With food taking up a growing share of the public conversation, we are living through an explosion of artists turning to it as a medium for social, creative, environmental, and political engagement and interaction in public spheres. The larger movement surrounding food may be a response and a countermeasure to our online lives. As we spend increasing amounts of time online, we are seduced by the promise that we can be in closer-than-ever touch with each other, with no actual touching ever taking place. The lack of physicality has caused our digital generation to resort to food as a reassurance of physical reality and tangibility. You simply can’t taste food online, and as a result, a growing number of youth are becoming intrigued by food and reclaiming dining as a form of connection that has been somewhat lost in the digital dispersion.
“I don’t consider myself a foodie,” Conflict Kitchen founder Jon Rubin says. “We don’t come from the foodie culture. We came to food as a methodology for engagement and storytelling, and a way to create a public space that may not exist.” Rubin, a Pittsburgh-based artist, teamed up with Dawn Weleski, a Stanford fine arts graduate student with the aspiration of creating a space that encourages political dialogue between strangers, a place where, as Rubin puts it, “it’s okay to talk about what you don’t know.” “Many Americans are disengaged from the politics outside of our borders, and I think it starts from being an inward-looking society, but also a society that doesn’t like to ask the ‘stupid questions.’ For us, it’s okay for anyone to come to us with any type of question and to start from that point,” he says. With that goal in mind, Conflict Kitchen was born. Rubin and Welenski’s first challenge was to find a chef that was also politically and culturally engaged. They struck gold with Robert Sayre, a Pennsylvania Culinary Institute graduate who was looking to leave the fine-dining scene for something that gave him more creative freedom.
With Sayre on board, the restaurant started serving food from countries with which the US is engaged in conflict. The team decided on a takeout-style storefront with bold colors and graphics. Every six months the entire restaurant changes—from the façade down to the food—so that a new country can be featured. When it first opened it 2010, the restaurant looked to Iran for Persian fare. The menu included a single item, kubide—a pita-like sandwich stuffed with spiced ground beef and fresh mint, basil, and onions—wrapped in paper printed with interviews with both Iranians and members of the Iranian community in Pittsburgh. Then came Afghan bolani (turnovers), followed by Venezuelan arepas. For the moment, the focus is on Cuba. Customers can enjoy tender lechón asado (roasted pork with rice and beans) and yuca con mojo (boiled yucca root with garlic) amongst other staple Caribbean dishes served from a window adorned with bright orange and yellow geometric shapes under a sign which reads, Cocina Cubana.
Each of Conflict Kitchen’s rotations is supplemented by events, performances, and discussions that are meant to increase the public’s exposure to the culture, politics, and issues at stake within the focus country. Different broadcast methods are used to create personal interactions through a non-didactic, experimental approach. Conflict Kitchen organizes creative cross-cultural activities, like joint Skype dinners between Pittsburgh residents and young professionals in Tehran, documentary filmmakers in Kabul, or community radio activists in Caracas. During Iran’s rotation, messages like Iran is home to the largest number of Jews anywhere in the Middle East outside of Israel were projected on a billboard atop the establishment.
For the proprietors, the food is an excuse for conversation, a way to heighten curiosity and involve the public without the baggage often associated with the label of “art.” By eradicating what could be a source of intimidation for those looking to engage and share their ideas, food—as opposed to “art”—becomes the entry point. In some ways, Conflict Kitchen is reclaiming the social aspects of food and communal eating which society appears to have lost sight of. As we continue eating faster and faster, and together less and less often, meals are becoming more of an individualistic affair and less of a social function. According to a study conducted by Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam, there has been a thirty-three percent decrease over the last three decades in American families who say they have dinner together regularly. By emphasizing communal dining, whether it’s within family units, or through cross-cultural Skype meals, Conflict Kitchen re-activates food as a tool for socialization and community building, and a key to discovering a culture that may be unfamiliar to many.
Business is booming, and the restaurant has outgrown its small take-out outpost. Rubin and Weleski are currently in the process of moving to a bigger, more-trafficked location in downtown Pittsburgh. The duo say one of their inspirations has been the city itself, a smaller, post-industrial place with very little ethnic diversity. There are few Cuban, Venezuelan, or Afghan restaurants around, or those serving dishes from any country that the US is in conflict with, according to Rubin. “We’ve managed to create a neighborhood spot, but with a focus that’s very far away,” he says. Their “anti-local” establishment has made a lot of noise, both in their home community and on an international level. “We’ve seen plenty of interest from people wanting us to open similar restaurants in different places, but it’s really quite a logistical and financial enterprise to operate what we’re operating. Besides the fact that we’re running a restaurant, we are also trying to do all these events and publish information, so it’s pretty multi-faceted,” Rubin explains.
As plans for expansion are being carried out, research for potential focus countries continues. While exploring Cuba, Rubin and Weleski came across the North Korean embassy in Havana and decided to pay the cultural attaché a visit. They discussed regional dishes and found out that North Korea’s food is in many ways similar to that of its bête noire, South Korea. While they acknowledge that a North Korean edition of Conflict Kitchen may be problematic, they nonetheless want to shed light on the human side of the conflict, cooking up coexistence through ethnic dishes regardless of the degree of controversy. “We just put ourselves in the middle of people’s days when they are looking for lunch,” say Rubin and Weleski, “and use that as a way to start a conversation they would likely not have had.”
For more information, please visit ConflictKitchen.org.