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Culture, Reality

Conflict Kitchen

by Roger Young / 27.11.2013

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to the Spier Secret Dinner. It was immediately a conflict. Here would be incredible food. Here would also be some elitist bullshit. The food won.

In the course of one day, we ate a nose to tail ox (prepared by Rudi Liebenberg executive chef at The Mount Nelson Hotel), some really tiny cakes, a mountain of sea food, and, at the Marije Vogelzang dinner, two whole ostriches, which had been wrapped in clay and slow baked in a fire pit for most of the afternoon. At one point during the day, the lady next to me, while I was eating some ox testicles, said to her friend, “I’m having an ethical dilemma, Rainbow Chickens is trying to buy my company, I really don’t like the way they treat chickens, but the money…” This might all sound fabulous, and it mostly was; I mean, the tiny cakes were way too conceptual, there are reasons why some parts of the beast are not prime cuts, cooking an entire ostrich in a fire pit is ridiculous and I still have nocturnal emissions about the basins of seafood. Jesu, that pile of lobster tails brought me closer to an understanding of Imperialism like nothing else ever has.

Here are the lame things about the day. No wine was served with breakfast. The lady with the tiny cakes/desserts was way too Fair Lady March 02. The baking lady from Britain didn’t respond to my flirting. My team didn’t win the wine blending competition because Dylan Culhane kept wandering off when I needed maths.

Angus McIntosh (who farms vegetables, vineyards, eggs, cattle, sheep and chickens, which he raises on pastures on the Spier farm) talk on biodynamic agricultural practices was refreshingly obvious, Andy Fenner’s (of Frankie Fenner’s in Cape Town) presentation on ethical meat eating was comforting for the carnivore, not so much for the animals, and Marije Vogelzang’s discussion around designing eating experiences was, um, a little pretentious until it became a little bit of a tear jerker about Romanian Gypsies. There was also a guy from Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburg, Robert Sayre, who I was totally prepared to hate on, because he works for a place called Conflict Kitchen for fuck’s sake, but who ended up being the only person who I took seriously. I took everyone else’s food very seriously, but not always their reasoning (shit, digging graves here).


Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that only serves cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict. Each Conflict Kitchen iteration 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. The restaurant rotates identities every few months in relation to current geopolitical events.” (There’s some information from their website.)

So, at some point after the tacky dessert section of the afternoon, in the fading light of the Spier parking lot, I bump drunkenly into Sayres and we, leaning against the 4X4 where Skattie What was napping, have this conversation.

MAHALA: How do you define the difference between cultural appropriation and activism? There’s a fine line there, right?

ROBERT SAYRES: There is. Although I wouldn’t necessarily classify what we do as activism.

Isn’t it?

It is of a sort. I mean it’s a way of trying to draw attention to a certain issue which you could always call activism.

Is activism like a dirty word then?

No, not at all. Activism is a hugely important part of American culture, and it’s how things get changed. It’s a necessary ingredient into a properly working democracy. Unfortunately it does not often achieve all of the goals it sets for itself. But yeah it’s a hugely important part of any society I think.

Robert Sayre

Do you get accused of cultural appropriation?

Occasionally, but not as often as you would think actually. We expect it more than we get and we try to be very conscious of avoiding those types of things. We get a lot of offers to participate in things or to do certain events or projects that we turn down because it does cross that line for us. It’s something that we’re constantly aware of and the way that we try to generally avoid cultural appropriation is, as far as the information we’re presenting, it’s never in our voice. It’s always in the voice of the people we speak to.

But it’s you presenting it.

That’s true, the editor has a voice, this something that you can’t deny. But we also consciously seek out opposing viewpoints, both sides of an issue. I don’t know if you picked up one of the Venezuelan wrappers? [Conflict Kitchen take-aways come wrapped in info sheets on the focus country and its state of conflict with the USA]. Venezuelan society is split almost 50/50 on the issues of the socialist government, and we tried to present them as accurately as we could. I mean, granted, there is going to be natural interpretation through an American point of view. We’re Americans, we can’t deny that we’re Americans, and that is also part of the idea of the project; how do Americans approach these things? Examining that has its own merits as well.

You’ve been at your new location since April, have you become that place where you just get great food?

