You’d be hard-pressed to find a menu quite like the one at the Pittsburgh restaurant Conflict Kitchen

Inspired by the culture of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — the Native American nation that includes the tribes of Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Onondaga — the menu currently includes Johngwe’yöni' (whole grilled quail served with boiled potatoes and a wild green salad), Gagaihdëhdö (cornbread made from roasted Iroquois white corn flour) and O'hösda' Onyögwi’sa (drop dumplings boiled with fresh, seasonal fruit). 

(photo courtesy of Conflict Kitchen)

But get it now, because the Conflict Kitchen menu will soon change — every rotating menu serves food from countries with which the United States is in conflict, like recent menus rooted in Iranian, Palestinian, Afghan, Cuban and North Korean cultures. It originated in 2010 as a public art project by Jon Rubin, an artist and professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, and fellow artist Dawn Weleski.

“It’s about presenting stories that people have never heard or rarely heard from the perspective of individuals living in countries or from countries that the U.S. is in some kind of conflict with,” says Rubin. “It’s a way of encouraging curiosity and empathy about these countries and people and culture outside of government rhetoric or policies.”

The precursor to Conflict Kitchen was a take-out restaurant called the Waffle Shop, a unique public art project overseen by students in Rubin’s Contextual Practice curriculum. The premise: $4 waffles and a video recording setup, with patrons taking part in mini-talk shows that were broadcast in the window 24/7. It was intended to be a two-semester project, but turned into a four-year business venture. 

“What was discovered is that food created a convivial space to open up dialogue and discourse,” Rubin says. “When Dawn and I began to think about Conflict Kitchen, we thought, ‘if we were going to run a takeout window, what type of conversations do we think are absent from our city? And not just the conversations, but the types of food that are absent.’”

So is Conflict Kitchen a business? An art project? A non-profit? An educational effort? 

“We’re a little bit of each,” admits Rubin. Every menu is paired with programs and outreach designed to educate patrons on that culture. Conflict Kitchen gets foundation support toward education and outreach through speakers, film festivals and programming for students between sixth grade and college. All revenue from the restaurant goes to support those programs. In addition to Rubin and Weleski, Conflict Kitchen has five full-time employees with another five to 10 seasonal part-timers. During pleasant summer days, Conflict Kitchen averages 300 to 400 customers a day, which dips to 50 to 100 during Pittsburgh’s brutal winters. Though owned entirely by Rubin and Weleski, Conflict Kitchen is housed within a Carnegie Mellon research center, allowing its employees — which recently unionized — to access university benefits, free classes and bus passes. 

(photo courtesy of Adam Milliron)
Rubin recently conducted a survey of Conflict Kitchen’s patrons to determine why it appealed to them: “We were curious about how people defined us, why were they coming? For the food, for the the mission?” he says. “We found that just as many people came for the food as for the mission. The vast majority engaged with this program. People seem to get us beyond just serving good food.”

There is no better way for diverse cultures to connect than through food, because “it transcends intellect. It’s something that’s part of your senses as opposed to your intellect,” Rubin says. “There’s a very visceral response to it. … It’s a way people feel comfortable learning a new culture that may feel uncomfortable.” 

Conflict Kitchen has received international media attention, which has resulted in individuals replicating the model around the globe, including in Poland, London and Budapest. Rubin says he’s also heard of schools creating “Conflict Kitchen Day” or students writing dissertations on the concept. It’s also been featured on AIM2Flourish.com, an initiative of the Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, which has created a higher-education curriculum around the role of business in achieving the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“It’s really inspiring,” he says. “It’s nice to see that what we are doing resonates. We spend so much time trying to do what we are doing better. Ninety-nine percent of our time is spent in our community trying to have an impact, so it’s nice when some element of your story resonates with them.”