PITTSBURGH — The food stand’s glass window slid open at exactly 11 a.m. Standing in the cold were four customers — and seven news photographers.
Everyone in the plaza knew what the hubbub was about: A tiny restaurant called Conflict Kitchen had inserted itself into the heated conversation about a conflict nearly 6,000 miles away.
The name of the restaurant comes from its mission to serve food only “from countries with which the United States is in conflict.”
The point, according to directors Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, is to expose Pittsburgh palates to something new while promoting an understanding of other cultures. In the four years since it opened, the shop has transformed itself every few months to feature food from Afghanistan, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela, dishing up lamb kebabs, kimchi and ceviche for 200 to 300 customers each day.
In September, Conflict Kitchen announced it would serve Palestinian food and celebrate Palestinian culture. This choice — a chance to sell familiar dishes such as hummus and falafel with the lesser known, such as rumaniyya, maftoul and namoura — turned into more than just a menu change.
By October, there was a public outcry. By November, the food stand that isn’t big enough to have outdoor seating had stirred up a controversy big enough to attract death threats.
“What can I get’cha?” the server behind the window asked.
The first customer ordered a variation of falafel. The cameras clicked.
Rubin and Weleski watched from a table in the plaza where their restaurant is located, just across the street from the University of Pittsburgh campus. Wednesday was the first morning that Conflict Kitchen was open after it shut down for four days while police investigated the death threats.
Word spread quickly online and around Pittsburgh when the restaurant announced the reason for its closure. A student group organized a rally in the plaza, and supporters covered the exterior of the stand in messages written on sticky notes and legal pads. Notes were still stuck to the glass with blue masking tape Wednesday as the lunch rush lined up.
Rubin, Weleski and their culinary director, Robert Sayre, concede they knew that choosing Palestinian culture as a focus was going to be more sensitive than their previous selections.
Whenever they feature a country, they travel to the region of interest and spend time cooking with and learning from locals. (For North Korea, they found North Korean defectors in South Korea, Los Angeles and Virginia.) In this iteration, Rubin and Sayre spent eight days in the West Bank and parts of Israel.
A crucial — and later controversial — part of their travels involves asking people they meet about their culture, daily life and politics. Those interviews are recorded, translated and printed in brochure-like papers and wrappers served with the food back in Pittsburgh.
The first sign of controversy over the Palestinian messages occurred Sept. 30 after the restaurant held the first of many events planned to discuss Palestinian culture. The lunch-hour event was described as one-sided, and a spokesman at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh criticized the restaurant, saying that the Palestinian territories are not “in conflict” with the United States.
Tensions escalated in October, when the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith International publicly expressed “deep concern” to the Heinz Endowments, a financial backer of Conflict Kitchen. The Heinz Endowments, one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the country, is chaired by Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
The president of the Heinz Endowments was critical of Conflict Kitchen’s approach, saying the food wrappers quoted “anti-Israel sentiments.” In response, the restaurant said that calling the statements on the wrappers “anti-Israel” is a mischaracterization.
All of the back and forth was, by some measure, still very much in the vein of what Conflict Kitchen aims to do — promote dialogue. Rubin and Weleski, both artists, previously worked together on a project called the Waffle Shop, serving batter cakes on Friday and Saturday nights from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. They set up a talk-show studio in the restaurant and live-streamed conversations between the sometimes-
intoxicated customers about, as Rubin puts it, “literally everything.”
To him, the fact that Conflict Kitchen’s Palestinian menu had launched a debate, even a deeply critical debate, was still achieving the restaurant’s goal of getting people talking.
That was, until Sayre was sorting through the mail Nov. 7. Between an advertisement for Foursquare and a produce invoice was an envelope containing the death threats.
On Wednesday, Rubin and Weleski were explaining to reporters that they could not reveal information about the threats because of an ongoing police investigation. But business was ongoing, too.
Outside the stand, Omar Abuhejleh, a Pittsburgh resident of Palestinian descent, expressed some optimism — for the food stand’s hummus sales and for the part of the world that inspired its menu.
“The idea that these two communities can’t get along is a crazy idea,” he said.
By the end of the day, customers were still lining up in front of the glass window, still ordering falafel.
Customer Clint Benjamin, 37, took his plastic “Thank you thank you thank you” bag from the pickup window when his name was called.
“This was all some heavy-duty nonsense,” he said. “After this, it will be back to business as usual.”