Yes and no. I mean we do get far more customers. We’re drawing 2-300 people a day whereas we used to draw maybe forty in a day. But to us it’s better in that situation because we’re drawing people in who just walked by, who’ve never heard of us. And then they’re exposed to something they weren’t necessarily expecting. Whereas previously we were in a smaller neighbourhood with less of a foot-traffic. Most of the people that were coming were seeking us out, which in some ways defeats the purpose because you’re preaching to the choir. Because it was all these lefty liberal well-to-do types that came, whereas now we’re reaching a much more diverse audience than we were before, and because it’s one of the few public spaces in our city. A lot of our base now is the university students, but it’s a heavy foot-traffic area of the city because it also has a lot of the free institutions of the city; the museums, the libraries and we’re literally next to a carousel, so we get a lot more children.

With the university students, what are the demographics?

It’s a public university for one, the large one, the University of Pittsburgh. So it’s the most affordable university in the state. So it’s a much more diverse population. It has far more African-American and Hispanic students than any of the other universities and then Carnegie Mellon is the other university on the other side which is one of the world premier higher education. I mean it’s the top school for computer science. It’s about 30% Korean, which will be interesting for a Korean diner to see whether or not they dig it. But it’s a just a good demographic for us as a business because they’re hungry and we’re affordable and they don’t cook. Our meals are six dollars so its food that is affordable to everybody and that’s one of the ideas is to keep the price point low enough. And six dollars is cheap for lunch, it’s McDonald’s.

Do you feel like you could bump it up to 8 and you’d still be fine?

Probably. Right now it’s still just a take-out restaurant. There’s seating in the park and actually there’s a big tent in the park, but we don’t have an inside space. You’re getting everything in a box. It’s a compostable, bio-degradable box, but it’s still a box. And it’s a non-profit so we don’t have the pressures to make money. We just have the pressure to keep ourselves going, but we’ve been successful at receiving the grants that we need to.

Conflict Kitchen

So by non-profit do you just break even?

We technically can’t make a profit. So if any money is made it just goes back into the project. We just did a six month audit. Basically we’ve seen where we are with the new location and we’ve been making more money so we gave all our employees a raise. So it goes back into the people. We provide health care options for employees which is not common in food service.

But you pay yourself a salary, right?


It’s comparable to your workers or…?

Yeah to be honest my salary… I left a job in fine dining and I took a 50% pay cut to take this job. I want to spend more time with my family and I wanted to do something that was socially conscious and I had spent a year out of the kitchen. A friend of mine opened a restaurant, probably the premier chef of Pittsburgh and he asked me to be general manager and I spent a year on the floor of this restaurant and decided I didn’t want to work in a fine dining restaurant any more. It’s easy in the kitchen to make the food because it’s interesting and it’s fascinating, but when you’re out there on the floor talking to everyone everyday, it wears you out. You start to see there’s a small percentage of people there who are amazing, who go there to have a great time, it’s their one big night out of the year and they are awesome and you want to spend the whole night with them, but there’s a ton of people who come in and are just assholes.

Let’s go back to your definition of conflict.

Our definition of conflict is huge. We give ourselves free reign to do almost anything. One idea that we will probably do at one point is Native America. I wanted to do a 1% dinner where we serve everything on gold-rimmed plates and caviar on bone spoons, but I don’t know if I can get people to pay a thousand dollars for a dinner that’s making fun of them.

I bet you can.

So it’s a broad definition. We could do Saudi Arabia because technically our governments are in conflict. Whereas some of the populous of both countries are more at war than the governments are. What about Pakistan? Pakistan is technically an ally.There’s so many complicated situations that can be seen as one way or the other so we don’t define it.

Conflict Kitchen

From an outsider’s point of view, like from my point of view specifically, I see the U.S. as being totally in conflict with itself. It’s kind of ripping itself apart and it’s kind of amusing.

I mean we could talk about doing Red State/Blue State. We could talk about doing urban/rural. I mean the United States, we should just shut down our government because we’re being ridiculous.

But how about this: Imagine doing a Conflict Kitchen on slave cooking. You’d be like fucked for cultural appropriation and you’d be boxed in a corner.

