The US restaurant with political cuisine


The best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, as the adage goes, and one Pittsburgh restaurant is attempting to open hearts and minds with Iranian khoresht, Cuban empanadas and Palestinian baqlawa. What do these dishes have in common? They all come from countries that are or have been in conflict with the United States, and have all featured on the eclectic and changing menu of Conflict Kitchen.

The restaurant opened in 2010 and since then has served up dishes from North Korea, Afghanistan, and Venezuela, amongst others.

Conflict Kitchen

Dawn Weleski, together with co-founder Jon Rubin, founded Conflict Kitchen as a response to another food-cum-art project in the city, The Waffle Shop, a restaurant that engaged with customers through a live-streamed talk show. They began to discuss other ways of starting up cultural and political dialogue with Pittsburgh audiences through food. And so Conflict Kitchen was born as a non-profit project, and has gone from strength to strength. The restaurant almost quadrupled the number of customers it was serving when they moved to their new location, and they continue to grow sales year on year.

Photo credit: Conflict Kitchen.

Weleski explained how they choose what cuisine they are going to feature:

“Eating can help break down barriers”

We define conflict very broadly to include political, economic, environmental and cultural conflict. When selecting a new iteration, we also try to choose countries with a culinary or cultural point-of-view that is under-represented in Pittsburgh. After we’ve selected a focus, we involve local diaspora community members in every step of the process. Whenever possible, we travel to the nations to experience the culture, cook alongside local chefs and community members and generally absorb everything we can. Over the years, we’ve traveled to Cuba, Palestine, Iran and a number of Haudenosaunee [Editor's note: an Indigenous Native American culture] communities in upstate New York.

The communal act of eating is central to all cultures and we believe that it can help break down barriers to understanding. We’re most interested in what everyday people are making in their homes. We are able to take those recipes and adapt them to our restaurant, where our staff replicates those dishes as authentically as possible, always recognizing that a recipe is inherently a translation.

“People don’t know about the conflict between the Confederacy and the US”

The restaurant’s most recent iteration focused on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, or Iroquois peoples, a Native American confederacy historically based in the northeast of America.

Often, in the US, we think of conflicts with Indigenous nations as being historic rather than contemporary. This is simply not the case. The six Indigenous nations that make up the Confederacy are sovereign political entities in their own right; however, the Haudenosaunee people continue to experience everything from cultural erasure and prejudice through mascoting and cultural appropriation, to denial of the sovereignty and humanity through passport complications and U.S. human rights policy inconsistencies and treaty violations.

Death threat over Palestine

They also use packaging as another opportunity for educating their customers about the culture that is being featured. The food wrappers, when unfolded, take the form of flyers, featuring interviews with members of the community and information about the historical and cultural context of the cuisine.

The information leaflet that came with the Cuba iteration.

The project is openly political, changing identity based on current geopolitical events. One thing the restaurant does is to facilitate a lunchtime conversation hour between local members of the focus country’s community and anyone who wants to speak to them.

Events and initiatives intended to spark dialogue at Conflict Kitchen.

But mixing food and politics has proven to be controversial. The restaurant’s Palestinian version in 2014 received a lot of backlash, even leading the restaurant to briefly close after a death threat.

“We are artists and antagonisers”

We knew that presenting Palestinian perspectives is often surrounded by controversy in the United States but we certainly did not anticipate the highly inflammatory narrative that would follow. This rhetoric accelerated into behind-the-scenes attacks on our funders and supporters, eventually culminating in a death threat against the kitchen and its staff that forced our temporary closure. That said, during this time we received an enormous amount of support from the local community that continues to this day. We do not shy away from controversy, as our main goal is to spark conversation.

After the restaurant received a death threat, crowds came out to publicly support the restaurant.

Jon and I are both artists and antagonizers, and it is imperative for us that the project provokes thought, encourages a greater sense of curiosity and empathy in our audience, and challenges our customers about the assumptions and prejudices they might have about the citizens in the countries.