attending into thinking, or more directly feeling and tasting their way through the interrelation of food, love and sex, revealing how the apparatus of presenting and eating a meal engenders multiple levels of encounter. Encounters in which ideas of the carnal are brought to the surface; both in the ingestion of food and the potential desire-led consumption of your companions, as the event explored all notions of appetite.

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Diabolical Roses, February 2016, photograph by Greg Milner image courtesy of Kaye Winwood.

Various devices made visible the always present, but often suppressed, dynamics that are implicit in the consumption and decorative staging of a meal. Before even arriving at the venue threads of narrative and a suggestion of the theatrical was foregrounded. On purchasing a ticket diners were informed that the dinner would occur at a secret venue, the location of which would be communicated by text. Building anticipation and a sense of the unexpected, the meal was marked out as distinctively different to a familiar Valentines date. Already primed for an ‘event’, rather than just a restaurant, the poetic message, “head to Fazeley Street and look for the couple dancing in the car headlights” further provoked the imagination. Secrecy framed the dinner guests’ arrival, marked by an encounter with two female dancers, adorned in red coats and obvious platinum wigs, a recurrent aesthetic throughout the meal. The staged dance elegantly fused suggestions of theatre, the filmic and the performative. Traces of the 1990s TV series Twin Peaks suffused the imagery and signalled that the audience were about to move into another kind of space where the act of dining would become one act amongst others. The tropes of seductive music and intimate dancing, like the other signifiers of romance, were again subverted as the two women danced together, confronting the gender binary. Their close dance suggested an intimacy that extended to the diner guests as it was conveyed as collective and communicated and extended beyond their individual bodies to the waiting diners.  

As the dance ensued the platinum haired and red clothed figures approached and silently interacted with audience members as they allowed them entry into the dining space. The interaction of the dancers broke a suggestion of the filmic, moving outside of the screen into the space of the viewer. The spaces of screen and stage were traversed and punctured, as participants became performers, and performers were released from representation, to engender a total or immersive experience in which touch, taste and emotion were viscerally and wholeheartedly engaged with.

The concept of the immersive, “images that actively engage one's senses and may create an altered mental state”, to quote its dictionary definition, seems to suggest a hybrid form that maintains the excitement and other worldliness of screen entertainment but allows actual entry into representation so that experiences can be directly rather than passively consumed. The desire to re-engage with the ‘real’ appears contemporarily paramount as our image saturated world moves full circle. Finding every opportunity to facilitate direct experience we almost seem to be mourning the loss of contact with the physical or ‘real’ event as we attempt to find more and more ways to ‘feel’ again. Immersive theatre and real cinema, the act of enabling viewers to actually experience the tastes and smells that occur in narrative film, are just some examples where a desire to break through the screen, in all its forms, is at the forefront of cultural expression.

Such boundary crossing was tangibly manifest in Diabolical Roses. As guests entered the dining space, individual’s coats were taken and they were provided with a ‘welcome pack’ and name badge, giving each diner another identity for the night. Taking part in the meal, I was delighted to be named and referred to as ‘lovely’. I was finally totally immersed in the staged experience and re-presented in another world.

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Diabolical Roses, February 2016, photograph by Greg Milner image courtesy of Kaye Winwood.

The dinner was staged in the warehouse space of Vivid Projects. The interior was ransformed with a bar at one end and food preparation at the other. In between the two areas a table provided seating for around 20 guests and was reminiscent of communal and party dining, a sentiment that was enhanced as we were encouraged to involve ourselves, directly and intimately, with both our fellow diners and the food that was served. For example, before food was presented we were instructed to give the guest sat opposite us a compliment and then to tell them, very directly, that someone, somewhere, ‘wanted to fuck them’. Affirmed in our desirability food was then served. The presentation of the dishes demanded that we approach eating in a visceral and sensual manner. Deprived of the niceties of cutlery we were required to; drink soup directly from the bowl, feeling its warmth against our mouths suggestively licking our lips, squirt cream from syringes into fellow diner’s mouths and across breast shaped meringues. In short, eating entailed licking, squirting and sucking food loading it with sexual connotations and unifying associations of consumption and carnal pleasure. When cutlery was unavoidable it had to be retrieved from inside a servers clothing, again adding a further level of intimacy to the proceedings and confronting the niceties of distance, of all kinds, that cutlery for example engenders for eating.

