Discomfort Food: Chef Tunde Wey turns up the heat on racial inequities
“I was eager to be successful. I still am.”
When I heard chef Tunde Wey would be hosting dinners and food trucks in Ann Arbor and Detroit designed to get people talking about race in America, I sought more information.
The word that came up most was "provocative"; runner-up: "uncomfortable."
For late April and early May, Wey has brought his Saartj dining concept to Michigan, which is where the Nigerian chef came to study at age 16. This is also where he started to make his mark with (revolver), the pop-up restaurant in Hamtramck featuring a cast of rotating chefs.
The Saartj project calls attention to privilege. In one version of the project, white people were charged more than minorities for their food. In the Detroit version, diners fill out a questionnaire providing information about their race, education, and income mobility; the price of their dinner then increases according to their relative privilege.
The Detroit dinners take place April 29-May 5 at Hamtramck's Bank Suey community space and will feature the voices of Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Devita Davison of FoodLab. As a Witt Visiting Artist through U-M's Stamps School of Art and Design, Wey also held events in Ann Arbor, including a pair of private dinners -- one organized by the Community Action Network for staff and residents of three Ann Arbor housing communities -- and the other for town-and-gown community members to discuss equity in the region. He also created dining experiences using a food truck at U-M's Ginsberg Center on April 24-26 and at Argus Farm Stop April 26-27, and he gave a talk at the Ann Arbor District Library on April 20 (see video below).
I had the opportunity to talk with Wey about his time here, and another word that came up in my mind repeatedly during our talk was "generous"; runner-up: "contemplative."
Following our conversation below is my recap of an Ann Arbor dinner he hosted on April 23. I wondered whether the dinner itself would match the casual, laid-back vibe of the conversation I had had with him. I wondered what we diners would take "to go" after a shared meal.Q: My first question for you is what are the questions that you wish people were asking you about your work?
A: I think that, generally, people are asking me the questions that I think they should ask me.
Q: I hope that I'm not the one who's going to ask you like all the worst questions. You'll say, "Everyone was asking good questions until Ann Arbor …."
A: Until she showed up .…
Q: I want to ask you a question about language. In the light homework I did for this interview, I noticed you pay a lot of attention to it and you will offer edits to people when they're uncareful with language. Is that true? Are you encouraging us to think about our language and everything that comes with that, or am I projecting some nonsense onto you?
A: I want to adopt that projection because it sounds great. I think that sometimes it's a matter of semantics. Some things make sense in one context and in another context they don't. I am interested in conveying the idea and not necessarily just the words. An example would be this thing that keeps happening when folks say, “Coming to your dinners is supposed to be uncomfortable.” They've heard me say this before. Then I have to be more specific and sometimes they’ll see me evolving in my speaking and my communicating and I say in this instance that, yes, discomfort happens but discomfort isn't the goal. Discomfort is just part of the process. Like when you go to the gym, you're not going there to get your muscles to ache; you're going there to get a workout and it just happens that your muscles ache and that's just a part of the process. So that's an example of me just being a little more specific with what I'm trying to say.
Q: I know you did a similar thing in New Orleans, where you charge different prices for the meal depending on if you were black or white to make a point about wealth disparity. What's your take away from that about how the experience was perceived?
A: People were super cordial throughout the whole thing because I wasn't belligerent. I wasn't trying to shout anybody down or to argue. The idea was to get them to buy into the fact that we have a problem, which is racial wealth disparity, and then sort of have them say, have them state, how the problem came to be. And we've established the history of a problem -- [a customer] just acknowledged this problem -- verbally, so can [the customer] now acknowledge this problem by paying some money? In that kind of situation, I think it's fairly disarming. Nobody's been really mad or screaming but people have been shocked or surprised or left uncomfortably, but it was mostly cordial. A lot of people were caught by surprise and they had to put their money where their mouth had just recently been.
Q: Is food a language?
A: That's an interesting question. I'm not sure I know what that means … can you communicate with food?
Q: Yeah. Like can food explicitly be used to communicate?
