Imagine a restaurant where white clients have to pay three times more than their Black counterparts; or a dinner in a gentrifying neighborhood where a gentrifier is placed at the table of a long-time resident… only two of many scenarios Tunde Wey instigates in his cooking demonstrations, as he explains in this interview.
LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Ingredients /// There is something vertiginous in thinking that each ingredient that we use in each dish we cook has a long political history, a part of which always takes us back to colonialism. We often think of sugar, chocolate, tea, or coffee, but this is true for many many others. How do you exhume such histories in your various projects?
TUNDE WEY: As Leeds United coach Marcelo Bielsa said, “the answer is in the question.” The answer is in the question because everything is collected back to this history of exploitation, but my work is not forensic about the ingredients. For me it is not important to pick one or two things out, unless as a demonstration of something. But usually my demonstrations in my works and my dinners where I gather folks together, we have conversations with these demonstration projects where I use food to highlight different disparities. That is when, if it helps the demonstration, I will use an ingredient in a metaphorical way.
Here’s an example: I am starting this prepackaged foods brand. I am selling salt to white people for 100 dollars, an outrageous price because Black life is outrageously devalued. I am using the salt to speak to a different truth that I saw as elemental; I do not know a single culture that does not have some sort of salinity in their food. So, salt as a base, racism and colonial exploitation as a base, those are the metaphors that I draw. The literal examination of ingredients and actual food I don’t do. For me food is always in the background even though it is what is present and what draws people together, food is always in the background. We don’t examine the food unless it is important to the examination of larger issues. Food is also a large issue, or the large issue. But for me it is primarily a lens, like I think of it as oxygen: it is necessary. So you are breathing air, but the only time you are aware of it is maybe when you are meditating or usually when there is something wrong with the air like somebody farted or there is some terrible shit happening around, or there is not enough air; then, we bring it up. But in this place where food is generally plentiful even though the distribution of food is engineered such that it is unavailable to some folks. I don’t generally talk about food scarcity, but I talk about food as a metaphor for power.
LL: Serving /// In your projects, food is always an event. The restaurants or sites you create for this event are very deliberate in the way food is served and, often, this way depends on who is the receiver of it. Could you tell us more about what we could perhaps call a political choreography?
TW: I am actually not very deliberate, but, let me put it this way: I don’t believe in things materializing from nowhere. What is spontaneous is a product of subconscious, unconscious, and some-conscious deliberation that is happening because things come up and they go away, at least for me. So, I always have things percolating. I can use the metaphor of a stove where there is always a kettle at a slow boil in the back, and it’s just about when I bring it to the front, when I pour the water and contents into something else. I think what I do is I create a basic framework for the project that I am doing. So I say, these are the parameters that I want to explore. I’ll say what is the theme, what is the question that I am trying to ask here? And then, what are the constraints for the consumer who is interacting with the food or with the food demonstration or product. And then I go into it, and I just see what happens. I try and learn lessons and then adapt it in the moment to what is happening. I will give you an example because this is all super conceptual.
In a project that I did — and this is a simple example for the purpose of this — I had asymmetric pricing based upon how people identify racially. I knew that I wanted to charge people different amounts; so there was a regular price and then a price that reflected the racial wage disparity here in New Orleans. And that is basically what I do. I also knew that I wanted to take the money that was made over the regular amount and redistribute that back to the Black folks who had come to purchase the food. That was the basic premise. But then when I started the project and folks came up to me, I realized that I just could not offer them two prices. I had to share with them what the project was, and so when every customer came, it became a conversation about racial wealth disparity and, honestly, then, reparations. The other thing too that I knew I wanted to do is I wanted to collect the opinions and perspectives of the people who were coming. So, I did a survey. The first thing I realized in the project was I needed to have a conversation with folks to prime them otherwise the project would be meaningless.
