full interview with Jon Rubin

‘What we’re not is symbolic’: An Interview with Conflict Kitchen’s Co-Director Jon Rubin

[This interview has been edited for clarity and space.]

Gabrielle Rajerison: In an NPR piece about Conflict Kitchen, Dawn [Weleski, Conflict Kitchen’s other Co-Director] mentioned trying to strike a balance between serving food that’s inherently “diverse” within a Pittsburgh culinary context and serving “an everyman’s food, a food that you would find on the streets of Tehran.” I’m interested in whether there’s ever been a conflict between these two desires–between the legibility of an “everyman food” in, say, Iran versus one in Pittsburgh?

Jon Rubin: I don’t know if “legibility” is the criteria but the fact that it’s sort of staple sets of food from the country we’re focusing on. We’re not presenting high cuisine or incredibly complex recipes. They’re things that are either cooked weekly in a home or used by a street vender. So there’s nothing that’s not totally legible but they’re definitely ingredients and tastes they’ve never had before. It could be specific ingredients or combinations. Right now we have an Iranian sherbet—there’s sweet mint and vinegar in it. And most people have never had vinegar in a drink before. So it takes them to a different place. But I don’t think it’s totally illegible for their palettes. The mint is kind of like a fresco. For some people it’s very foreign, for others less so. And we have all sorts of eaters. Everything from exploratory types to those asking “How close is this to a hamburger?”

GR: Yeah, one of my favorite things is noticing the people preparing to order and spotting differences between the regulars, who tend to be more confident, and the customers, who tend to be more cautious. Have you ever seen someone just get stumped?

JR: People get stumped at our menus sometimes. Partially it’s because they’ll have the phonetic complexity, or Spanish. We always use a basic description of what’s in the dish. But the staff can always talk about what’s in the food. We don’t want people to open it up and think they have the wrong dish. What we’ve noticed is that when the menus go, people start off with what they’re most familiar to, then as time goes on they veer further off. But then, frankly, when people eat here one or two times, you can see them moving across the menu and exploring other things. And I think that’s the benefit of being a cheap take-out joint. We’re not a restaurant where you only go once a month or once a year. You get more adventurous by just frequenting the place several times. To us, what’s important is to be that kind of daily street takeout joint that’s cost-effective and very easy access for people. So, economically easy. You know, you don’t have to sit down to have table service. It’d be a little foreboding if we were a takeout restaurant. So that’s obviously—maybe not obviously—so important to us.

GR: I’m actually teaching Conflict Kitchen in my Seminar in Composition course this term. And something that’s been really interesting to discuss with students is the way that food–with all of its cultural, sociological, political dimensions–isn’t just being used here as a metaphor for transnational connection. It feels obvious to emphasize but Conflict Kitchen IS a restaurant. Pittsburgh denizens support and contribute to the project by paying for the food, which means they have to like it; it has to taste good. (I recall in a previous interview, you said that “95% of [your] annual revenue is purely from the public via food sales.”) So I’m really curious about the actual meal-selecting, recipe-perfecting, food-preparing aspect, which seems both “big picture” and “day-to-day.”

JR: I can’t speak totally to this—we have our chef at the restaurant, Robert Sayre. To answer your question about students studying what we’re doing, in terms of art. What we’re not is symbolic, or entirely symbolic. A lot of art students—and I teach art—are invested in the world of represented and symbology. “This represents that.” But we are the thing. We’re both the thing and the thing we’re referring to. But with what, there’s always translation and there’s always mistranslation or misinformation. We travel in the country we’re working with. The nuances to the recipes work in several ways.

For example, we don’t include a particular pomegranate in our Iranian soup because the price point would be too high. But the flavor is accurate. The ingredients are gonna be different. When we focused on Palestine, we split our menu between street food and home food. Because there are dishes Palestinians only really cook at home. Your street food would be closer to your falafel. It also depends on location. The West Bank has so much more fish in their diet because of access. That’s a political condition that affects culinary reality and diet. In Gaza, they have more things. The food is spicier in Gaza and less spicy in the West Bank. We worked with a woman who worked in the Gaza kitchen and helped us with the recipes. There are so many variations and nuances. “Authenticity” when it’s put into a recipe and then interpreted is already deconstructed. For example, when you copy someone else’s recipe, it’s both a cookie and a copy. That’s a nice metaphor for what we do. Food is a really interesting mechanism for cultural anthropology. It’s the code we all understand. It’s open source. It’s the most original kind of open source: sharing cultural information.