A: I think that food can be used to signal shit. I don't know if it can explicitly be used to communicate stuff. I think it can only signal, but that's pretty powerful. Like the way we organize our restaurants: who is it greeting us, and who is it serving us, and what they’re wearing, and the space. There’s the way that we label certain kinds of produce. You know some of it is farm-to-table and organic and other produce is bargain or from an urban garden. It’s one thing when black people are farming and it’s a different thing when white people are farming. All of that stuff is a pretty strong signal. It becomes embedded in our psyches and we respond to it. Nonverbal signals are just as powerful as verbal ones.
Q: I was looking at the website for your current project and in the etiquette section it says, “We're the place that centers on perspectives and experiences of black people.” When I read that it occurred to me that I can't conceptualize what that would mean in a mixed space. So will you help me out with that? What does that look like?
A: Sometimes people want to say stuff like, “It’s class and not race.” They want to relitigate very fundamental premises. But these are premises that if we question them they’re basically invisibilizing people of color so that doesn't happen [at the dinners]. We are not going to indulge anybody's ignorance at the expense of black folks. That's mostly what it means.
Q: So what does the mix look like in these places? What do you expect to see at your pop-up that happens in Detroit?
A: I think maybe 50-50, or 60-40, black-white, so a little bit more black folks than white folks. It just depends. Sometimes it's more black folks than white folks; sometimes it's half and half.
Q: Inside of that, who are these people?
A: So they're mostly college-educated folks who have access to some privilege like a well-paying job. The age range is from anywhere from mid-20s to retirement, but it's mostly it's mostly between mid-20s and mid-40s.
Q: What's one thing you want people to know about your intentions for your time in Ann Arbor and Detroit?
A: I just want to learn as much as possible and then share what I've learned plus my perspective. The general theme that I keep coming back to is complicity.
We are all somehow, in some way -- some people to a greater degree than others -- complicit in the system that we are either trying to change or that we profess that we want to change. I want to try to make those conversations more nuanced. But I don't want them to be the excuse to be paralyzed, myself included, to not continue taking action from a more intellectually honest place.
Q: I am very interested in food; I'm also very interested in select topics about race in America. But these two things typically, for me, exist in different compartments, if you will, on my plate. So should people like me shake it up and let the juice from the meat touch the vegetables?
A: They are already touching the vegetables; you can't escape it, everywhere you go. I'm assuming you're black, right?
Q: You saw my name.
A: You move around spaces here in Ann Arbor where there are all white people. There are certain people serving a certain type of food, sort of miming a certain kind of behavior. All those signals are apparent if everybody in the front of the house is in a position of authority or prestige is white, and the people with the least authority or the least status is black. How isn't that a question of race and class? Really, you can't avoid it.
Q: That's interesting because I absolutely think about that, but don’t consider that thinking about food. I notice it if I am in the company of a white person who I notice is not noticing these things. But I'm not thinking about it in terms of food; I am more thinking about it like, “Hey, why did you say hello to the person in the front but you didn't say hello to the person who just took our plates?” So, maybe, I don't notice the juice on the vegetables.
A: Yeah, it's on there.
Q: Is there anything that you would recommend that people read to get a better understanding of the issues that you're trying to explore through your work?
A: I would just recommend that people just keep reading lots of things. There's so much if you just Google, for example, “racial wealth disparity” and start from there. Start reading all of the depression facts.
Q: Do you have a favorite information resource?
A: So there is an academic from Duke University, William Darity. He has put out a bunch of work, some longer than others. I think maybe starting there. That's a place to start and end, to be honest.
“Do Nigerians drink coffee?”
I immediately said yes after I received an email from Rebecca Modrak, the associate professor with the Stamps School who coordinated Wey’s Ann Arbor visit, asking whether I would like to attend a Tunde Wey dinner on April 23 in Ann Arbor. I knew I wanted to experience what I had been reading about and had just discussed with Wey.
In fact, I had already purchased a ticket to one of his early May dinners in Hamtramck. For those dinners, “the cost, menu and experience are tailored to your privilege,” says the Saartj website.