One time somebody came, it was like around 8pm, and they wanted to buy some food, and they had a family. They were travelers and had like four kids, three grandparents, two stepsisters… It was a huge family, and they just wanted to eat. I told them you can pay 10 dollars, or you can pay 30 dollars, and they were like “What is happening?!” I told them because you are white, you can pick one of the two, and they were just confused. They said: “We need to eat and have been walking in the rain all day; this does not make any sense!” So, I knew I had to do a better job of communicating that. Then the other thing that I realized is when I started having these conversations, all the white people were happy to pay the extra. And I was like “No this is not part of my plan; I want to discredit white people [laughs], and this is fucking up my plan!” So, I had to think why was this happening? I started examining the ways in which they were choosing to pay extra. There was all about negotiation. They would be like: “Oh, can I just pay you a bigger tip?” This was a bribe to get the lower amount. Some of the people started asking me questions: “Where is the money going?” And then when I would tell them they would say, “Okay, all of the money is going back to the Black folks who have bought food here,” then people were visibly comfortable with that because it became a charity scheme which was not what I wanted it to be.
I decided to change that. There was no negotiation, and I did not tell people that the money was going back to Black folks. So, anyway, this is the way in projects that I escalate, or refine, the stakes or propositions. And I don’t think this is unique to me in terms of iterating as things are happening. I like to think about Kanye West; he released an album, I think it was The Life of Pablo, and, after he released it tentatively, he still went back. He took out some songs, edited some songs, lengthened and shortened. So that is an iterative process in creating work. It is something that I appreciated. And I was doing it but somewhat understanding that it was possible in all of these other different formats and frames. It gave me more confidence about how to move about the work.
So, just to answer your question, I create a framework and then I try to be as nimble as possible and feel all of the gyrations of the moment even when it is hard. What’s important to remember is that these are not experiments; they are demonstrations. There have just been times maybe I have said something about “experiments,” and then it became synecdoche: it came to mean the entire thing. So, if I said “people come to the table and they are uncomfortable,” then my dinners become “discomfort dinners.” And then if I saw something experimental, then the project has become “experiments.” They are just like little ways, in my mind, that undermine the purpose of the work. I hope my purpose is not to make white people uncomfortable, like I have bigger aspirations than being white people’s disturber. And the work is not experimental because it is demonstrative of ongoing disparities. So, I do not want to relegate the work or the purpose to a particular idea.
LL: Location /// Your projects, whether restaurants or other, are situated geographically, which is to say that they are situated in very particular political conditions. You know how this aspect of things is crucial in the way we approach political engagement in The Funambulist and I wanted to ask your perspective on this, when you are in your city of Detroit, but also in New Orleans, Nashville, or Oakland…
TW: Some of the framework is to engage with whiteness. A lot of the folks who interact with my work are middle class to upper-middle class affluent folks, Black and white and Brown, across the spectrum of race. It is definitely a particular social economic class that interacts with my work. For right or reason, one of them is the price points that I employ, the distribution methods that I use (for example you have to register online), the media that covers the work attracts a certain kind of clientele. Again that also depends on the project: I have done some projects where it is mostly Black or all Black folks; some projects where it is mostly white folks. To the degree that it is possible that part is intentional because that is necessary to the dynamics of the project or the dinner that I am doing. So, I think again and I create a space apart from the space that we are in, while also acknowledging that we are in a space. I use the particular geographic space as the beginning of the question. So maybe if I am doing a dinner in Oakland, I’ll do some research of what is happening in Oakland because all of those things come to bear in this space.
But the actual dining space, or project space, or demonstration space is its own space that I am beginning to define more. At the beginning, my dinners were just a group of people dining without me necessarily thinking about what the space was. In more recent dinners — I have not done a dinner in a while to be fair — I actually spatially organize folks based on their different class and race positions and then also based on some sort of element from the dinners, some sort of conceit for the dinners. For example, if we are talking about gentrification or if we are talking about appropriation say I will seat folks based on race and income, and this is information I collect beforehand: income, race, education level, all of these symbols of status. Depending on who you are, when you come in you get selected into a randomized pool and then you get put in all these different places. If I am trying to subvert certain privileges then the identities that are most at risk outside of that dinner space get preferential treatment in the dinner space, and then the privileges that are the most rewarded in public go into this pool. So, in the dinner space some people receive terrible service, they are cramped, there are no seats — just things like that that affect the dining experience. The biggest thing about that experience is that the diners are not expecting that to happen until after the fact. So, at the close of the dinner it then becomes an opportunity for conversation. That’s mostly how I am using space now. I am creating this spatial disparity, or disparity within the space, to reflect certain hierarchies that I am either critiquing or I want to see imposed in the spaces outside of the dinner.