The servers inhabited multiple roles, being both a visual stimulus in their dress and performance and a reminder of the wider narrative of the romantic dinner and its associations of bodily consumption, desire and satisfaction: feeding you directly, talking to you confidingly, and encouraging transgressions from the expected etiquette of a dinner event. Uniformly styled in platinum wigs and red costumes a merging between the personal, intimate action of their tender attentions to individual diners and their more orchestrated choreography as an assembled cast was made explicit. The obviousness of their ‘dress up’ further fostered this ‘role play’ and evidenced the easy attainability of shifting identities.  At continuous points throughout the evening the serving staff formed a chorus line, becoming explicitly part of the ‘performance’ of the dinner table. A performance that saw the MC orchestrating events around, across and on top of the table, transforming the familiar dining table as a stage and the diners performers; reinforcing the notion that all meals, after all, are ‘events’.

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Diabolical Roses, February 2016, photograph by Greg Milner image courtesy of Kaye Winwood.

The food was no part player in this performance. Subtle and unexpected flavours combined with delicate presentation that confounded expectation. This was a meal that would grace any high-end restaurant, yet was infused with a playfulness that made you gasp as much as the performance around it. A particular triumph was the cheese course presented in the form of a cigarette and, following the release of tobacco-scented smoke, created a sense of bodily satisfaction in the diners that resonated with the classic post-coital smoke. As the costumed servers presented guests with their coats the dinner ensemble gradually left the warehouse setting, exiting back into the everyday of Birmingham.

Immersive events, as previously commented are currently legion, with many revolving around food. Gingerliners, named by the ‘ginger’ East London underground line where their events take place, have been creating “clandestine dining adventures”1 since 2010.  Indeed, every city seems to have a secret dining club such as the Spice Club in Manchester and Domestic Godless in Dublin. Adam Aleksander Presents in New York tailors themed events for clients that are part promotion, part club night, and part live art. Many of them identify themselves as transforming the ordinary into something memorable and extraordinary, and the ordinariness at the core of these events is the cooking and eating of a meal.2

This begs the question as to why, in a period of debated food poverty, has food become fetishized, conceptualised as decoration and disposable, removed from the sustenance at its foundation? The recent closure of central London cheap eateries such as The Stockpot brings this paradox into focus. The haunt of budget food seekers Soho’s The Stockpot served up freshly cooked food for as little as £7 for three courses. Shabby but bohemian its concern was not the elegance of its décor or food but delivering good portions of wholesome cuisine for everyone’s pocket with a regular clientele that underlined the camaraderie of dining. There was theatre in dining at The Stockpot, but as its closing review in the Guardian noted, the theatre was in the “make-do” and “canteen like grub”, with “tables pushed so close together you could eavesdrop on conversations”3.

In the inversions of culture food has come centre stage. A revealing of the theatrical performance of the dinner table seems to point to the political potential and potent associations of food, underlining its absence as much as its presence and making ‘playing with your food’ literally loaded as it makes explicit the privilege of waste against the need of its consumption.

While not overtly political Diabolical Roses identified the fundamental role of food in our sense of self and how a particular focus on a given set of signifies and rituals can bring the nuances of our cultural and social identity into view.

The following day waiting for the train I put my hand in my pocket to find something unexpected, a secret note, a love note, which declared my ‘loveliness’. It took a few moments to realise that performers from Diabolical Roses had slipped this into my pocket when returning my coat and the nuanced fantasy of dining happily continued to filter into my everyday.

Further information

Diabolical Roses was conceived and developed by Kaye Winwood and Sarah Hamilton Baker in collaboration with chef Chris Hughes; Performers Sarah Hamilton Baker, Indra J. Adler, Connor Nolan and Katie O’Malley;  Soundscape by Michael Lightborne; Lighting by David Checkley. February 2016. 

