PITTSBURGH — When Nigerian chef Tunde Wey brings people together over a beautiful meal to talk about some of the ugliest problems facing our country — racism, sexism, police brutality — he can’t help but notice one recurring theme. After the people of color in the room have voiced their frustrations, fears and sorrows, someone — usually a white ally — would ask, “So what’s the solution?”
“White folks or privileged folks are quick to try to find a solution, or ask for a solution, as opposed to sitting in the discomfort,” said Wey. “How do you answer what the solution is to racism or systemic injustices?”
Wey is traveling across the country in service of a provocative dinner series he calls Blackness in America. Over his meals, he and guest speakers moderate an exasperated and mournful conversation about what it’s like to be a person of color in a year in which 152 black people have been shot and killed by police so far, and poverty rates for African Americans are more than twice as high as for white people.
There is catharsis among the black guests at the dinner, and understanding among the others. But there is no solution, other than for the guests to sit there with their plates of jollof rice and pepper soup, and stew in their discomfort.
Wey’s dinners are not exactly fun, as he warns at the outset: “This conversation is supposed to be impolite,” he said at a recent dinner in Pittsburgh. “It’s supposed to be uncomfortable.” If guests are having a good time, they’re missing the point.
No one would be so naive as to say that sitting down at a table over a nice meal is the answer to some of the country’s most pervasive social justice problems. But for Wey, the dinners serve a specific purpose: Creating a space for black discourse.
“What that means is we’re prioritizing the perspectives of black people,” Wey said. The diners predominantly are black, and the conversation is about all kinds of black experiences: black feminism, LGBT blackness, black hair, black education, black politics and — for this particular dinner, held the week after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police and five Dallas police officers were killed by a lone gunman — policing and blackness.
The conversations serve as an emotional release. When he brings people together over dinner to vent, “I can feel the collective exhale from the folks in the room,” said Wey. “I’m reassured — yeah, this . . . is necessary.”
It’s necessary for Wey, too. The dinners are a way for him to grapple with his experience as an African immigrant, forced to confront America’s racial realities when he came here at 16.
When he was growing up in Lagos, Nigeria — he is Yoruba — “the doctors were black. The pilots were black. The president was black. Everybody was black. There is no part of me that attaches my social status or economic condition to the color of my skin. None,” he said. “It’s a privileged emotional reality that I live.”
One of four children born to a pair of middle-class business owners, Wey, 32, came to the United States for school and settled in Michigan with relatives. (His parents remained in Lagos.) He went to community college intending to become a doctor, but he rarely went to class. He tried studying Chinese, then running a short-lived market that “started failing the day before it opened.” He left college and became a partner in Revolver, a Detroit restaurant that hosted a rotating array of chefs, serving the kinds of meals that check off every buzzword in our contemporary dining lexicon: communal tables, a “modern take on local ingredients,” rustic-industrial decor. It left Wey searching for meaning.
“There was some sort of obscenity to the whole thing, this foodie movement,” he said. “You eat at one of these new restaurants with small plates, and the food tastes good, but it’s not saying anything. What it’s saying is just, ‘Look at me.’ It’s self-referential. That’s where the obscenity comes from: when you can say nothing, surrounded by so much to say.”
He decided to become a chef. He has no formal training but cooks recipes from his family that have been part of West African cuisine for ages. (The concept of “Nigerian food” is a colonial construct, he is quick to point out, because the country encompasses many ethnic groups, and its borders were determined by British rule.) The motto on his website: “Nigeria. Independent since 1960. Making dope food since forever.”
In 2014, he set off on a tour of America by Greyhound bus, cooking his country’s food at pop-ups in major cities. It was during that trip that Wey was detained by immigration authorities in Texas. His visa was contingent upon his enrollment in school, but it had lapsed in 2006 because he had dropped out. He was sent to an immigration detention center for 20 days, and he lost 12 pounds before getting bailed out by family. He is scheduled to meet with an immigration judge next year. In the meantime, he has applied to normalize his status.
After his tour ended, Wey opened a Nigerian food stall in New Orleans’s St. Roch Market. Running it solo made him a better cook, but the restaurant posted a loss of $13,000 before closing one year ago. Six months later, Wey went on tour again — this time, with a new mission.
“I wanted to move from this implicit commentary to more explicit commentary to say, ‘Hey, what’s up with black people in America? What’s up with women in America? What’s up with America?’ ” he said. “And so that’s why I started, because I felt like people and food weren’t saying anything at all. . . . In the Black Lives Matter era, you can’t not say something. It’s ridiculous.”
