While many people shy away from political conversation at the dinner table, Conflict Kitchen is promoting it. By choosing its cuisine based on different countries in conflict with the United States, the Pittsburgh-based restaurant offers authentic dishes while facilitating cultural conversation and political dialogue.
“[Food] creates a moment of comfort,” co-founder Dawn Weleski told The Daily Beast. “As people are eating the food, we have our staff members discuss what is on our food wrappers—interviews with people from that country and those that have immigrated to the US. Basically, as you taste the culture you’re also having a discussion about the politics.”
Since it debuted in 2010, the takeout restaurant has offered dishes like Aushak (marinated-leek dumplings topped with beef) from Afghanistan, North Korean Naengmyeon (chilled buckwheat noodles), and Lechon Asado (slow roasted pork) from Cuba. Due to the recent protests happening in Venezuela, the custom-made menu currently centers on that country’s culture and politics.
The project stems from a previous collaboration between Weleski and co-creator Jon Rubin, who is an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. The Waffle Shop, which served brunch and late night meals to locals, also acted as a live-streaming talk show with its customers as guests. “It sort of acted as an ongoing documentary with the area where people could get together and speak with each other about a variety of topics,” Weleski said.
Looking for a way to further engage the Pittsburgh community, the duo soon realized “how food was the seduction to get people to come in and be part of the talk show.” Brainstorming ideas for a new food-based concept, they found that the cuisines lacking in Pittsburgh were also countries in conflict with the United States.
“It was an experiment that was based on what many people thought was an incredibly bad business model to sell food to people in the city, from countries that have no cuisine on our local landscape,” co-founder Jon Rubin told ABC. “There’s never been an Afghan restaurant or an Iranian restaurant or a Cuban restaurant in [Pittsburgh].”
Along with the staff engaging in topical conversation with customers, Conflict Kitchen also hosts various panel discussions and events. In May 2013, the establishment hosted The Two Koreas. Serving meals from both North and South Korea, diners were divided by a culinary border but still allowed to converse and share the meal that was assigned to them.
“What we have been doing is recycling through some countries that we have already preformed before because those iterations become a bit more interesting when we are responding to them in the news,” Weleski said. “So if there are nuclear talks again between Iran and the US then we pop up with the Iranian restaurant again. “
During the Iranian iteration, one event allowed customers to congregate with a local dining in Iran. The live-streamed event, moderated by an employee, allowed an open dialogue with customers and someone living the culture in its current political state.
No need to fret if you don’t feel knowledgeable enough on the current theme. “Our staff is not really trained to educate, but to admit their own ignorance in order to facilitate discussions with strangers,” Weleski said. “Customers waiting in line can get together and share information that they have or don’t have.”
Next up on the menu—Palestinian, coming to Conflict Kitchen this December.