NU alum, Broadway star Adam Kantor tells stories through interactive meals


Source: Matthew Brown

Adam Kantor (Communication '08). Kantor, who has acted in several Broadway shows since graduation, co-founded StoryCourse to bring together food and theater in interactive dining experiences.

Maddie Burakoff, Monthly Editor

Empty calories have no place at Adam Kantor’s table. Kantor (Communication ’08) is one of the co-founders of StoryCourse, which brings a new meaning to “dinner theater” by crafting elaborate, multi-course dining experiences that express real stories through food.

So far, that’s included tracing one chef’s journey from Korea to New York City; crafting an interactive retelling of a Passover seder; and celebrating the diverse experiences of LGBTQ people in honor of Stonewall 50.

Before he was masterminding these immersive meals, Kantor stepped straight from the NU campus onto the Broadway stage in 2008 when he was cast as Mark in “Rent.” He’s also played Motel in the 2015 revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” and originated the role of Telephone Guy in “The Band’s Visit.” Now, Kantor has just finished shooting a film (for which details are still under wraps) and is preparing to star in a new off-Broadway musical (which he also can’t talk about yet, beyond the fact that he’s learning to play piano for the role). And he’s still hungry for more. Kantor said his team wants to take StoryCourse to the next level by buying their own space and serving up year-round experiences.

How did the idea for StoryCourse and these interactive dining experiences come about?

Shortly after I finished doing “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway, (composer) Benj Pasek called me. Passover was going to be in a couple months, and he was like, “Do you want to throw together a Passover concert?” And right around that same time I had started talking with a guy named Brian Bordainick, who had a company called Dinner Lab. He and I were talking about combining the worlds of food and theater in immersive settings. I’m a theater dude who loves food, and he’s a food dude who loves theater, so we were like, “Can we combine our worlds in a way that feels really integrative and experiential?”
We took the essential elements of the Haggadah, as it’s called, which is on every Passover seder you tell the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt through this kind of script. So we basically deconstructed the Haggadah, said, “OK, what does this mean today, in 2017 at the time?” And it was sort of wonderful and beautiful and moving.

After the first seder, Brian, Benj and I were thinking about this story of exodus and realizing that story told through food can be very powerful. There are so many immigrant chefs who have this journey. If we take the template of the seder, this journey of slavery to freedom, there are so many contemporary stories we can tell through food. There was another chef from Dinner Lab named Jae Jung, and I spent many hours interviewing her and hearing her story of migration from Korea to New York and her relationship with her mother along the way. We collaborated with playwright Hansol Jung to craft an interactive script where just like Passover seder, the guests at the table would read. But instead of the story of the Jews escaping Egypt, they read the story of Chef Jae leaving Korea, told through five courses that Jae cooked. That became “How Do You Hug a Tiger.”

Since you started out with StoryCourse, how has its growth compared to your early expectations?

We always thought it was a great idea, and we were really excited by it. But I don’t think we were expecting in the beginning to tell such personal stories. We’ve realized how personal food can be, and how emotionally moving an experience can be when you excavate the stories underneath the food that you’re eating. Brian and I joke that we didn’t set out to have people be crying into their food by the end of the meal, but we guess that’s a good thing.

It’s exciting to find how these worlds can really merge. It feels like creating a new form, in a way. I hope that it continues to evolve, even after our lifetime.

Where did your own love of food come from?

For me, I’ve had some powerful experiences, first of all, just tying food to culture as I grew up. My mother is an amazing cook, my grandmother is a great cook. And as a Jew, you come together around food often. This idea of telling stories around food felt in my blood, with Passover and even with Shabbat.

Experiences with travel and food as well just opened my mind and palate to what’s possible in the different cultures out there, and how food relates to them. To tie back to Northwestern, actually, I was in THUNK, and when I was there we started the Cape Town Project. I remember the first time we went down to Cape Town, it was my freshman year, we were in a rural area and the locals invited us to share food. It was just delicious, and very powerful — I’d never tasted anything like it, I’d never been anywhere like that. We were interacting deeply with each other and profoundly, even though we didn’t speak each other’s language necessarily.

I always make it my top of my priority list to experience the local cuisine because it’s a window into culture. There’s nothing I won’t try. I remember on South Africa on that same trip trying alligator. That trip was pretty profound on many levels, including what I put in my mouth.

Any all-time favorite meals?

I mean, there’s nothing like Jewish soul food. My grandma making me just a simple nova on challah bread with some cream cheese.

And do you have a favorite thing to cook?

I don’t really cook!

Why do you think it’s powerful to bring the dining experience together with these narratives?

So often, food is seen as something kind of secondary. Every day, we are consuming stories without knowing it. We are consuming deep and powerful stories without giving them perhaps the attention that they deserve. And when we stop and allow food to be the device to experience a deep story underneath it, it makes the act of coming together and eating so much more intentional, communal and vibrant.

We’re in an ecosystem now in our country where walls desperately want to be broken down. When you break down the walls between the guests and the kitchen, and when you break down the walls between these art forms that don’t usually get to play together, that can be a really expansive experience.

What types of stories are you hoping to tell moving forward, whether through StoryCourse or through acting?

I’d say the kind that open people’s minds and hearts and perhaps the kinds that leave people somewhat changed. To reframe their sense of empathy.

Twitter: @madsburk