Jon Rubin & Dawn Weleski


La Concina Arepas, by Conflict Kitchen


From a conversation between Dawn Weleski and Janeil Engelstad in November 2011


Dawn Weleski (DW): Conflict Kitchen was inspired by the lack of cultural diversity in Pittsburgh. Generally, there is not a great amount of tension between people of different races or classes compared to other cities in the world. Within Pittsburgh, there are several small neighborhoods, each with different cultural, racial, or ethnic identities that mostly stay to themselves. Within that segregation there tends to be a lack of tension and a lack of discussion around cultural diversity within Pittsburgh itself and also a discussion that engages culture and politics outside of the United States. People don’t see how the politics halfway around the world is affecting their lives. So our main interest was to create an invitation for a public discourse around food and for people to find an interest in discussing politics and culture. It has never meant to be about the country or nation that we are concentrating on. Certainly, the majority of the conversation is about that, but the project is really about finding ways to help people engage in a generalized conversation about culture and politics starting from their own personal experience.


People come up to the take-out window and say, “You know I have never had Afghan or Iranian food”. 


We then ask them about the kind of food or traditions that they have in their families. “Well, my grandparents were Greek.”


Then we start to draw lines between Persian and Greek food, such as looking at where Greece is located geographically in relation to Iran and what are the policies between the European Union and Iran. So the crux of the project happens at the take-out window among those discussions. Inevitably people take that home to their families. People have started Conflict Kitchen nights in their house; where once a week their son or daughter will choose the country, and maybe it isn’t about politics, maybe it is just a cultural discussion through food. We have had people around the world start discussions and projects about what conflict is and how different conflicts in one country are affecting conflicts in another country. Teachers have created curriculum around these issues. A project was started in San Francisco called Culture Kitchen. Two immigrant women brought together other immigrant woman, from all over the world, to relate their culture through teaching the cuisine of their native country in cooking classes. So the project is also pedagogical. People are using other pedagogical forms and methods to have these political and cultural discussions and starting around food.


Janeil Engelstad (JE): I was reading the Conflict Kitchen blog and noticed some comments about the text used on the wrapper for the Persian food. One person wrote that there was language that could be read as anti-Israel. Another person commented that she didn’t understand why you were making an effort to help people better understand cultures and people from nations that we are in conflict with as she does not see that they are trying to understand the USA. Have taken any steps to address those concerns?


DW: First of all, we created a blog and not a website so that people were able to have discussions through an online format. That has allowed people to have discussions among themselves. Additionally, people’s comments have directed some of the public programs that we have had. The wrapper is just a symbol. A beginning of a much larger conversation that we are having with the public through the format of the blog and programs. We cannot put a frame around every opinion about each of the topics that the project addresses. If it stirs people to comment and then have a conversation, we feel that we have done our job to make a conversation happen that might not have otherwise. 


JE: A project like this takes professional and business skills that are not typically part of an artist’s training. Additionally, there is a large amount of time spent in administration and operating the restaurant. How do you balance this with your creative practice, or do you consider the business aspects of the project a part of your creative practice?


DW: We started testing the project by selling tacos out of the space to see how the audience responded. We then formatted the project around what hours work best for selling take out food, understanding who our audience was and which audiences were we working with that we weren’t working with at the Waffle Shop, which is right next door. (The Waffle Shop is a neighborhood restaurant that produces and broadcasts a live-streaming talk show with its customers). We also looked at if the project would take away from the Waffle Shop audience or would it add to it. We decided to create a project that was ultimately trying to have a political discussion, rather than be a business. We thought that we would be open for three weeks. We didn’t know if people wanted to eat Iranian food or discuss Iranian politics. We knew a couple of Iranians in Pittsburgh, but was there a larger Iranian community in Pittsburgh? When we put up that first Farsi sign that said “Kubideh Kitchen”, people stopped in the middle of the street in their cars, got out and asked. “Are you going to be serving kubideh? I can’t get kubideh anywhere around here.”


So everything from those small moments to the larger overarching success of the project where we were only open at first for weekends and then started to be open for lunch seven days a week speak to the built in flexibility and responsiveness of the project.


Conflict Kitchen also allowed us to think about how artists are entrepreneurs. How they have a hand in economic development and how they problem solve, using design strategies, in urban settings. At one point, a restaurant that does multiple services for universities approached us. They wanted us to work with the faculty and the dining services at some of these universities. It became an opportunity to rethink the context of the project. To think of it as engaging an audience that was already coming to an institution for educational purposes and to interject a different conversation into that setting. It was also an opportunity to think about what would a franchise model be for something that began as an art project that also ultimately becomes a business. I would never think to start a business with my artwork; it is just not something that I am interested in. There is an incredible amount of time spent administrating the business aspects of the project. But when people from the business community, designers, or a person just walking down the street looking for a bite of lunch all respond to the project in divergent manners that is when it is worth it. You know that you are crossing many different audiences.


JE: When you were thinking about Conflict Kitchens as a part of a college campuses, how did you rethink the project and what did you find that was important to include or not include?


DW: The people who approached us were not able to value the idea financially the way that it needed to be valued. We worked up several different budgets that included things like different funding levels for people who would be doing cultural programming. We wanted to make sure that there were employees who would be able to have political and cultural discussions with the students. The idea was valued as just a restaurant and because it is more than that, and we weren’t willing to change the project to fit their values, it did not happen. While it is a business with a bottom line, it also needs to be interesting to us as artists. 


JE: What, ultimately, do you hope that Conflict Kitchen will inspire or lead to?


DW: To begin a conversation and for people to take these conversations and put their own frames around them. We also hope that people will create their own projects. An Iranian woman who had immigrated to Sweden contacted us saying that she wanted to start her own Conflict Kitchen in Sweden. After talking with her, we realized that what she really wanted to do was to start an Iranian restaurant in her neighborhood because the largest immigrant population in Sweden is Iranian. So we talked with her about starting a restaurant. Certainly we aren’t aware of how that will happen in another country with an entirely different economic and funding system, but being willing to have those conversations with people and talk through from inspiration to reality is something that we have taken on a certain amount of responsibility for.


Currently Conflict Kitchen is called La Cocina Arepas and is serving Venezuelan arepas. We just had a program a couple of months ago where we were Skyping with local barrio activists in Venezuela about their political activism in their neighborhoods. They write community newspapers and operate community radio stations. They also happen to be supporters of Hugo Chavez, which is something that typically you are not able to find within America. It was great to have and host a conversation between Venezuelans in Pittsburgh, who are typically anti-Chavez, and Chavistas in Venezuela who are feeling the effects of Chavez and are still pro-Chavez. This kind of dialogue is what we are really interested in providing a space for.