In the three years since it opened, Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen has served Iranian, Afghan, Venezuelan and Cuban food under four different names. The pop-up style restaurant is currently an Iranian restaurant called Kubideh Kitchen. But next month, the cuisine could be North Korean, Israeli or Palestinian. By serving food only from regions that are in conflict with the United States, the restaurant aims to bring social and political consciousness to the dinner table with the goal of familiarizing the foreign.
The restaurant opened in 2010 as an effort by Carnegie Mellon art professors Jon Rubin and John Pena and artist Dawn Weleski to move public knowledge of these countries beyond stereotypes and newspaper headlines. Using food as fuel for dialogue between people of different backgrounds, Conflict Kitchen began its first iteration offering Iranian kubideh, a ground beef flatbread sandwich with basil, mint and onion. Every six months, it rotates to a new cuisine, celebrating each theme with a kickoff party and other culturally appropriate events.
Just as important as the regions highlighted by Conflict Kitchen is its location. As the home of Andrew Carnegie’s steel works, Pittsburgh has traditionally been steeped in American industry. Its international community, however, is harder to find. A report using statistics from the 2010 census indicated the city is one of the least diverse regions in America.
Rubin told Conde Nast Traveler that the project was a response to what was missing from Pittsburgh — “cultural diversity, political discourse (at the level of the street), and diverse ethnic cuisines.” The iterations of Conflict Kitchen were the first Iranian, Afghan, Venezuelan and Cuban restaurants in Pittsburgh.
In April, Conflict Kitchen moved from a takeout window to a sit-down location Schenley Plaza thanks to a $25,000 Root Award from The Benter Foundation’s Sprout Fund. The creators hope that the new space will facilitate discussions between different parties during their meals. In honor of this June’s elections in Iran, the restaurant reopened in Schenley Plaza with its initial Persian theme.
To create an authentic dish and atmosphere, Conflict Kitchen reached out to Pittsburgh’s Iranian community and communities in Iran as well. The brightly colored kubideh wrappers are printed with the opinions of Iranians and Iranian-Americans on everything from nuclear power to films.
Connections don’t just happen between fellow Conflict Kitchen patrons, but also between them around the world. The restaurant has hosted Skype dinner parties with professionals, documentary makers and community radio activists in the countries being featured. Other programming includes film screenings, a forum on the role of social media and blogging in Iran’s Green Movement and Pittsburgh’s first-ever Persian Cultural Festival.
With the current state of international affairs — it doesn’t seem likely that the U.S. will run out of conflicts soon — Conflict Kitchen will be serving up exotic dishes and cultural conversation for the long run. Next up? North Korea.
Get in touch with the author @catku.