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What Are Conflict Cafes and Can They Actually Change the World?

How food can work as a diplomacy tool, from London to Syria to Iran.

Scenes from a Syrian restaurant in Lebanon.
Scenes from a Syrian restaurant in Lebanon.
Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

In an underground skate park housed beneath London's Waterloo station, there lies a pop-up restaurant. It's not a literal underground supper club or temporary home to a rogue chef in need of kitchen space. This is Conflict Café, a month-long pop-up restaurant that uses food as a vehicle for dialogue on conflict and peacebuilding.

Organized by London-based peacebuilding charity International Alert, each week of the pop-up brings a new chef and cuisine from the many regions in which the organization works. Conflict Café kicked off with Middle Eastern food to highlight the Syrian migrant crisis, then moved to Nepal to learn about the effects of the country's devastating earthquake and civil war. This week, diners will try Colombian cuisine and learn about its civil war, while next week they'll turn to the conflict between Turkey and Armenia, two neighbors at odds over a genocidal history.

Among chefs and food writers, it can be tempting to portray the power of food as something mythical.

How much can a pop-up dinner raise awareness of international conflict? Among chefs and food writers, it can be tempting to portray the power of food as something almost mythical. If two sides of a conflict could only just share a meal, there would be peace between them. If families would make time to eat together, children would grow up strong and happy. If the apathetic would just try some of this suffering country's food, they would be moved to care for its people. It's an enormous burden to place on food alone.

But there is a kind of power in food. Soft power. With the rise of celebrity chefs, food is increasingly becoming a tool of cultural diplomacy — to the point where, in 2012, the State Department created an American Chef Corps to assist in official diplomacy efforts. There's even a Travel Channel show starring former Top Chef contestant Michael Voltaggio cooking in conflict zones. Rather than asking whether an educational pop-up dinner is an effective way to raise awareness, perhaps it's more appropriate to ask how such a dinner can be effective. What is the best way to wield food as a tool for diplomacy?

Photo: Conflict Cafe, then known as Conflict Kitchen, during a 2014 event. Photo: Facebook

London's pop-up Conflict Cafe, then known as Conflict Kitchen, during a 2014 event. Photo: Facebook

What is Conflict Café?

There was something missing from International Alert’s peacebuilding work. For nearly 30 years, the London-based charity had been working to create the kinds of political and legal conditions that would allow peace to flourish in places of conflict. Among their initiatives across 25 countries, International Alert sponsors dialogue clubs and microfinance schemes in Rwanda and has created justice facilitation groups to serve as watchdogs in Nepal. What these peacebuilders were missing, says program development advisor Charlotte Onslow, was the softer side of their work.

International Alert also needed a way to engage the people who are especially difficult to involve in peacebuilding awareness: those in individualistic urban societies like London or New York, who are far removed from the realities of conflict. To achieve that, the charity needed an unintimidating gateway. Food could be that gateway. Through food, IA could bring people together in a room and engage them in conversation about food and, subsequently, the cultures behind it.

"There's something very human about food that goes back to the basics of what we are as people, as communities and families," Onslow says. "We all have memories of delicious dishes that our parents have cooked and somehow we can articulate conversations around those deep-seated memories."

"Our function is to bring cultures and viewpoints to our city that residents don’t often get."

Meanwhile, across the ocean, a small Pittsburgh restaurant called the Conflict Kitchen had been gaining fame for raising awareness about the countries with which the United States was engaged in conflict, serving food from Iran, North Korea, and Cuba, complemented by artistic performances and educational outreach programs. "Our function is to bring cultures and viewpoints to our city that [Pittsburgh residents] don't often get, and that can be considered uncomfortable for people to hear," says Conflict Kitchen co-creator Jon Rubin.

Inspired by that approach, International Alert's Conflict Café was born last year. Now in its second year, the Conflict Café is deliberate in its attempts to weave the histories of foreign conflicts — and peace building efforts to resolve them — into the fabric of a meal. In collaboration with chef network Grub Club, International Alert has enlisted a lineup of London-based chefs originally from each of the selected countries to prepare their traditional meals. Diners sit at communal tables adorned with multiple-choice questions meant to prompt discussion among strangers about the conflict of the night. Between courses, International Alert specialists offer histories of the dispute, and explain how governmental and non-governmental players are working towards resolution.

