Can we humanize our enemies through food? Conflict Kitchen invites us for a taste of new thinking and shared conversation on American relations around the world.
While brainstorming concepts for a new restaurant project in their hometown of Pittsburgh, artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski noticed a gap of culinary offerings from countries in conflict with the U.S. Government. Like many of us, they recalled fond memories at local ethnic restaurants growing up, where they were first introduced to new immigrant cultures through exotic flavors textured with subtle complexities of a place.
They were intrigued by food’s ability to evoke impressions and memories in unexpected ways and wondered if it were possible to leverage the social and cultural power of food to stimulate new thinking on our adversarial relationships with foreign countries. In a grand experiment, they opened a take out restaurant in in the heart of Pittsburgh called Conflict Kitchen. Every six months, they rotate their menu—and the design scheme—to reflect a different destination, featuring countries as diverse as Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and most recently Venezuela.
Such food-fueled dialogue, Rubin says, "is an amazingly simple thing, but it's still rare. We are interested in creating a forum or space in the public where people can have a conversation about politics, which is something that Americans aren’t very comfortable doing. Food provides comfort; we find that we attract people who might not ordinarily come to a political march, read leaflets or even go to a community meeting around the specific issue, but who would come out for food.” As a type of culinary emissary, Conflict Kitchen successfully creates interactions between people who would normally never cross paths.
The artists catalyze dialogue using thoughtful design elements – everything from the exterior façade to take-out wrappers, which are covered in quotes from citizens and expats addressing issues facing the featured country. The Iranian version explored Israeli relations, women’s rights, and poetry, while the current Venezuela wrappers share views on Hugo Chavez, the oil embargo, and internal political polarization. As Rubin says, “It’s important to us that we are not presenting any specific ideology. Our hope is not to simplify the debate, but to complicate the discussion and in essence humanize the people who live under the policies of a regime that they might or might not agree with.“
Conflict Kitchen employees are a big measure of its success. Weleski says they hire people who are natural conversationalists, really knowledgeable in the topics, and willing to talk about politics with absolutely anyone. Employees help plan events, performances, and discussions that accompany each restaurant theme, and work passionately to draw people into conversation beyond mediated soundbytes. Local immigrants from featured countries have been very receptive to the concept, and even help organize live video chat ‘dinner parties’ between groups in their home country and the restaurant.
It is no surprise the amount of interest they have generated in spreading their restaurant concept around the world. With the state of world affairs today, we better rush the order.