GR: Do you find it easier to talk about Conflict Kitchen with artists, with “lay people,” with foodies, with activists, or…?

JR: I have a harder time with the food people because I’m not a foodie. It’s a little lost on me. I spend the least amount of time talking to art people. People are interested in it in a culinary way, political, etc. A lot of discussion is actually about education. How it functions as a kind of pedagogical project. One of the things I like about the project is it does have a foot in many different camps. Many people can approach it from many different interests. For me, that helps keep the project in the public consciousness. If it were a strictly political work, it would’ve run its course in a certain way. Maybe if it were a restaurant it’d be fine, actually. Personally, I’m somewhat comfortable with different realms. I’m happy to talk about it with anyone who’s interested in it.

GR: Since you mentioned teaching—as preparation for their final paper, I gave my students a mini-lecture about crisis, capitalism, the perils of apocalyptic thinking, and the urgency of imagining alternative ways of being and knowing. When contextualizing Conflict Kitchen within the other art projects we were discussing–art-pieces which take on this project of thinking a way out of crisis–I characterized Conflict Kitchen as one of the more optimistic projects on the table. That, through different kinds of literacies–reading-as-literacy, obviously, as with the food wrappers, but also listening-as-literacy, eating-as-literacy–we’re able to acknowledge (to finally see) both the ways those of us living in the U.S. are always in relation to people living in other countries as well as the alternative ways those relations might play out.

So my question, first, in whether my assessment of Conflict Kitchen as optimistic is correct; and, second, as to what kind of long-term future you might imagine for the project. It feels like it could go on forever, given the U.S.’s present and historical choices within the international community, but it also feels like, in an ideal future, it wouldn’t have to exist anymore. Is this just completely naive/unimaginable? Does it ever come up for you behind the scenes, whether seriously or not? Are you finding that the list of places we’re in conflict with keeps getting longer, is slowly shrinking, or has mainly stayed the same? I’m thinking specifically of our changing relations with Cuba here, and wondering when a conflict “ends”?

JR: I can’t quite imagine [the U.S. no longer being in conflict] either. A lot of people have been talking about that [Cuba] actually in the restaurant. We re-opened the Cuba menu just as diplomatic relations were changing. It’s good that people are thinking about it. When we did it two years before, people loved the Cuban food but weren’t really thinking of it in conflict. We thought it’d be good to circle back and present what we heard from Cuba. So yeah it’s a conflict and it’s shifted but Obama’s recent trip to Cuba showed lots of protests, lots of human rights violations. Some Cubans think it’ll hold the door open for an oppressive government. 90% think Cubans want the embargo lifted. Then there are Cubans in the U.S. It’s an interesting question about diaspora Cubans.

We’ve worked on Iran four times now but it keeps coming up. The nuclear negotiations bring it into the public consciousness at a circus level. It’s not an entirely culturally rich appreciation for Iran. We felt what we could unpack a bit of the human side of that. Outside the restaurant, there’s a lot of stuff we’re doing. Just tonight we had a film screening. The film screened was by an Iranian diaspora director. In some ways, the restaurant is kind of the tip of the iceberg of our initiative. Some initiatives are straight educational in public schools, kind of performative, trying different angles to approach storytelling.

Whether that’s optimistic… Like you said, it starts with a pretty deep criticism of U.S. foreign policy and the combination of foreign policy and the homeland pitch that’s made. So, what we’re told and what happened. We’re watching the ramifications of a lot of that play off vast cultural ignorance. You can make a strong case to the American public and now we have ISIS. Just a lack of thinking about people and culture and life and histories. So, I think the optimism—if there is any—is certainly not toward our own country. And I can’t say I’m getting any more optimistic about our own country and its involvement overseas and its capacity to be transparent. I think the machine—the PR machine—that’s placed on all of our actions permeates all of our society. It’s kind of the malaise we’re put in. Simplifying things to a good/bad polarity to the lack of a real critical press. So, anyway, there’s that, which I’m not any more optimistic about. For those of us involved in the project, it’s the most productive way to deal with our frustration. It’s the best way for us, in our own small town, our own footprint in the city, to make a crack at empathy or a little more complexity. And in that way it’s better than just complaining. So perhaps that’s shit or just cathartic. It’s so hard to measure whether we’ve had any impact at all. But I’m talking to you, and you’re teaching students about what we’re doing, and that’s inspiring to me. I think a lot of Conflict Kitchen is residual. Things we do that others can do because we did something.

