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Conflict Kitchen: Its Ethnic Foods Seduce, Its Wrappers Engage

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer on April 24, 2013

“We are trying to be provocative in the best use of that term.” –Jon Rubin

You don’t normally think of Pittsburgh as the hub of foreign policy discussion. But 245 miles from DC diplomats, 370 miles from the United Nations, Conflict Kitchen serves up delicious ethnic food and talking points on its wrappers.

Conflict Kitchen, an aptly named take-out restaurant that “only serves cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict,” has been through four distinct iterations: Since opening in 2010, it’s morphed from Iranian to Afghan to Venezuelan to Cuban. Now, in its new location in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza, Conflict Kitchen is back to serving up Persian dishes.

conflict kitchen new location
via Conflict Kitchen (more old location pics below)

“We want people to think about places in a different light,” co-director Jon Rubin tells us. “Our goal, we often say, is not to simplify but to actually complicate it. For us, we want to provoke them but also to seduce them. The food is there to seduce, but then we want to instigate a nuanced, engaged discussion that we’re often times ashamed to have in public,” he says.

Rubin says the restaurant will remain Persian through at least the Iranian election in June. Coming this fall, though, after Rubin and co-director Dawn Weleski do some research in South Korea over the summer, the take-out joint will likely switch over to North Korean and South Korean cuisine, “a triangulation of conflict,” he says. They are also doing more research on the Israel/Palestine conflict for a future version of the restaurant.

“Reaction’s been great,” Rubin says when asked the obvious. “There’s never been this kind of food in Pittsburgh, and we didn’t know whether people would be into that. But people are starving for food and diversity.”

Conflict Kitchen’s brilliant plan for nuanced engagement has been to wrap the food with information about the current cuisine’s country, home-sourced from interviews with immigrants living in the United States.


A tease:

iran wrapper

For its current iteration, Iran, “the guy working the window is a young Persian medical student whose family is from Iran, though he grew up in Los Angeles,” Rubin says. He’s always available for a quick discussion.

via Conflict Kitchen

There are also events to go with, the Kitchen’s website boasts:

Each iteration of the project is augmented by events, performances, and discussions that seek to expand the engagement the public has with the culture, politics, and issues at stake within the focus country. These events have included live international Skype dinner parties between citizens of Pittsburgh and young professionals in Tehran, Iran; documentary filmmakers in Kabul, Afghanistan; and community radio activists in Caracas, Venezuela.

Click here to see more wrappers:
• Cuba: Cocina Cubana Wrapper
• Venezuela: La Cocina Arepas

conflict kitchen 1
via Conflict Kitchen

conflict kitchen 2
via Conflict Kitchen

Rubin tells us there’s been no official contact from anyone within the State Department, good or bad, but the Voice of America, the official broadcast institution of the U.S. federal government to Asia, Africa and the Middle East, has tried to interview them. They’ve declined, however, because Rubin says it might be contextualized in the wrong way. But he wouldn’t be surprised if they were following it in some capacity.

Rubin, who used to own another restaurant called the Waffle Shop, which shared a kitchen, says the take-out stand is almost entirely funded through food sales now — the staff, materials, events, everything. Conflict Kitchen also receives grants through local foundations like Sprout Fund, The Benter Foundation and The Studio for Creative Inquiry.

conflict kitchen 3
via Conflict Kitchen

conflict kitchen 4
via Conflict Kitchen

This beats the Palestinian chicken place from Curb, right?

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