Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that only serves cuisine of countries in conflict with the United States. A brainchild of Jon Rubin, a Carnegie Mellon University Art professor and Dawn Weleski, as well as interdisciplinary artist, Conflict Kitchen was launched as a restaurant in Pittsburgh that galvanizes political awareness through food.
Conflict Kitchen is the only Iranian, Afghan, Venezuelan and North Korean restaurant the city has ever seen. More than just a restaurant, it opens the arena for events and discussions that seek to expand public engagement in international issues.
Fine Dining Lovers talked with co-founder Jon Rubin to find out how everything started.
How did you come up with the concept of the Conflict Kitchen?
Before Pittsburgh, I lived in several cities across the United States and I often travelled abroad. When I moved back here, I felt that there was a lack of cultural dialogue. Pittsburgh is a very quiet post-industrial city, between the 70s and the 80s half of the population left because the steel industry left. So, I wanted to create a meeting place where I’d like to go if I was living here. I also wanted to use food in order to bring diverse people together and galvanize conversation between strangers. We began introducing our geopolitical meals with the idea of inspiring dialogue and introducing unknown cultures to the citizens through food.
Who are your customers?
We certainly have many politically aware people coming to eat here but we also have others who are just curious about the food or who might want to know more about –let’s say – Iran. In all cases, it is remarkable how many people are embracing even our most controversial events. We didn't expect that at the beginning, when we started three years ago.
How do you develop the meals?
Well, for example we recently travelled to South Korea for an art project. When the invitation arrived we were already thinking to do an event about North Korea. We took advantage of the trip to meet with North Korean defectors. As you might know, theirs is a pretty controlled country. It is open to visitors, but, visitors are not allowed to talk to the citizens. Meeting them in South Korea made it easier: we cooked with them, we interviewed them and the recipes came out of that experience. This is how we generally develop our menus.
Does the food itself say anything about the political situation of a country?
Sure! Let’s take North Korean food: it’s mostly vegetarian because of the political situation. Meat is only consumed in special holidays, such as on the political leader’s birthday. Kim Jong-un turned 31 a few weeks ago and on the day of his birthday he gave away candies to the children, which could be translated as ideological brainwashing. On that day we did the same at the restaurant, giving away provocative candy because we where curious to see if customers would have an ethical dilemma about taking the candy or not.
Are the people who work at the Conflict Kitchen as politically conscious as you are?
It’s usually people who have studied international relations or political science or others simply interested in food and everyone is fairly young. We even had three Mennonites working for us. Their religion supports peace making so I imagine that they saw in us a medium for global piece. Still, the tough thing is to find people who are good both with food and dialogue!
What’s next on the menu?
Our text trip will be to Palestine, but it could take us about half a year to develop the new menu. My dream would be to swift menus quickly. Read something on the news and come to the restaurant to unpack what it means. It will take sometime before we can make it happen, so for the moment we invest on occasional “one-day events” as we did with Syria, when things occur.
What else are you planning for this year?
We are working on a Conflict Kitchen book. This summer we’re collaborating with a company from Pittsburg that makes their own whiskey. They are preparing a new space that will serve food from countries who have experienced a rebellion!