Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Conflict Kitchen": Gastrodiplomacy in Action

This past weekend, I happened to be in Pittsburgh for a brief stop-over on a much longer roadtrip. We spent the morning in the University of Pittsburgh's fascinating Cathedral of Learning, where we toured some of the 25+ "Nationality Rooms" (which probably deserve a separate post of their own, but for the time, I'll just direct you to their virtual gallery - check it out!).

Yes, there was even an "Armenian Room". Pretty impressive, I should say...

Soon after, however, we were in need of a lunch. So, as we were strolling down the park in search of open eateries, we stumbled upon Cocina Del Conflicto, or Conflict Kitchen. Intrigued, we rushed to find out what it was all about, and surely enough, we discovered what must be the best gastrodiplomacy project ever to have existed!

The Conflict Kitchen was established in 2010 by a professor (!!) and his former student, who already co-owned a Waffle Shop. Apparently, the idea was born from an initial plan to open up a restaurant serving cuisine that was not available in Pittsburgh. Then, they decided to rotate the menu, offering street food from countries that the US is in conflict with. Iran was first, followed by Afghanistan, Venezuela, and now - Cuba.

After a short chat with the hostess, I remembered hearing about the project on NPR a while back. Its objective is to expose Americans to the food of a "hostile" nation they don't know much about and, thanks to tense political relations, probably have strong negative stereotypes of. What better way to bypass those negative preconceptions than great food? After all, gastrodiplomacy and cultural diplomacy are, arguably, some of the most effective forms of public diplomacy out there ("the way to a man's heart is through his stomach"!).

Source: NPR

Food as a tool of diplomacy has been a subject of many a conversation in the recent years, gaining increasing prominence in the US, as well as internationally. Terms such as "gastrodiplomacy" or "culinary diplomacy" are becoming increasingly common and familiar. Yet, what is so special and appealing about this particular project is its openness, accessibility, and - quite frankly - the fact that it was an independent, local operation, with no involvement by any government. Unlike the State Department's "culinary diplomacy" project, for example, which will inevitably be prohibitively expensive and involve a tiny portion of whatever public (that was clear, after just one look at the list of all the top chefs involved), the Conflict Kitchen provides a very affordable, simple, and yet delicious menu sampling some of the most traditional dishes from the culture it is featuring (the average cost of items is about $5-6). That, in the very heart of Pittsburgh. [Think: "old school", high-level diplomacy behind closed doors vs. new public diplomacy.]

More importantly, however, it is a participatory project -- the owners invite members of the diaspora and expats to contribute to the creation of the menu and work with them to develop the recipes (which, by the way, are available online). In short: food, by the people, for the people. Certainly makes for a great conversation-starter, as well as helping Americans question the stereotypes and attitudes they might hold of a foreign country. After all, food is a much better representative of a people and culture, than their oppressive government might be.

One more wonderful aspect of the project are its events aimed at raising awareness: whether it's an 'imagined speech' by Barack Obama addressing the Iranian people, or that by a Chavez impersonator, on stereotypes many held of him.

We asked Iranians all over the world to write part of a speech they would like U.S. President Barack Obama to deliver. These parts were compiled into a final speech which was delivered by a Obama look-alike in the plaza outside of Conflict Kitchen in several performances. A custom-printed publication of a longer version of the speech is available at our restaurant.

Gotta love that Chavez...!

This fall, the Conflict Kitchen plans to switch to North Korean food (...!!!... I know!!!). Apparently, they've begun their research already, and the preparations will involve at least another visit to South Korea. This might make it worthwhile to take another trip to Pittsburgh later this year.

Ox-tail stew over congri [left] and yuca con mojo with ensalada Cubana. Not my first intro to Cuban food, but definitely the most memorable :-)

In short, if you happen to be in Pittsburgh, make sure to stop by the Conflict Kitchen, sample their delicious food, and know that you're a part of one of the greatest public diplomacy initiatives out there! Who knows, perhaps some day we'll see chain of these across the Middle East and the Caucasus (and beyond)? Free business idea for enthusiasts out there...


  1. Lena -- Wonderful piece! Thank you. John

  2. Well, thank you :) Glad you liked it!

  3. Yes! I love that you are highlighting this project on diplomacy and dining! Conflict Kitchen was originally a Carnegie Mellon University project, correct? Please clarify the origin of the Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh. To the best of my knowledge, it spawned out of CMU's arts and culture departments. I don't think that your story clearly identifies the mastermind chefs/Ambassadors of food...Thanks!

  4. Conflict Kitchen did an interesting p2p program when they were serving Persian food. They had a a skype dialogue over dinner between Tehran and Pittsburgh, where both groups were eating the same food at the same time, and discussing the significance of the various ingredients and flavors.

    NK actually has some state-sponsored restaurants around the globe. There are some interesting articles and reports on them.

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