The dinner that I attended Monday at the Jefferson Market and Cakery brought together community members and individuals associated with the University of Michigan.
There was homework. Participants were asked to read a piece that Wey had written called “The Whitewashing of Detroit’s Culinary Scene.” I finished the reading as I walked up the street toward Jefferson Market and noticed the cluster of participants waiting for the doors to open. I approached the crowd and attempted to eavesdrop in order to get a sense of what they expected from the evening. I could see that some of these people knew each other as they made small talk. I found myself near a group of students discussing their next steps as one had recently graduated from her program.
Once the doors opened, I put the bourbon I brought to share on the counter that held other drinks and I sat down at a small table. If faced with the prospect of conversation with a small group of strangers or a larger one, I’m going to choose the smaller table. Part of the point of Wey’s dinners, from what I had read, is to get people to engage in conversation with people they don’t know.
My table seated four. With me was one half of the married couple with whom Wey was staying during his time in Ann Arbor, one local reporter, and a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow. All of us contributed to the small-talk cocktail about what brought us there this evening.
As we talked, people began to serve the food. I had read that Wey cooks Nigerian food and doesn’t aim to interpret Nigerian food specifically toward the expectations of the American palate. I was curious about the food. In fact, I am generally curious about food. As bowls were placed upon the tables, some people nearby wondered what it was. I thought, “Oh. Soup!” After all, it was warm and brothy, served in a bowl, and I found myself thinking about what it means to eat “unfamiliar” food since soup is as universal as anything. There were four courses overall: soup, roasted plantain, scotch egg with pickled vegetables, and the last course was a rice dish and duck.
One of my tablemates was Nigerian. I wondered how that impacted the conversation at the table once the food arrived, as there was now someone at the table who could be taken as an expert. I wondered if our table conversation centered on food more than at the other tables. This is not to say we only talked about food. We talked about the implications of profit models in the journalism industry, how hosts are identified for events such as these, and, no joke, the weather. Normally, I wouldn’t think twice about this level of conversation, but in this context, I almost thought of it as time spent gauging who each other were, though it felt like your every day small talk. Every conversation isn’t about something bigger ... unless it is.
Wey took his place in front of the diners and began the discussion part of the evening with a warning: “This is not a talk. This is going to be a conversation.” He framed the night’s conversation by giving an overview of his experience as a restaurateur in Detroit. As part of this, he talked about his experiences leading up to the point where he realized how much property in downtown Detroit was affiliated with developer Dan Gilbert. With this realization, he came to believe that small restaurateurs like him weren’t going to be able to make a change but that they were instead cogs in a larger system.
Then Wey invited the audience to dig in to conversation. People responded to his call, slowly at first.
To some diners, the homework article by Wey was fatalistic -- and they told him so. Someone else compared Detroit and the idea of self-determination among its black residents to Mexico’s Zapatista movement. A young man who is from Detroit shared that his peer group jokes about Downtown/Midtown not being Detroit but another place altogether. Another diner lamented the changes to Detroit, noting that the black presence that she had known and appreciated in visits to Detroit had disappeared. The scope of the conversation went wide and then narrow, ranging from anecdotes about raising black children in America to specific experiences of exclusion on the University of Michigan’s campus.
Wey eventually asked, what can white people can do about inequities? What are their responsibilities? It’s the “What happens now?” question that seems to be the point of the project. It is also a question that can quiet rooms, leading to the paralysis that he alluded to in his interview.
One participant described the evening’s conversation being exhausting. She pointed out that she didn’t need to hear the specific details of some of the anecdotes that other attendees had shared throughout the evening because her lived experience has told her that these things happen. In a conversation I had following the event, I spoke with someone who had a very different experience. She had been surprised by what the conversations in the room revealed.
I lingered, listening to each exchange that I could before everyone dispersed, participating in a few as I made my way toward my car. There were a few pieces of remarks that haunted me, or maybe I was just hearing the usual ghosts.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.
Tunde Wey's Saarjt dinners continue April 29-May 5 at Hamtramck's Bank Suey, 10345 Joseph Campau Ave. Visit banksuey.com for more details.