An innovative restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania features the cuisine of countries with whom the U.S. has experienced troubled relationships. (Photo/Courtesy Gabe Gutierrez)

Cuisine of Conflict: How one café is trying to use food to open minds

PITTSBURGH – Jon Rubin felt something was missing here.

He craved diversity. And in this city, he thought, it wasn’t always easily accessible.

“I wanted to introduce people in Pittsburgh to cultures through a different lens,” he said.

So hunger bred innovation.

Rubin opened the Conflict Kitchen in 2010, showcasing a rotating menu that includes cuisine only from countries at odds with the United States.

He hopes to foster a greater understanding of these cultures through something all humans can relate to: food.

“Food is seduction,” Rubin said. “It bypasses your intellect…It’s a great storytelling device.”

At first, the small café on the edge of the University of Pittsburgh campus featured Iranian food, followed by Afghan selections and then Venezuelan cuisine.

As the old cliché goes, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But this café hopes to aim for patrons’ minds as well. In fact, it may be among the tastiest social experiments you’ll ever see.

“It doesn’t matter what culture you’re in,” Rubin said. “Everyone is brought up with food.”

The Conflict So Close, Yet So Far

The current menu features lechon asado, ropa vieja and congri – all standard Cuban fare.

On a recent Sunday visit, I tried the ropa vieja (shredded beef). It may not have nailed the exact flavor of the Miami version, but it was close. The picadillo (ground beef) wasn’t bad either.

But what really shone was the tostones (twice-fried green plantains served with mojo sauce). Perhaps they went a bit overboard on the seasoning, but it didn’t matter. Delicious.

The menu could have benefited from a few more options. Maybe some Cuban sandwiches. Or some croquetas. Most notably missing: cafecito, the shot of espresso that’s a staple of any Cuban neighborhood in Miami.

Still, customers I spoke with didn’t seem to mind. After all, the kitchen itself isn’t large – and changing the entire menu periodically doesn’t allow for a massive menu.

This is a sampling. (In Pittsburgh, no less.) And for the most part, the owners seem to get Cuba right.

Their food wrappers even feature interviews with island residents.

“It’s like the forgotten conflict that is so close to us, yet so far from everyone’s mind,” Rubin said.

Sarah Werle, 22, just graduated from Pitt this year. On this Sunday, she was enjoying some tostones with a friend.

“It’s a good way to understand the culture,” she said. “Everyone’s brought together by food.”

Jerry Gillman from Minnesota was visiting the campus.

“Food is what keeps us alive,” he said as he grabbed his take-out order.

The Root of the Conflict

If the whole idea sounds too academic, consider the creator.

Rubin is an associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University. He also has a master of fine arts degree from the California College of the Arts.

He likes using public places as art projects.

He founded the Independent School of Art in San Francisco and set up the Museum of Modern Failure in Pittsburgh for a semester in 2007.

When it came to world politics, Rubin said he wanted to engage Americans on a deeper level – through food – which he feels opens the door to informal dialogue.

“I think we’re often embarrassed to ask the dumb questions,” he said. “It’s (about) dislocating your expectations of what is local and what is foreign.”

Rubin runs Conflict Kitchen with his business partner, Dawn Weleski, and his culinary director, Robert Sayre. They have a total of 12 employees, four of which are working at any given time.

The Next Course

In October, the Conflict Kitchen plans to switch menus again. This time, it’ll offer cuisine from North and South Korea.

Rubin said he and his team just returned from a week-long trip to South Korea, where they researched the local cuisine.

Of course, given the current conflict with Syria, how long before customers see food from that country on the menu?

“The challenge for us is to turn over very quickly,” Rubin said, adding that he’s already planning to invite scholars and offer informal discussions about Syria every Thursday during lunch.

For this restaurant owner, he hopes customers think about more then just what to order off the menu.

“I feel like people are wrestling with Syria,” Rubin said. “And I’d like to people to wrestle about other relationships — like Cuba.”

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