There's no call to action at the Conflict Café, Onslow says. There's no one encouraging diners to volunteer to house migrants or requests to sign any petitions. The Conflict Café is more about informing people. Though International Alert assumes its diners have a fairly high degree of familiarity with each country, that knowledge might only be based on a heritage trip to Israel or a hiking trip to Nepal. As such, International Alert staffers are on hand to answer diners' questions, and might even pass out the latest conflict reports for at-home reading.

It might not seem like much to ask, but Onslow points out that each night's group of 50 or so diners has already cleared two active hurdles: paying about $50 for the ticket and giving up their evening. "It's a way of showing solidarity behind a peace movement," Onslow says, "showing interest more than just that sort of clicktivism."

Lines forming for Conflict Kitchen's Palestinian menu. Photo: Facebook

In Pittsburgh, lines form for Conflict Kitchen's Palestinian menu. Photo: Facebook

The Theory of Cultural/Culinary Diplomacy

The theory behind culinary diplomacy initiatives like the Conflict Café is simple enough: Food is a common bond.It prompts memories and stories of childhood, family, ancestry, and migration. It's a point of pride, and a way for people to share a bit of themselves. Food is also identity; to better understand Philadelphia, try standing in line for a cheesesteak or a hoagie. Like music, food is a universal language.

"I do think literally the experience of consuming a meal together is one of the universal — perhaps the greatest universal — binding experience that we have," says Cynthia P. Schneider, former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands and professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University. Though this bond might not be enough to resolve a conflict single-handedly, Schneider argues that food should be taken more seriously as a solution. "Culture is in fact right at the heart of every major conflict in the world now," she says, arguing that when an extremist group tries to take over a country, it aims first to crush that country's identity. "If you want to control people, you take away their culture." So why shouldn't culture be at the heart of the solution to world conflicts?

"The experience of consuming a meal together is... perhaps the greatest universal binding experience that we have."

Johanna Mendelson-Forman, senior adviser at the Stimson Center, agrees, and argues that food has a role in more traditional diplomatic efforts, too. She points to a July story in the New Yorker about the nuclear deal negotiations between Iran and the U.S. For the first 20 months of the talks, the two sides ate separately. Then one day Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif invited Secretary of State John Kerry and his team to a lunch of Persian food. As one of Kerry's aides told the magazine, "It was a moment where it was clear — we knew it, sort of, without remarking on it — that these relationships had really developed over time."

Of course, the two sides went back to fighting before ultimately reaching a deal. But, Mendelson-Forman says, "That breaking of bread... That was culinary diplomacy. And it had, at some unconscious level, an ability to show that we share these human characteristics."

International Alert is trying to achieve that elsewhere in its programming. When the organization started leveraging soft power to support its peacebuilding efforts, it began with a program in the border towns of Armenia and Turkey, two countries at odds over whether Turkey committed genocide against Armenians in 1915. International Alert sent ethnographers to the kitchens of women on both sides of the border to learn about the similarities and differences between their cuisines.

The goal of the project is not to bring these women together for conversation. Rather, the plan is to expose the Armenians to Turkish cuisine and vice versa through public cooking demos and cookbooks. Perhaps the more that each side learns about the culture of the other, the more likely it is that progress could begin. As Onslow says, "You can leverage food for higher-level conversation." Cultural diplomacy is about playing the long game.

Reverse Cultural Diplomacy

That said, the idea of the Conflict Café is a little closer to what Mendelson-Forman describes as "reverse cultural diplomacy," which essentially calls upon those who are removed from conflict zones to seek out understanding of foreign cultures and histories. In her current role as scholar in residence at American University's School of International Service, Mendelson-Forman created a course titled "Conflict Cuisine: An Introduction to War and Peace around the Dinner Table."