All images have been reproduced with kind permission from Kaye Winwood.

For further information on the event and future projects by Kaye Winwood please visit


Talking Dirty: Tongue First! Recipes from the Mouth of the Thames is a new publication from Arts Catalyst. Documenting the project of the same title by Claudia Lastra and Fran Gallardo, Talking Dirty presents a collection of recipes developed with ingredients sourced along the Thames Estuary. Part of Arts Catalysts’ programme Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, Lastra and Gallardo have brought together a network of local people with specialists in the fields of ecology, citizen science and cooking to explore how local, "situated" knowledge of the area can be combined with artistic and academic research to present new perspectives on the estuary’s ever changing environment. 

Delivering a series of public cooking and tasting workshops in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, Lastra and Gallardo introduced locals to plant and water life collected from the Thames and demonstrated possibilities for different dishes. In an era where locally sourced food has become a vital part of the conscious consumers shopping list, the artists introduced new possibilities for what might be gathered, caught and consumed in one’s locality.


Foraging in the Thames Estuary, Talking Dirty. Image courtesy of Claudia Lastra and Fran Gallardo.

Delivering a series of public cooking and tasting workshops in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, Lastra and Gallardo introduced locals to plant and water life collected from the Thames and demonstrated possibilities for different dishes. In an era where locally sourced food has become a vital part of the conscious consumers shopping list, the artists introduced new possibilities for what might be gathered, caught and consumed in one’s locality.

Throughout the publication details of locally sourced ingredients are paired with information on the preparation and farming of the given ingredient in the global market. For example, recipes involving shrimp and how to prepare your ‘local’ catch are detailed alongside instructions on how to peel shrimp in a Moroccan Factory. Juxtaposing the starkly different environments provides a thoughtful provocation to the reader, questioning our current food habits and the social impact of the global food chain. Continuing to investigate a concept of the local, the publication further details the artist’s experiments with new forms of extraction of edibles from human and other biological substances, presenting recipes that push our perceptions of what is and what is not fit for consumption. A dish of Grey Mullet and Hair Soy Sauce or a Mud Cola drink are both playful and serious propositions when contemplating food habits and the demands of a growing population on the global food chain.


Shrimps, Talking Dirty. Image courtesy of Claudia Lastra and Fran Gallardo.

Alongside recipes for ingredients sourced from the estuary the publication contains instructions on how to find and test the given ingredients for pollutants, providing a path of knowledge to both the ecology of the estuary, what is available where, and the history of the area - what pollutants might be found and why. In addition to their sharing of ‘local’ food knowledge the cooking workshops were a further vehicle to explore the environmental and industrial changes occurring in the Thames estuary. Alongside the tasting workshops Andy Freeman and Dr Mark Scrimshaw, Reader in Environmental Chemistry at Brunel University, led a series of ‘citizen science’ workshops which investigated the traces of waste disposal on Leigh-on-Sea’s Two Tree Island. Citizen science workshops involved the use of digital technologies to investigate the legacy of generations of industrial use and misuse on the landscape, presenting reflections on wildlife habitats, the global effects of climate change, industrialisation, farming, and the resulting social, cultural and environmental impacts. The playful title of the publication therefore lays the ground for much more serious ecological considerations in relation to both the delicate landscape of the estuary and the global food market.

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Tools and ingredients ready for testing, Talking Dirty. Image courtesy of Claudia Lastra and Fran Gallardo.

Further Information

Talking Dirty: Tongue First! Recipes from the Mouth of the Thames is published by Arts Catalyst. It is available to purchase from Cornerhouse Publications 

End Notes

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Go to footnote reference 3.

Rebecca Hardy, ‘Goodbye to the Stockpot-the last Soho cheap eatery’, The Guardian, Tuesday December 8th 2015.

Elisa Oliver & Laura Mansfield

Elisa Oliver and Laura Mansfield are editors of FEAST. For further information on each of their practices please see the about page.