GR: I am, as you know, in Terry’s class. We were recently visited by an outside scholar and discussed with him the crisis of this contemporary moment. One of the things he stressed was that, if we’re to re-imagine a different future, we can’t rely on individual consumer choices; that there must ultimately be governmental buy-in and a systemic restructuring. I’m of two minds with this issue. I’m suspicious of whether or not the state–however defined–will ever be able to put the needs of its citizens and its global community members over its own interests but I also recognize that that very divestment from violence, from dehumanization, IS the end goal, and that it can’t just happen interpersonally. The guest speaker also said that he thinks activists and social movements are the only thing right now that can move politics in a new direction. Do you see Conflict Kitchen falling into or participating within this tension between the individual, the state, and social movements? If so, where? If not, why not?

JR: We definitely don’t function as an NGO or even a lobbying group or, you know, a conventional activist group. I think there’s small elements of what we do that overlap with all of those things but we don’t strongly fall within any of them. Part of the question for what we’re doing is, “Are we creating change in any way?” And I think there is a much larger field I which people are trying to create real structural changes from everything from labor issues to issues of race to issues of public policy, etc. And I think they’re all great; I applaud all those efforts. I think one way we fit into art is we’re still trying to create a sense of connection and wonder in the world. That sense that we’re part of something large. Which maybe—I can only speak for myself—I see as part of my art practice, which is just to create stories in the world that are true but also have elements of fiction and pulling them into a world you might not permanently inhabit. I think that’s valuable in society, period. Beside its economic value or its measurable political value.

I mean, just today I was just reading that Donald Trump—seconded by Ted Cruz—raised the idea that we don’t need the Library of Congress. We’re wasting money on that. We don’t need these old archives. We could sell it off to China, make a whole bunch of money. Obviously Trump’s not our whole population but that general thinking that politics is practical and art is impractical. Art is an embrace of the irrational. And I think the capacity to embrace what’s irrational is the capacity to embrace things that defy hierarchies, things that defy polarities, and ways of seeing that embrace ambiguity. They’re really necessary, I think, for the larger enlightenment for the society. The larger ramifications of that, writ large, I’m not sure, if that’s what I’m doing, or Conflict Kitchen is doing. But you see the emphasis toward STEM, science, math. It’s this hyper-rational. I think it’s easy as an academic to talk about the philosophy—I understand people need jobs—but it’s a culture where, if we did think philosophically, did think ethically, we could reimagine what our economic possibility could be. It’d redistribute how issues of base economic equality are addressed and that all tumbles forth from seeing the world—I think—from a somewhat artistic perspective. When I say “artistic,” I think of it as being critical in essence. It doesn’t have to be negatively critical. It’s just challenging convention; challenging ways of doing things and trying to find connections simultaneously. So there are conversations CC gets thrown into about efficiency and agents of change that other kinds of art don’t get thrown into. And I’m kind of a romantic in that I still think there’s a space for the deeply uncanny to be in public life. To deeply contemplate why we’re here or what we should be doing while we’re here. I think that’s powerful but deeply uncomfortable for other folk.

There is a kind of movement in social practice art and I think social change can happen on a lot of different levels but sometimes I think art isn’t best suited for the kind of political change you might see in a culture but I think it’s better suited for disrupting rational thought or awakening people to alternative methods for seeing the world. These sound broad and old-fashioned but are terms that have been long held in modern art and are now being brought into a social, public space. That being said there are people that want prison reform to come out of it; they want police reform to come out of it. I’m behind it but I find that most of them are ineffectual and often times symbolic. So there’s a conundrum in that space.

As for what the future of Conflict Kitchen entails, we actually just skate around for a long time. We’re going on our 6th year. Most projects of this nature go on for a month, maybe a year. The fact that we’re there every day, we’re in people’s lives, you can stumble upon us. We’re not very different from FedEx or a Mom & Pop store. And that’s interesting to me—it existing very directly in the stream of daily life. It provides a service; it fulfills a need. You need to feed yourself. I’d love for more art projects to sit in that space and simultaneously disrupt that space. That’s what we try to do. I think the problem will come when we stop disrupting that space. Then it might be time to radically change or pack it up. We’re looking 3 years forward. Expanding the education. Looking at Indigenous nations. Thinking about what we know about ourselves and our relationship to American Indians and how that’s shaped what we do outside of our borders. Our hope is that by thinking about Indigenous nations will create sympathy with what’s happening with Palestinians and how colonialism is playing out in places like Afghanistan. We’ll see. It’ll be an experiment and we’ll see how it works. We’re big on not having our identity creep too far. Also trying to just run the thing on a day-to-day basis, with all its logistics and challenges.

