Cheese empanadas, ceviche, and coconut goat with bananas are just a small sample of the items at a Venezuelan take-out restaurant in Pittsburgh. But a hungry customer stopping in a few months from now might encounter a completely different menu—and not because the restaurant is going out of business. In the past, the storefront has featured food from Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, and Iran. Unless you’re a U.S. policy wonk, you might not understand the common link between these cuisines. That’s because Conflict Kitchen serves food from the countries the United States is in conflict with.
Founders Dawn Weleski and Jon Rubin first opened the restaurant in May 2010 as a way to engage their neighborhood in international politics. Both artists in Pittsburgh, they’d been working on a documentary project masquerading as the Waffle Shop. Yes, it sold waffles but also produced a live show using the customers to catalogue the changing neighborhood of East Liberty. At first, it was just art with a side of business but when someone started selling hotdogs outside the waffle shop Weleski realized that it was time for a change. “It’s business,” she said. “You’ve gotta compete.”
What it means for you to be an American and for me to be an American are two very different things.
At first, each menu only had three items and Conflict Kitchen often poached employees from the Waffle Shop to man the counter. They got assistance from the local ethnic community—and now travel directly to the countries—to help develop the menu and further engage the community abroad and at home. Unlike many restaurants that don’t have the distinction of serving up public art, Conflict Kitchen was able to focus on serving everyman foods rather than what agreed with the American palette. Weleski described it as, “the food you’d find in rural areas and as street food.” Unsurprisingly, not all countries are equally popular. During the six months of the North Korean iteration they didn’t make as much as they needed to sustain the restaurant. But, since making money isn’t the end goal, the founders didn’t regret a thing. “It was important for us to provide that information to Pittsburgers,” Weleski said.
To find collaborators they would ask around until they located a point person who could then bring in his or her family and friends. Weleski and Rubin would then ask the questions the average American tourist would ask. Surprisingly, the learning aspect of Conflict Kitchen didn’t focus on complex foreign policy but rather how people lived their lives in that country and what parts of the culture Pittsburg’s immigrants held dear. As Weleski said, “It’s the idea that culture and politics are very personal and what it means for you to be an American and for me to be an American are two very different things.”
The answers to these questions wind up on printed on wrappers for the food which, like the restaurant’s façade and the menu, are reinvented with each new country. The restaurant’s employees, while not necessarily students of foreign policy, are expected to engage with customers about the culture, history, and customs of the current Conflict Kitchen country. After four years, Weleski worries that people are still eating at the restaurant but not necessarily engaging with the political information. “Everyone always asks us where the restaurant is going,” she said. “It’s dependent on politics and whether we can keep the idea fresh.” Unlike a normal business whose longevity is decided based on its ability to stay financially solvent, Conflict Kitchen is still dependent on whether or not its founders find it interesting as an art project. With a current budget of $1 million per year and 14 employees, it’s sounding more like a business with a conscience each day.
The lease on the original East Liberty location expired in August 2012. With a $25,000 grant from the local Sprout Fund, the restaurant was able to move to a new location downtown in Schenley Plaza. They recently conducted interviews in Palestine in order to bring a Palestinian iteration to Conflict Kitchen at the end of the summer. Unfortunately, there’s no dearth of countries to choose from.
We often think of “voting with our fork” as a way to change the food system. This restaurant proves that it’s possible to do more with food, that take-out can bring a community together whether they’re the people of East Liberty, Pittsburg, the United States, or the world.
Food, as Conflict Kitchen reminds us, isn’t always about what we’re eating but who we’re eating with and what we talk about at the table.
-Tove K. Danovich