Flavor and peace

David Moralejo

Afghan ‘kebab’, North Korean ‘mandugk’, Venezuelan ‘patacones’… The dishes at Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh move to the rhythm of political tension.

The purpose? To bury the war hatchet and replace it with the reconciliation fork. Pittsburgh is the typical American city that is neither big nor small, neither ugly nor pretty. In the eyes of Old Europe, Pittsburgh is a film set for scripts requiring precisely that: a typical American city that is neither big nor small, neither ugly nor pretty. The Silence of the Lambs, Flashdance, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Hunter… everything happens in Pittsburgh, and at the same time nothing happens in Pittsburgh. Or does it?

Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski are the creators of Conflict Kitchen, a culinary pop-up that could easily end up being one of many, if it weren’t for what is already stated in its name: a conflict kitchen. For real. Jon and Dawn have been proving for four years now that countries like Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela don’t have to always be the main characters of sad news stories. Instead, they give them the attention they deserve in the peaceful universe of flavors and scents. As they say, this is a new way of getting to know these cultures, “through an emotional route and to immerse ourselves in their reality from a more subtle perspective.” Beyond any political views, the restaurant’s menu—which just last month offered a traditional Cuban cuisine menu including ropa vieja and lechón asado—also features talks, debates and even an analysis on Cuba’s current situation, after the reopening of the American embassy in Havana. This being said, they clarify that, “We are here to share, not to teach or give lessons. We do ask our employees to be up to date with the political and cultural relations between countries, though. The conversations they hold with our customers are precisely what support the reason behind our project.”


Among their most successful events, the one that will be kept in everyone’s mind for posterity is a cooking class via Skype, given by activist and Palestine journalist Laila El Haddad, author of the book ‘The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey’. For this special occasion, her students had to harvest traditional herbs from Palestinian cuisine for several weeks in advance and finished off with an open-air dinner and a crowded (and entertaining) debate.

Yuca, kebabs, hummus and kimchi have all left their trace within the regular and radical transformation of the small establishment located right next to the Natural History Museum. Everything in Conflict Kitchen—from the posters and colors, to the menu’s typography and language—changes every six months, along with the country they choose to represent. What will be the next one? For now they’ve said they are interested in the traditional cuisine of Ukraine and Russia and, as it was to be expected, they get constant offers to make a franchise out of their idea. They’ve even been asked to replicate their Conflict Kitchen in India but Jon and Dawn, along with their gastronomic advisor, Robert Sayre, don’t want to take that big a jump right now. What they are thinking about doing (and have already started working on) is opening their second restaurant in Pittsburgh, “a city of relative ethnic diversity that, contrary to other North American cities, barely has any exotic cuisine restaurants.”

And all of this happens in Pittsburgh, that city which is neither big nor small, neither ugly nor pretty. The same city that’s famous for being the place where Matt Cvetic (one of the most famous spies in US history and author of articles like ‘I was a Communist for the FBI’, published in The Saturday Evening Post and eventually turned into a film) was born around a century ago. Standard Pittsburgh.