Yeah, the thing we’re gonna do next which would get the most reaction is Palestine. Just for example, at one point in time we applied for a grant from a foundation in Pittsburgh and we brought some flyers to the presentation. The old man whose money it is opens up the flyers and reads three sentences….. And then, as a rich Jewish man, he was like “I will shut you down if I can”.

South Africa has real conflict around this, we have a strong Jewish community, but Mandela once said that no one is free until Palestine is free, and we may even have a boycott on Israeli products.

So much of the conflict in the world revolves around that issue and it’s like everybody knows the only possible end game. But I was recently reading there was all these interviews with all these formers Jewish heads of their security service.

The Gatekeepers, the film?

They were all saying now it’s gotten to the point where they said we know what the solution is and we should just do it, but the problem is now the other side. And when you get to that point there’s no solution anymore because people would rather than finding a resolution, it’s less painful to both sides, they just want to find a way to hurt the other side and to be honest it’s hard to blame some of them because it’s like if you’re living in Palestine and you see houses getting bulldozed you’re gonna be like, “fuck those guys”.

Conflict Kitchen

But have you read that Noam Chomsky stuff about the balance of retaliation. It’s amazing because Israel’s going ‘fuck, these guys are sending rockets. We’re gonna bomb them,’ but it’s totally disproportionate.

We have these Jewish friends in Pittsburgh, the wife was a victim of a bombing and she was severely injured, almost died. She’s ok now, but they both had huge issues with that psychologically, but he just wrote a book called ‘What do you buy for the sons of the men who tried to kill you’ and it’s about his story: it ended up being more complicated for him psychologically than for her. He found a way to get into the occupied territory and sit down with the bombers children, wife, family and have this kind of awkward conversation.

So how did it feel to be in South Africa presenting a talk about Conflict Kitchen to a largely white audience?

It felt strange. It was something I’d really thought about before coming here and I only agreed to be here after I researched a bit of Spier’s own practices. Spier’s practices surprised me: how good they were about certain things and how relatively socially conscious they were. And it’s not purely for moral objectives it’s, of course. Part of a it is a good PR campaign as well, to position themselves in the market.

How comfortable does it feel for you being a white person travelling to conferences like this, shouldn’t there be someone one representing the country of conflict be here?

On a practical level it doesn’t work very well. We do occasionally try to set up things. But that goes back to the day-to-day aspect of it, which is I can’t fire my whole staff and myself every four months when we switch countries. It’s not an even possible practice. It’s not something we can do. We do try and hire as much as we can at least one or two people representing the cultures to be in the window to have the conversations, to engage and talk to the customers.

We had an amazing Iranian-American dude who was just this super nerdy guy who is ridiculously overeducated on some of these issues, and just loved to talk to people. He was great in the window but then when we switched to Cuban he was just like ‘I’m out. I have interest in talking about my culture, but I have no interest in talking about Cubans’.

A lot of our staff (which is rare for Americans) have been to Cuba. But the Cuban population in Pittsburgh is, like, 20 people, so it’s not very practical for us to hire Cubans. Korean, we would probably get some students from the university to, but the thing is most of the Koreans don’t have to work, and our staff are people that need to work and it’s a decent job. We pay more than most kitchen jobs and you have the possibility of health insurance and those kinds of things.

Conflict Kitchen

Your North Korea/South Korea dinner – you said at the talk you encouraged people to share across borders, but surely the real thing to do would be to tell them they’re not allowed to?

See that’s interesting. There’s no crossing between North and South Korea, but the North Koreans that get into South Korea quite often do use their food to engage with South Koreans. A lot of the women we spoke to were a women’s collaborative of North and South Korean women who opened a cafe and tried to engage with the South Korean populous that way. Actually there are some restaurants that are just renowned for their North Korean specialties in Seoul, we went to one and there’s this dish which is amazing: it’s very, very basic. It’s just an ice cold broth. It’s a very popular dish in Seoul in summer although historically it’s a winter dish. In Seoul people go specifically to these restaurants that only serve that dish, and they’re run by the North Korean defectors.

So I mean food is one of the only ways that the North Korean population in South Korea does actually interact with the South Korean population. That dynamic in South Korea just blew my mind. It’s like these people went through so much shit to get there. I mean, literally, think about it, traded as commodities for years and then they ended up there and then they get treated like shit again. It’s really sad actually.

* Photos © Conflict Kitchen/Retha Ferguson

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