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Kuala Lumpur
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Artistic director and thespian Jo Kukathas talks about her late parents and how her love for theatre spiced up her life.

NOBODY was more amazed and proud than Jo Kukathas’s father when the actress, comedian and director made her debut in theatre.

“I was such a bashful child that I stuttered,” Kukathas recalls. “But once I slipped into my roles on stage, all my inhibitions, including my stuttering, would just disappear! My dad, K. Das, simply couldn’t believe it was me.”

Our lunch meeting at Top Hat restaurant is a reunion of sorts for restaurateur Maria Danker and Kukathas. The two have known each other since 1989 – the year Kukathas founded Instant Cafe Theatre (ICT).

“We became friends when Maria was running the old Bon Ton in Jalan Kia Peng (in Kuala Lumpur). In fact, ICT’s first home was above the restaurant. I remember we turned the balcony into our dressing room for the very first show!” Kukathas recalls with delight.

“Their satirical performances were so popular that the restaurant was packed nightly,” Danker adds. “Even our wait staff would sometimes be distracted by the jokes!”

Nibbling on the restaurant’s signature Top Hats, filled with slivers of yambean, carrot and egg, Kukathas regales us on what went on behind the scenes, and their boisterous post-show parties.

Slurping a spoonful of the richly spiced, coconut milk-based gravy from her Nyonya Laksa, Kukathas proclaims the noodle dish the ultimate comfort food.

“It tastes as good as ever! On days when things aren’t going so smoothly at ICT, we used to troop downstairs and seek solace in this scrumptious dish,” she remembers. Although she herself is capable of rustling up Indian curries and a handful of Western dishes, Kukathas says she isn’t much of a cook.

09E44044979C4936AAE5A44A7F69C4BDThe warm and cosy interior of Top Hat restaurant.

“I think my three sisters and brother helped out more with the cooking, and I became the designated wash-upper once meals were over. All of us are pretty adventurous eaters, thanks to Dad who insisted that we try everything at least once. I ate my first raw oyster when I was nine!” she says.

“Although I was born in Petaling Jaya (in Selangor), I grew up in Australia and Hong Kong since my dad was in the foreign service then. I also attended boarding school in India,” Kukathas reveals.

These past months have seen Kukathas spreading her creative wings in Singapore – her expertise was sought for several stage productions in the Lion City. The theatre veteran admits she is bowled over by the unstinting support for the performing arts scene shown by the government and corporate sectors there.

“After so many years, I still find it immensely challenging to sustain my creative endeavours here on a full-time basis. Most of my time is devoted to looking for sponsors and funding,” she says with a sigh.

Weekends usually finds Kukathas curling up with a good book and indulging in chocolates. “Sometimes I’d catch up with friends over a good meal,” she says.

F58F9E35C2E3494F8070649312FD9F4BVersatile actress:Jo Kukathas takes on the role of Winnie with Terrence Swampillaias her husband Williein one of her past plays, Happy Days.

Kukathas’ best food memory is of her late mother’s sublime crab curry.

“Mum would serve blanched taugeh (beansprouts) and white rice to go with it. She knew we’d be too busy devouring the crabs and wouldn’t bother with anything else,” she says.

Relishing her main course of Rack of Lamb with eggplant timbale, sweet potato and watercress salad, Kukathas confesses that she used to dislike lamb stew after having too much of it in boarding school.

“It took me years to acquire a liking for lamb again. Now I’m still averse to custard and pudding. Every meal at school would invariably end with some sort of pudding with large blobs of custard on top. I couldn’t stomach the yucky stuff!

“There were always sacks of custard powder stacked on top of our dining room cupboards, and we’d be constantly dusted with the yellow stuff!” she recalls, shuddering at the thought.

Right now, Kukathas is still upbeat on the future of local theatre and our performing arts scene.

“We’re celebrating ICT’s 21st birthday this December. Our Cafe House of Art and Idea – CHAI – is also exploring fresh ideas and experimenting with ways to integrate culture and art into the everyday lives of people, neighbourhoods and cities.

“Whether it’s art exhibitions or poetry readings, debates and conversations, music or dance, rehearsals for new works or interpretations of past work, Chai welcomes everyone, just like this charming restaurant is open to all!” she beams.

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