Pittsburgh cafe offers cuisine from the U.S. conflict du jour

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PITTSBURGH — Jon Rubin had an important question, and he knew where to find the answer: at the North Korean Embassy in Cuba, which he was visiting in March on a business trip.

A man in jogging clothes and flip-flops came to the embassy gate after Rubin and his small entourage of fellow Americans rang the doorbell at the ornate diplomatic mission on a tree-lined street in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood.

The Americans posed the question: What exactly do they eat in North Korea?

“He was a little surprised,” Rubin’s business partner, Dawn Weleski, said of the Korean attache, who could be forgiven if he thought that the Americans were fishing for secrets beyond kimchi recipes.

But Rubin and Weleski are used to head-scratching reactions since they opened the Conflict Kitchen, a Pittsburgh cafe that serves cuisine only from countries in conflict with the United States, with a menu that rotates to reflect the war or diplomatic row of the moment.

The cafe opened in 2010, with Iranian food the first featured cuisine. That was followed by periods of Afghan and Venezuelan food. This month, in a sign of the lingering tension between Washington and Tehran, the Conflict Kitchen is wrapping up another Iranian iteration. One recent Saturday, it featured a Persian dinner party attended by customers in Pittsburgh and diners in Tehran, who were linked via video chat.

Cuban cuisine will be next, incorporating ideas that Rubin, Weleski and Conflict Kitchen’s culinary director, Robert Sayre, picked up in Havana. Then, perhaps, they’ll try North Korean food.

“People are going to be thinking, ‘Are we going to be eating twigs and rocks?’ ” Rubin joked as he repaired the cafe’s front counter, where employees dish out food and try to get customers to talk about the conflict du jour.

One thing Rubin learned from the Korean diplomat, who was polite but did not let his uninvited guests into the embassy, is that North Korean cuisine isn’t much different from South Korean. The two countries were, after all, one until 1945, the diplomat reminded them in flawless Spanish. He noted, however, that northerners lean toward buckwheat rather than rice noodles.

For now, Conflict Kitchen offers only takeout service and serves only lunch, drawing 30 to 50 customers on a good day, sometimes more.

That will change this summer when it moves downtown and opens as a full restaurant. But whether customers are sitting at a table in midtown Pittsburgh or standing on a sidewalk in the East Liberty neighborhood, the key to Conflict Kitchen is not just the food but the conversation. Both are served by employees hired in part for their ability to discuss world affairs.

“Our desire is to not to simplify, but to complicate the way ... people think about another country,” said Rubin, an artist who hit upon the idea for Conflict Kitchen as he and Weleski were trying to decide how to use the tiny storefront adjacent to Rubin’s Waffle Shop diner, which opened in 2008.

“We wanted to do takeout because we wanted to engage with people on the street, and we didn’t really have room for sit-down,” said Weleski, a former art student of Rubin’s who went on to manage the Waffle Shop.

The pair already had a following from the Waffle Shop, where employees conduct an offbeat, live-streamed talk show as customers devour waffles. Guests have ranged from local politicians to ordinary diners lured onstage to banter about everything from men wearing Speedos to unrequited love. The show’s bouncy musical intro and its set, with orange plastic chairs and a backdrop of satiny drapes, were inspired by 1960s and ‘70s talk shows.

“At the Waffle Shop, we use food to seduce people to get up onstage. At Conflict Kitchen, we use it to get people to open up and talk to strangers,” said Rubin, an associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University who has a master of fine arts degree from California College of the Arts and specializes in using public places as art projects to explore human behavior.

He founded the Independent School of Art in San Francisco, which had no physical structure and operated solely on a barter system from 2005-07; he set up the Museum of Modern Failure in Pittsburgh for one semester in 2007, where his students used failure as the context for their contributions.

To Rubin, the Waffle Shop is as much an art project as a diner because it puts human behavior on public display, something he is also doing at Conflict Kitchen.

The effort extends to the food wrappers, which feature comments from people whose home country’s cuisine is on the menu: “Generally speaking, Iranian people have no issues with the Jewish people,” for instance, or: “Most Americans who I have encountered think that Iranians are ugly, aggressive, violent, terrorists, Islamists and uncivilized.”

Both comments were on the wrappers of hot meat and vegetarian sandwiches being handed out on an unseasonably cold Saturday in late April by Lauren Pucci.

“It’s not the easiest thing to do,” Pucci said of engaging the occasional arrival who doesn’t want to talk. That wasn’t a problem this day, as the line grew and conversations flowed at the takeout window and in line while patrons shuffled on the sidewalk and rubbed their hands to stay warm.

“If you want to understand something more about a country, what better way to do it than through food?” said Laura Goodman, who had come to Conflict Kitchen with a group of friends and was waiting for her sandwich.

Added Marc Parenteau, a repeat customer: “There’s common ground in food. No matter what kind of conflict it is, no matter which side of it you’re on, everyone needs to eat.”

Suzanne Trenney, in line with her husband, Kevin, agreed. “The stomach really clears a path,” she said.

Inside the tiny kitchen, which serves both the Waffle Shop and Conflict Kitchen, the scene of waffles, butter and syrup mixed with that of cumin, dill, mint, garlic and other ingredients blended into the Iranian dishes. Jars of turmeric, cinnamon and black sesame seeds sat alongside buckets of flour and chopped nuts. One employee hauled a 10-pound sausage of minced beef from a halal meat market through the work space to prepare more of the meat, or kubideh, for the sandwiches. Inside the refrigerator, a huge dish held the green kookoo sabzi, a vegetarian option.

Everything at Conflict Kitchen costs $5, cash only, please. It also gets funding from some private arts groups and solicits donations on its website.

Sayre, who joined Conflict Kitchen this year from a trendy Pittsburgh restaurant, had been cooking for the dinner party since the previous night. There was khoresht fesanjan, chicken in a thick stew incorporating pomegranate juice and ground walnuts; a rice-based dish called tahdig; a spicy stew, khoresht gormeh; and stacks of barbari bread.

Sayre placed the dishes on a table set in the nightclub adjoining the Conflict Kitchen, where the dinner party was being held and where a technician was trying to make contact with the Tehran-based host, an artist friend of Rubin’s. As the doors opened at noon, guests streamed in and began dishing food onto plates and sitting at one of the long tables set up to accommodate about 60 people.

In Tehran, diners gathered in a similarly appointed room, before the exact same meal, and before long, bilingual diners were helping the distant groups talk to each other through microphones passed around the tables. Conversation ranged from America’s obsession with Batman to Iranian views of Occupy Wall Street, and it pointed up some similarities between the Iranians and the Americans: distrust of media and government, for instance.

In Pittsburgh, people went back for seconds. Sayre relaxed as it became clear the food was a hit.

“Working in fine dining establishments is wearing — you’re serving food to people who can afford it,” he said. “It’s nice to do something that has a little more of a social element.”

Despite Conflict Kitchen’s unusual approach, nobody could recall any customers raging at employees for serving food from places like Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. There was one critique posted on its website in July 2010, from a woman who accused the eatery of ignoring the plight of an Iranian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery.

“If you must earn a living this way, at least provide the full gamut of information that describes Iran,” the critic wrote. (The stoning sentence was suspended, but the woman remains in prison.)

Things could get testier when the cafe moves downtown, where well-heeled professionals and harried office workers are likely to be more interested in a quick, impersonal meal to gobble down.

“That’s part of the reason we’re thinking of moving,” Sayre said. “We love this neighborhood and the people who support us, but the idea is to get people to think about something they wouldn’t think about.”