Healthy Cooking, A Performance Artist's Statement

Performance artist Robert Karimi has made it his mission to fight Type 2 Diabetes by making healthy cooking the basis for his performance art installations. Karimi takes his show on the road to the unlikeliest places to show his audience that healthy cooking can be exotic and fun. Yowei Shaw reports.

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Diabetes affects a large number of Americans and requires them to make difficult lifestyle changes, especially when it comes to food. But, there's a performance artist who has made it his mission to make those changes not only tolerable, but life-affirming and delicious.

Reporter Yowei Shaw has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)

YOWEI SHAW, BYLINE: He's called Mero Cocinero. That's loosely Spanish for Best Cook in the Kitchen. Mero wears a white chef's hat and red apron, but he's not ordinary culinarian. For one, he only cooks using the plate method, a visual meal-planning practice used by the American Diabetes Association that recommends 50 percent vegetables, 25 percent starch and 25 percent protein. For another, here's how he wants you to chop onions.

ROBERT KARIMI: I say use the pivot. And what I do is I think of something that makes me upset. So, I can't believe that guy cut me off on the freeway. Like that.

SHAW: The half-Iranian, half-Guatemalan cook is the creation an alter ego of San Francisco-based performance artist Robert Karimi, in his new project touring the country, Diabetes of Democracy.

KARIMI: He is the best parts of me. He's the super hero. Robert Karimi is Clark Kent and Mero Cocinero is Superman.

SHAW: Mero is fighting the forces of Type-2 diabetes - one live cooking performance out of time. He shows up with his portable kitchen in the unlikeliest of places, from art galleries and theaters to supermarkets and public spaces. He'll do whatever it takes.

KARIMI: (Singing) I've got knives, wooden spoons here aplenty. I've got banners and leaflets galore.

SHAW: He'll sing. He'll dance. He'll tell stories and poems and use video art, all in the name of getting you to cook and eat what Mero promises to be delicious, diabetic-friendly food.

KARIMI: (Singing) I want to be where the Iron Chefs are. I want to see, want to see, want to see Emeril cooking.

SHAW: It all started around 10 years ago when Karimi's Iranian-American dad was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes.

KARIMI: He chose not to take insulin. He refused it. He hated it.

SHAW: His father was able to manage the disease with more exercise and going back to the healthier Parisian recipes of his youth. But it was a wake-up call for Karimi, a lifelong fast-food junkie. He got scared and asked a nutritionist for advice.

KARIMI: When she said to me, that one of the first things when someone finds out they're diabetic says is: What did I do wrong. That changed me as an artist. Like, I started writing scripts and ideas about that - what did I do wrong? You know, oh, is it because of all the tortillas I ate? Like, that's horrible.

SHAW: Karimi also found that there seemed to be a one-diet-fits-all approach to dealing with diabetes that didn't appeal to him.

KARIMI: And I'm like, you don't have to get rid of tortillas. You just have to see how it fits in this plate. How many carbs is that? How many tortillas? Maybe you can't have six. Maybe you can't have, you know, maybe one.

SHAW: So he came up with a strategy: use his cooking show to get himself and others to connect with cultural traditions involving food, and do it with a low glycemic, distinctly fun flavor. But does it actually work?

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

SHAW: I went to check out Karimi's cooking show at a monthly gathering of food trucks on Baltimore's Inner Harbor, to see for myself.

KARIMI: We're just going to make it a big party. Are you cool with that?

SHAW: So cool with that.

KARIMI: Yes. Good Friday night, right?

SHAW: Yeah.

KARIMI: Good food...

SHAW: In a sea of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, crepes, and cupcakes, Mero was serving a menu of tomato chutney, chocolate avocado mousse, spicy popcorn, and later, a really big dance party.

KARIMI: The speakers went out?

ERIN LUNDEEN: DJ Dave Double is trying to fix it.

KARIMI: The speakers went out?

LUNDEEN: Yes.

SHAW: Well, that was before the speakers went out. And that wasn't all. The venue didn't have lights and they hadn't brought any. So Mero switched to Plan B.

KARIMI: Chocolate mousse.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right.

KARIMI: No, not you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Come on.

KARIMI: Yeah. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Chocolate mousse.

KARIMI: Yeah, there you go. There you go.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, Lordy.

KARIMI: Oh, Lordy.

SHAW: He went straight out into the crowd, giving away samples and getting people to guess what the secret ingredients were.

KARIMI: What do you think? What do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Cream?

KARIMI: Cream?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Mm-hmm. No?

KARIMI: Avocado.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What?

KARIMI: Avocado...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That is delicious.

KARIMI: ...chocolate, agave and vanilla.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Wow, that is delicious.

KARIMI: And a little cayenne. See?

SHAW: When I asked Karimi if he thinks this project is really going to get people to change, he said it's hard to know for sure. Sometimes, audience members will e-mail him for recipes and come to see him perform again with their friends and family. At the very least, it's working for Karimi. He's lost 14 pounds since the project started. And no, he didn't have to deprive himself of all things delicious. Let me tell you, that did not taste like diet food.

For NPR News, I'm Yowei Shaw.

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