Through the course, students learn about conflict by studying how war-related diaspora has led to waves of ethnic restaurants in the Washington, DC area: Vietnamese, Ethiopian, and now Afghan. "Food is a vehicle to convey what happens to people in conflict," Mendelson-Forman says. "I feel strongly that we can use food to teach people about other cultures."

And that is what seems to be happening in Pittsburgh. Set in a public plaza between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, Conflict Kitchen is popular among college students. Rubin, the owner, recalls one day when the father of a college student came in for lunch on the recommendation of all the kids in the dorm. They compared Conflict Kitchen to their own version of The Daily Show. Everything they knew about Venezuela came from the restaurant.

"Now that's not necessarily the best thing that everything they learned about Venezuela or Afghanistan comes from a local restaurant," Rubin says. "But it's a good thing that some information is being entered into their consciousness through a local eatery."

"That’s not necessarily the best thing that everything they learned about Venezuela or Afghanistan comes from a local restaurant... but it’s a good thing."

That reverse cultural diplomacy is exactly what Onslow means when she describes Conflict Café as a gateway to building awareness, especially among Westerners. When diners sit down at a communal table in London to eat Syrian food, they're learning about that country even if by accident. They might meet a Syrian chef and be able to put a face and a culinary history to what was previously unknown. They might learn the roots of the Syrian civil war. They might develop greater compassion for the migrants fleeing to Europe. They might vote differently when it comes to the immigration policies of their own country.

"All of these kinds of efforts, what they're about is humanizing people and places involved in conflict," Schneider says. "Because of the way the media works... you tend not to hear about the human side of these countries. That's the only way you can possibly explain the world's absolutely inhumane non-response to the Syrian crisis. So anything that humanizes the people of the country is going to be helpful."

But, of course, the Conflict Café isn't about creating a response to the Syrian crisis or any of the other global disputes it highlights. As Onslow puts it, the Conflict Café is about creating demand for peace, which starts by creating awareness of what peacebuilding even means. Reverse cultural diplomacy is a long game, too.

A take-out box at Conflict Kitchen. Photo: Facebook

A take-out box at Conflict Kitchen. Photo: Facebook

What does successful culinary diplomacy look like?

The long game is exactly the one that International Alert is intent on playing. "[Conflict Café] was always seen as a starting point for us," Onslow says. "We would be unwise to see this as a panacea for peacebuilding... but raising awareness of peacebuilding creates demand from citizens to their government to say, 'Actually, peacebuilding is important and we need to play a role in supporting communities in solving their conflicts.'" Onslow notes: "I don't think that's going to happen from a few events in one year, but we see it as a fairly longer term set of events."

That's essentially the attitude at Conflict Kitchen. In the short term, Conflict Kitchen defines success as both maintaining a sustainable restaurant as well as knowing their contribution means something to the local community. According to Rubin, a recent survey of 800 Pittsburgh residents found that 80 percent of respondents liked the reading material that Conflict Kitchen provides on its food wrappers, while another 80 percent valued Conflict Kitchen's mission most of all.

While a pop-up dinner has its obvious limitations in terms of power, it can in fact have an immediate effect.

But long-term success for Conflict Kitchen goes beyond being valued. Rubin says that he and co-creator Dawn Weleski reject multiple requests each week to open restaurants in other cities. That's because now, after five years in the community, Conflict Kitchen has built relationships with its clientele. Even though each new menu might only be scratching the surface of another country's culture, Rubin says he hopes the sum of those scratches will eventually build a deeper knowledge base and curiosity in diners. "I think that's incredibly necessary in today's geopolitical environment," Rubin says. An informed citizenry is better positioned to demand policy change.

But can a pop-up dinner at an underground London skatepark have any immediate results on the diplomatic front? Schneider argues that while a pop-up dinner has its obvious limitations in terms of power, it can in fact have an immediate effect. "You're talking about people who are just going out for dinner. If they give a thought to Syria at all, you're already ahead," she says. The whole event changes (or creates) that person's perception of Syria.

"People live their own lives, they're busy," she says. "They're not going to take three hours to read everything about Syria. But if they go out for a really great meal and get a chance to hear someone from Syria and experience the more human side of the country, that can only be positive. They'll tell their friends about it and that's how change takes place."