- Associated Press - Sunday, June 6, 2010

PITTSBURGH | The takeout restaurant with its bright blue storefront and large, sunny yellow lettering sits among a city block of plain white brick buildings. There’s no place to sit, and there’s only one item on the menu: a wrap sandwich from Iran called a kubideh.

In a few months, the menu will change to food from Afghanistan, then perhaps North Korea.

This is Conflict Kitchen, a takeout cafe designed and run by artists hoping to start conversations with customers about countries in conflict with the U.S.

“For us, it’s not about being experts in Afghanistan, North Korea or Venezuela. It’s a chance for the public to start thinking,” said Jon Rubin, 46, an assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University.

The colorful storefront is what attracts most customers. Some people order the sandwich and leave. But others ask questions about the unusual restaurant, which leads to conversations about Iran, ethnicity or other topics related to the country.

Mr. Rubin came up with the idea with artists John Pena, 28, and Dawn Weleski, 29. Conflict Kitchen evolved from a friendly competition with a neighborhood hot dog stand; the artists wanted to offer more than just food.

“The Conflict Kitchen is about possibilities,” Mr. Rubin said. “We see it as an experimental public artwork.”

The artists say most people only know about certain countries through what they read or hear in the news. So they decided to use food from different countries as a medium to get people thinking. They started with Iran, partly because of a small but vibrant group of Iranians in Pittsburgh that could be a good resource. A local agency gave them a $7,000 grant for the project.

“I think it’s about trying to have an open dialogue,” Miss Weleski said.

Nearly everything about Conflict Kitchen leads to a discussion.

What language is that on the restaurant’s sign? It’s Farsi.

Why do you only serve one thing? “We’re interested in a small amount of confusion. Just a small amount, I think, [and] people’s minds open up,” Mr. Rubin said.

Want to throw your sandwich wrapper away when you’re done? Don’t. The blue, yellow and green wrapper when opened up contains writings about topics including poetry, fashion and nuclear power in Iran. The stories are written in the first person, but the writers aren’t identified.

“Most Americans who I have encountered think that Iranians are ugly, aggressive, violent, terrorists, Islamists and uncivilized,” one person writes. “Iranians like Americans, but they hate American government. So far, what I have experienced suggests that Americans like Iranians, too, but they dislike the Islamic republic establishment.”

Conflict Kitchen sits next to the Waffle Shop, also founded by Mr. Rubin. The sit-down eatery is part restaurant and part university classroom, where besides eating waffles customers can participate in live streaming Web shows on any topic they like.

Both eateries are in the city’s East Liberty neighborhood, a community undergoing a revival with new housing, restaurants and big box stores. It’s one of the more diverse neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, a largely white city of about 320,000 people.

“These are places that don’t exist in the city, or in lots of cities,” Mr. Rubin said.

Mr. Rubin, Mr. Pena and Miss Weleski worked with an Iranian living in Pittsburgh to come up with the food. The wrap sandwich is served on a flatbread called barbari, with a grilled ground beef patty spiced with turmeric, cumin, cinnamon and other spices.

In the storefront’s small kitchen, which is shared with the Waffle Shop, three bistro tables covered in aluminum foil sit on a black and white checkerboard of linoleum floor tiles. Work-study students from Carnegie Mellon stand at the tables, rolling out the dough for the wraps and thinly slicing onions. Miss Weleski stands at one table, mixing the meat and spices by hand in a large stock pot, then forms the mixture into long patties. Then, in the ultimate East meets West, the meat and bread are grilled — separately — on George Forman grills.

They all take turns working at the storefront window, where the wraps sell for $5 each. The students say that’s their favorite part — talking to people who approach the window and getting the conversation going.

“We start it. We tell people what’s going on, and then it keeps going,” said Hilary Baribeau, 21, a Carnegie Mellon senior majoring in English and global studies.

Kim and David Kir, both 41, stood out front eating the sandwiches with their 3-year-old daughter, Stella, on a recent Saturday. The family lives in the neighborhood and has eaten different kinds of food before, but this was their first taste of Iranian food.

“If nothing else, it would make people aware,” Mrs. Kir said. “It’s not like this big, bad country. People live there and have their local food that they eat. … Obviously, it’s a little more than that. It humanizes it.”

Jennifer Thomas, 26, and her mom, Susan, drove an hour from St. Clairsville, Ohio, to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant in East Liberty and shop for unique food in the city’s iconic Strip District. As they walked the neighborhood, though, they happened upon Conflict Kitchen and bought two wraps to take home.

“It’s like we went to Iran today,” Jennifer Thomas said.

The restaurant plans to change to a new country every four months.



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