Teaching Through Food: Conflict Kitchen Sparks Dialogue in Pittsburgh
One of the first reasons that Jon Rubin and his partner, Dawn Weleski, started the Conflict Kitchen was as a response to what was missing in Pittsburgh. The Conflict Kitchen is a take-out restaurant that serves cuisine from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict. The kitchen rotates in a new cuisine and country every four to six months, and the idea is to spark dialogue and engage the community.
“The food we sell is a great storytelling device,” said Rubin. It helps “our customers to engage with the project, which is trying to expand the conversation that [customers] might have, or introduce a conversation they might not have about what the politics and daily life are like in those countries.”
The project works with communities in Pittsburgh that representative of the different conflict countries, and they come up with a menu of the street food you would find in the major cities of each country. They have included vegetarian and sometimes vegan options on every menu, and have so far covered food from Afghanistan, Iran, and Venezuela. Cuba is next, and Rubin said that each time, the Conflict Kitchen has been the only restaurant in Pittsburgh serving that particular cuisine.
Every time the restaurant changes, it closes down and changes not only the menu, but the food packaging and the storefront as well.
Right now, the Conflict Kitchen is a Venezuelan restaurant–La Concina Arepas, which serves homemade arepas that members of Pittsburgh’s Venezuelan community helped to develop. The arepas are served in packaging that features interviews with Venezuelans in both Venezuela and the U.S. on subjects ranging from food and culture to geopolitical issues.
The Conflict Kitchen also does events and programming. One event organized with representatives of a Persian student organization brought in about 200 people, while smaller events have engaged people directly with another country. The Conflict Kitchen hosted a phone call between Pittsburgh and Tehran, for example, where people “shared” a meal together, and organized a similar call with filmmakers in Kabul and a community radio show in Caracas. The restaurant has been hosting school trips, as well.
The Conflict Kitchen is a take-out restaurant window, and Rubin said people will get into discussions right there on the street. He said the restaurant staff often helps spark those conversations–and that an interest in global issues and in conversing with strangers are the most important qualities he looks for in a chef. “We feel we can teach anyone to cook,” he said. Many customers don’t need the prodding and engage on their own.
And that, Rubin said, is the underlying goal of the project: to get people talking, engaging, and learning.
“Oftentimes, something that in America we don’t do very often–outside of the realm of protests–is talk about politics with strangers in public.” We feel there needs to be more situations or platforms in which people can have civil engagement about their views and opinions, and not only just engage with each other, but hopefully learn from each other.”