GR: Given how notoriously tricky restaurants are as a business, were you surprised by the enthusiastic reaction you received from the community or how quickly you became part of the city’s fabric? Were you surprised by the national–and, eventually, international–attention? And here I don’t just mean the fact that Conflict Kitchen got attention at all, but also the quality (positive, negative, and otherwise) of that attention?

JR: I think it was slow to develop that way but, to be honest, when we first came up with the idea it was a kind of provocation against the food scene here. It was really a criticism of our food culture and the lack of diversity in our city. We thought we’d go out of business immediately. We approached the concept the typical way an artist would: by challenging and critically presenting an alternative to the normal way of doing something. We definitely didn’t think it’d be an economic formula for success. It was a success in that it garnered a lot of attention quickly when we were in East Liberty. It garnered a lot of success because we’re a little city. So, within a week, the AP wrote about us. A local writer said, “I think the national AP would be into this.” It went bonkers; it went all over the world. And that’s kind of how it’s been; we still get weekly requests from news outlets, projecting onto us what they imagine us to be.

We weren’t making a lot of money. East Liberty wasn’t built up the way it is now. The reason we moved was I wanted Conflict Kitchen to be in a place where people had to see it; to be seduced to come in. The first thing we did was hire our chef. We went from a staff of four people to a staff of 12 people within a month. It was a big learning curve. Economically, we’re doing okay but we don’t make much profit. Any excess funds goes into changing the look of the restaurant or the material we give away or the events we do. So a lot of money we divert into what would be traditional “non-profit” elements of the enterprise. But yes we’re still afloat. But it’s definitely a really difficult thing to run a business, to run a restaurant. I’ve worked in restaurants 12 years as a waiter; Dawn’s worked in restaurants. We all know it from the backside, we didn’t know how to run it, but we do now. That’s the really difficult, often invisible element of this sort of project. The staff we have—ideally, they’re interested in culture and politics and the ability to make the food. Our staff just unionized about a year ago, which we’re totally supportive of, but it’s a whole new set of challenges. As an art project, a political project, an education project—having a business at its core is a double-edged sword. So when we had the criticism about Palestine, we had more visitors. We had a big funder who pulled out all future support of us but our customers really saved us. Especially with Palestine, so many economic horses lined up to silence any Palestinian voice.

GR: I came to Pittsburgh around the time of the Palestine controversy. I remember being like, “What’s going on? What is this?” but also being moved by the wave of the support, especially from so many young, college-aged students.

JR: What’s interesting about that time—Pittsburgh’s an older city, by and large—is that we do actually have a lot of older supporters. We did this Muslim solidarity event and it was predominantly people over 40, over 300 of them. It was amazing to see that student support—support from the young people in the city—who felt the project represented some part of their values as well and saw the absurdity of some of what you were saying.

The best part of that bad situation was that it made explicit a hidden force of American life: that there are large forces at play that construct a narrative about Israel that deny the voices of Palestinian life. That’s a really disturbing element. That element of narrative control isn’t specific to Israel. We do it to Iran and Egypt. We’ve gotten over that we have the economic and education ties to China—which would’ve been crazy years ago—but can’t imagine a similar relationship with Iran, which would be so far outside the American economic system. It was productive. I think the fact that we’d been around for four years made it easier to do that. If we’d run it the first year, we would’ve been pummeled by the media and the conservative elements of the Jewish community. We wouldn’t have been able to economically withstand it or the narratives. That’s the benefit of being around for so long. We build a community of people who’re invested in the project. And you can see that. You have a restaurant you like or an artwork that represents your values.

We still have work to do and it could be better by far but we’ve fallen into some relationships we’ve made. When things have gotten difficult. That being said, we’ve had schools pull out of working out of working with us, organizations—including the Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh. But we’re going to open it again, probably tick people off again, and we’ll lose supporter. But hopefully the ones who stick with us won’t just because we’re some cool thing. When I think of the material of the artwork, it is the set of relationships we built and are building, that we lose and that we gain. So it’s not a static work. It’s something that’s in constant flux. And hopefully we’re building the kind of history that has layers to it. It’d be nice if they kind of layered on top of each other so you see Iran, you see Palestine. You’re building a kind of breadth of interest. In the end, I think the best thing we must do is create a curiosity about the world. We’re not an academic institution; we’re not trying to create a well-rounded history of a place. We’re a story, not the story.