Wey is a person you can count on to say something. That’s what he did after an Eater article questioned whether the Charleston, S.C., food scene was owning up to its appropriation from Gullahs, the descendants of West African slaves. African American food historian Michael Twitty was attacked on social media for his comments about white chefs projecting ownership onto a food culture that is not entirely theirs.
Although he is not as well-known, Wey spoke up for Twitty. And he did so in a bold way: When noted white Southern food writer John T. Edge struck up a dialogue with Wey and offered to let him co-write one of his columns in the Oxford American, Wey called out what he saw as Edge’s complicity in a culinary scene that marginalizes black voices. The resulting column, in which Wey asked Edge to give up his job as a type of restitution for celebrating “the appropriation of black Southern food,” is a deeply squirmy, uncomfortable read.
“That meant a lot to me, for someone from a different part of the black world to look at my story and say, ‘This is my cousin, and I’m down with what he had to say,’ ” said Twitty. “It’s very culturally powerful that all these chefs I know are declaring culinary solidarity with African Americans and with the idea that our food is part of a family tree.”
Twitty, who has hosted dinners on former plantations, sees parallels between his and Wey’s work.
“People like Tunde and I, we have no choice,” he said. “To be engaged in what I call ‘culinary justice’ ” is inextricable from the experience of being a black chef in America. “We feel compelled to bring this issue up.”
And even though Edge did not act on Wey’s suggestion, he found a friend in him, too.
“I see him offering a challenge to people who gather for that dinner series in the same way he offered a challenge to me,” said Edge. “America is ready for that.”
After the tone of this year’s political discourse, is it really? Nevertheless, there’s something powerful about the idea of gathering around a table to break bread and hash out our differences, as “Kumbaya” as it sounds.
“It is no accident that Dr. King used the term ‘the table of brotherhood,’ ” said Twitty.
Wey’s table can be adversarial, said Edge.
“Meals shouldn’t always be about comfort,” he said. “Instead of arguing for the welcome table resolution, where we all gather at the table and find common purpose, Tunde is suggesting that it’s okay if we don’t find common purpose. The table can be a place where we talk about difference.”
In Pittsburgh, Wey and his guests, mostly black, talked about Philando Castile. They talked about the fact that Micah Xavier Johnson, the killer of the Dallas cops, was killed by a robot. They talked about Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-S.C.) revelation that he had been pulled over by police seven times in one year. One woman talked about how, when she walked down the street, other women would switch their bags to their other shoulder, away from her, “even though I have a cuter bag than them.”
The one thing they didn’t talk about was the food. Served buffet-style, it barely even merited an introduction from Wey, even though he had spent the past two days cooking it. (“The food tastes better if it sits.”)
Earlier that day in the kitchen, as he was frying plantains and stirring his jollof rice, he lamented the fact that he needed to provide a menu for the $65 dinner at all.
“I just want to cook and see what happens that day,” he said.
His casual indifference might be a front. Later, he confessed that “even though I act nonchalant, I want my food to be the best.” (“I think he’s a really good cook,” said Edge.)
Wey doesn’t make money on the dinners but said he does them because he believes the publicity and networking contacts will eventually bring him more paid work. He is in the process of pitching a documentary-style show about his dinners and hopes to one day open his own restaurant in either New Orleans or Detroit. He wants it to be “a place where food and commentary can coexist.” Until then, he continues to tour: Next, Louisville, and he plans to schedule a Washington dinner this winter.
Among the dishes on Wey’s menu were dodo and ayamase, or fried plantains with green peppers and locust bean sauce; okra in a seafood broth; chicken wings with a red pepper-tomato sauce; jollof rice, stewed in a tomato sauce; and puff-puff, which he explained were akin to Nigerian doughnuts, for dessert.
Guests who had never eaten Nigerian food before could be forgiven for mixing up some of the dishes, which were unlabeled. Later in the conversation, Wey told the group that that was intentional: “We’re eating the food wrong. You guys don’t know what this food is, you don’t know what goes with what,” he said. “That’s purposeful, because what I’m trying to do is detach us from our reference points.”
Besides, there were more important things to talk about.
“There’s so many disparate parts of culture that should be in dialogue,” said Wey. “Food should be talking to art, food should be talking to music, food should be talking about social issues. The last thing food should be talking about, when it checks off all those boxes, is itself.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said that Tunde Wey’s friends bailed him out of immigration detention. His family bailed him out.