LL: Craft /// A recipe is by definition the transmission of a certain form of crafts. A white understanding of recipes always encourages this transmission to be as broad as possible in a tradition of universalization of European culture and the appropriation and assimilation of the South/East’s ones. What is your strategy to negotiate between transmission that is intra-communitarian — I’m thinking of communities the scale of a family, a neighborhood, a diaspora… — and those that could be inter-communitarian?
TW: I think fundamentally everything is neutral, but very soon after, or even right before it is born, it becomes politicized. But maybe everything has a neutral character to it, and so, if we think of cookbooks as, say a method of communication it may in some instances need to be voluminous to communicate a lot of information. We don’t pick up a dictionary and say, “oh my, this is too big!” Yeah it is big because it is communicating a lot of things. But, a dictionary or cookbook can also be a hegemonic device. So we have a couple of choices: to reflect back the neutrality of the item, to use or impose or reflect back different hegemony on it, or to critique the oppressive hegemony of the work. And I am sure there are other things that can be done too.
I say all of this because the way that I learned to cook was through Youtube, and Youtube is a compendium, everlasting tome of information visually. And because of the way that I have learned to cook and when people ask me for recipes I am hesitant to provide it because I do not own the recipes. And they belong to everybody. But, of course, there are many caveats in that, and the biggest one is that white people steal shit. So even though stuff belongs to everybody [laughs], white people steal it — and not just white people but folks with a certain capitalist interest steal shit: men steal shit, folks with power steal stuff… And so I think depending on what the work is (a cookbook or a recipe), we have to use it for that purpose. For me, like I said earlier, cooking is an opportunity to get people somewhere where I can sit and talk about a different thing. I don’t use recipes in any way except to bring people to a table or to a demonstration so that I can then talk about other things. I mean, I rarely do that.
When I think of the transmission of that sort of knowledge or craft, I think of it as personal. I think of it as collecting this for myself, not for white people or for people with different kinds of power positions, which I also hold. When I think of the food that I cook — which is Nigerian, specifically I cook southwestern Nigerian food like Yoruba ethic Edo food, that is the food that I cook because Nigeria is a huge place — I just think of collecting the knowledge, like what are the basic skills, what are the techniques. And this has nothing to do with craft; the craft part is the repetitiveness of the work, how I learn to collect those techniques and distill them so that I can transform food from ingredients into a dish.
The craft is how I move through commercial kitchen space and use what is available and what is not available to get what I need, and that stuff is the product of experience. For me it has also been the product of not just experiencing creating but experience in consuming the food, and so I have fundamentally a historic perspective of my food because my palate was shaped by that food; my palate is that food. And so I understand every other thing that I eat through that perspective. That is what craft is for me. To be fair my craft is also about critiquing whiteness, and a tool of my craft is hyperbole. I say shit like “White people should never cook cultural food.” I know that that is not possible; I know that white people are going to cook this kind of food, and specifically I mean that they should not cook this type of food publicly for profit — and profit does not only mean money there are all sorts of profit. Obviously, privately people can do whatever they want to do. The hyperbole that I use is part of my craft to dissuade white folks from their overly consumptive tendencies, and consumptive is too neutral a word. It is more like rapacious colonial tendencies.
LL: Labor /// The history we have talked about is linked to land theft, resource extraction, and transplanetary displacements. But it is also strongly linked to a history of the exploitation of labor that brings an ingredient from the soil to a dining table. In the context where you live, the United States, this mobilizes a history going from the exploited labor of enslaved Black people to that of undocumented central American Indigenous people. Could you talk about this aspect of things in your work?
TW: Part of my I like cooking for the public is how theoretical questions become realized. So, when I think about labor, it’s a theoretical proposition until you have to hire somebody. And I am not sure how it is for you and your magazine, what you think about compensating or not compensating them, these are really tough questions. I remember I had this experience when I was doing a dinner about interrogating whiteness sometime in 2016, and this work that I was doing was not profitable — I think now all of those efforts are slowly realizing some benefit financially for me, but just a little benefit. Anyway, at that time it was not profitable, so I would do a lot of work and make just enough money to keep going. And so I sold dinner tickets, let’s say, for like 50 bucks per person. I was in Los Angeles and I did not have a place to stay, so I was staying with a friend. I could not afford to stay in a hotel or anything like that. By the time I had bought my ingredients I realized that I could not afford to pay anybody. What had happened was that the restaurant that I was cooking in I had told the owner who is a friend that I would need some people to help me because it was a lot of work. I was cooking for like one-hundred people. And so she had told those people that I would need them, but then the day before when I had realized I had no money that I could not afford it I think I called them directly that I am sorry I don’t need them anymore. And so I cooked everything by myself, and I spent like two nights in the kitchen. And this is normal, when I am cooking by myself I cook eight or nine hours straight, usually overnight, because that is when the kitchen is available for use since I am using other people’s kitchens. And then we do the dinner, and they come with their own emotional sort of responsibility because there is this tension and competition that is happening.
