Conflict Kitchen

Note: All information contained in this article comes from an interview the author conducted with Professor Dawn Weleski, one of the creators of Conflict Kitchen, and conflictkitchen.org.

Conflict Kitchen is a takeout restaurant and performance art piece located at the forefront of Schenley Park Plaza that serves cuisine from countries with which the United States government is in conflict. It is run by Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, two art professors at Carnegie Mellon University. The restaurant alters themes with respect to current geopolitical events and during each iteration there are various related events, performances, publications, and discussions related to that theme. Since its original conceptualization in 2010, Conflict Kitchen aims to increase the diversity of discussion in public spaces and engender a sense of curiosity in the Pittsburgh community about the lives of people from other countries.

Both local Pittsburgh residents, Rubin and Weleski are artists who wish to make the Pittsburgh experience unique and engaging. It is their hope to help people admit their own lack of familiarity, prevent them from inheriting preconceived notions from their family, friends, and news media, challenge their own perceptions, and understand foreign lifestyles.

Conflict Kitchen launched about six and a half years ago. It is the only restaurant in the city that has represented the cuisines of Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, North Korea, Palestine, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Prior to that, Rubin and Weleski ran another restaurant called Waffle Shop: A Reality Show, operated by Professor Rubin’s students. Weleski notes that they discovered “food was an amazing way through which one could engage with many different kinds of people from a diverse set of backgrounds and get them together to talk about potentially sensitive topics.” In an effort to establish a restaurant that complemented the experience of Waffle Shop, while occupying the unique niche of cuisine from regions that the U.S. is in conflict with, they established Conflict Kitchen.

Each iteration takes about two years for Weleski and her team to prepare and conduct research for. They travel to other countries, interview people, cook and shop with families, and work with chefs from that country and the diaspora in the U.S. After that, they select a diverse range of viewpoints from interviews that they conducted. They print this selection of quotes on posters, or 'wrappers,' that they hand out free of charge at the restaurant, which ultimately act as storytelling devices for the Pittsburgh public.

Weleski added that Conflict Kitchen is one of the very few art projects she has experienced that is almost entirely self-sustaining, with 97 percent of its revenue collected from food sales. She explains that Conflict Kitchen serves anywhere between 250 to 400 people daily, drawing visitors from all over the world. With such a large fan base, there are others around the world developing their own versions of Conflict Kitchen.

Within the short history of Conflict Kitchen, Weleski and her partners have pivoted operationally several times over the past few years based on public response, the staff's satisfaction, and their interests as artists. She says that as a socially engaged project, they need to be able to balance between many expectations: “It’s about being able to build a level of flexibility to the art project so that we can be responsive to our interests as artists, as well as to those of the public.” From staff unionizing to a death threat against the restaurant and its staff during their Palestinian iteration in November 2015, they’ve encountered and managed many challenges along the way.

Conflict Kitchen has had a tremendous impact on the Pittsburgh community. Weleski mentions that, according to a survey conducted a year ago, most people were engaging with the information distributed by the kitchen: they took the information home, shared it with others and conducted their own research.

As for the new Haudenosaunee iteration, Weleski and her team spent two years researching in preparation for it. They were able to learn the food and culture of the Haudenosaunee people while really gaining an understanding of the culture’s opinions of various conflicts they’ve encountered, including the cultural erasure that has occurred. In fact, last year they celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Weleski explains that “First Nations people are so often fetishized and exoticized, further exacerbating the level of prejudice and misinformation about their many diverse cultures and ways of life.” This iteration at Conflict Kitchen aims to create and spread awareness of the many indigenous people that still live throughout the mainland United States with thriving culture and communities. Weleski shares that there are actually over 560 federally recognized nations and tribes of indigenous people in the U.S. Their goal is to end the cultural disregard that has prevailed by introducing the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a group located near the Pittsburgh area. She mentions that in the near future they also plan to potentially extend to other indigenous nations.

As for the cuisine, Weleski highly recommends the Iroquois White Corn Soup. It’s a soup that needs to be cooked for 24 hours, and is made with a specific corn that is only grown by a farm in Victor, New York. The choice of this vegetable is no coincidence: by using this type, Weleski points out that they are “not only talking about the culinary history of the Haudenosaunee, but also highlighting a local indigenous product and an example of cultural preservation and indigenous technology.” Conflict Kitchen also has plans to bring a Seneca woman from the Iroquois White Corn Project to cook the White Corn Soup.

With the emphasis on starting conversation with and about other cultures, Conflict Kitchen continues to bring together people of different backgrounds to learn over something that connects us all: a good meal. Make sure to try out the unique foods and views of the Haudenosaunee culture and all future iterations of the restaurant.

Follow on Conflict Kitchen on Social Medias:
Instagram: @conflictkitchen
Facebook: Conflict Kitchen
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Website: http://conflictkitchen.org/