Anyway, after the dinner, one of my friends was upset with me, which further threw me off. She was upset with me because I did not pay her people. And I said “yes I know because I could not use them.” She was saying, “well you talk about power, you talking about disparity, but if you make a promise to people you should follow up on that promise.” And I was struggling with that concept. I feel like my tendencies towards a more socialist enterprise, but I grew up capitalist, so I know I still have all of those things in my head. So I was struggling with the idea; did I somehow exploit these people? I felt like I exploited myself to try and get the dinner done, and these folks were not supposed to work on that day anyway. It was the off day, and they were going to make extra money. So, I had thought I had not done anything, but anyway she thought I had done something inappropriate, so she compensated them herself. And I was like, I cannot let that happen. So, I then went into my pocket and paid her back for paying the people. I just remember feeling just terrible about it because I literally had no money, and so I used the money that I didn’t have to pay her. Anyway, the moral of the story was that I was broke. But the second moral is how difficult it is to understand what to do, what is right, what is wrong in terms of labor.
That’s now my use of labor, because I have exploited labor in a variety of ways. I often try to pay people as well as I can within the realm of possibility that does not bankrupt me. But, I feel this is what every capitalist does; they set some sort of value for labor that they control, and then they are the ones that get to disperse the funds and manage all of these relationships. So, I want to keep in my work exploring ways that I can complicate for myself the labor question, and make it real. I am not interested in theoretical frameworks that have not been stress tested in realtime in reality. That is how I think about the labor that I interact with, and I am also conscious of the labor that I expend personally in my work. So when I am cooking I am generally doing all of the work. I’m also conscious of the labor that I don’t expand in conventional ways. I am in essence striking from work currently. I want to create as many scenarios as possible where I am not working, but I am getting compensated very well. So that is another thing that I do, but in terms of thinking about labor as separate from my experience is that, through my work, I want to push the burden of responsibility away from labor to ownership— not just the burden of responsibility, but the burden of struggle, the burden of trying to accumulate resources to meet your bills. I want to push that away from labor to ownership. This is mostly theoretically in that it is stuff that I talk about, but I have not necessarily figured out a project that can hold this, yet. So it is mostly things that I come about in my writing obliquely and my talks that I give when I am invited to speak in certain places.
LL: I wonder if when it comes to the ownership you’re describing, one of the ways to address this in the context of the U.S. as a settler colony, would not have to do with engaging with this settler colonial condition of the land.
TW: I have been in some spaces where I have seen white people honoring the Indigenous people who came before them, and I do not understand that practice because there is no reparative conclusion to that practice; it seems like virtue signaling. And I also think virtue signaling is fine if you have the virtue, so that’s okay. The conceptual problem that I have with that, and I have not done enough research to know if it is really a problem, is that the idea of ownership is not one that I think was practiced by Indigenous folks, and to transfer our current systems of thought and thinking to Indigenous folks but not actually transfer the resources to them just seems very complicated and seems it is missing a lot of pieces.
What I am trying to do now with my work is resource transfer and resource redistribution, so any project that I start I try and make a distinction: if the project is communal then it is communally owned. So I am starting this salt company and the goal is to have it be communally owned by Black folks and then step away. But then I also want to do personal work because I also don’t believe in everything being communal; I think we should hold things dear and personal. I want to do personal work like writing or speaking, or something that I use my own energies for and accumulate as much resources as possible for those things and then use that to satisfy my needs, the needs of my family, and then also move some of those resources back into the community. ■
Tunde Wey is a Nigerian artist, chef and writer currently residing in New Orleans, interrogating exploitative power. Read more on his contributor page.