‘I’m Not Here to Cater to White People’s Discomfort.’ How This Chef Is Using Food as a Tool to Address Injustice

Tunde Wey has lost his train of thought. A late-evening April drizzle has moved over the NoMad neighborhood in Manhattan, and a bumping 90s R&B playlist at pan-African restaurant Henry at Life Hotel has taken the Lagos-born writer and chef down memory lane, back to watching black American music videos on Channel O in Nigeria. His gaze drifts as a Chico DeBarge jam comes on. “Man, this video used to play all the time.”

It’s been four years since I met Wey, 35, and over that period he’s forged a path with impressive single-mindedness. He’s used his evolving platform as a New Orleans-based self-taught cook to make food — its preparation, presentation, and sale — a tool for provocation and social transformation. He’s also taught his fans, critics, and distant observers to expect constant adaptation. From his columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, to essays in The Boston Globe, and the Oxford American that interrogate the passivity and hypocrisy of American food culture, to performance-art inspired experiments that aim to challenge (mostly white) individuals to pinpoint their role in systemic oppression, Wey is always thinking about the debt owed to black people. Food, with its wide lens, is the perfect malleable prop.

If there’s one thing Wey fears, its complacency. “As soon as I see people getting comfortable, I change it,” he says, sipping a neat pour of Zacapa rum. We are settled at the bar at the popular pan-African restaurant by chef JJ Johnson and the warm, ambient glow gets a boost from the hip-hop vibes of a delightfully-curated, throwback playlist. Sporting metallic-rimmed glasses and fresh cornrows by a Harlem hairbraider, Wey is the most at peace I’ve seen him, and it’s not because of the booze. After a decade living as an undocumented immigrant, Wey received permanent residential status in the U.S. just months earlier. The fog of uncertainty has lifted, but he’s still got that underlying tension, the ever-present agitation of the discontented. For Wey, being satisfied is dangerous. That can be tough on his friendships — good luck winning a debate with this guy — but it’s great news for the world.

When he was 16, Wey’s parents sent him to live with an aunt who’d moved to Detroit, with the intention of their son becoming a doctor. But after years of balancing school with work, Wey finally accepted he lacked the interest to pursue medicine. His student visa expired, and he wasn’t sure what was next. He considered a critical studies program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was accepted. But with no scholarship offer, he couldn’t pursue the degree. Wey opted instead to say yes to whatever crossed his path. In 2013, a former roommate was launching a restaurant and within months, he had co-founded Revolver in Detroit.

Tunde Wey at MOAD in San Francisco on May 19, 2018.
Peter Prato—San Francisco ChronicleTunde Wey at MOAD in San Francisco on May 19, 2018.

Things moved quickly after that. By 2015, he had left the restaurant to launch a series of pop-ups. Something about the New American modern aesthetic wasn’t sitting right: the small plates, the artsy plating. Out there in the world, he was facing the realities of being a young, black undocumented African immigrant in a country that was palpably hostile to people who look like him. He called the project Lagos, and took the show to cities like Chicago, New York, and New Orleans — where he eventually moved.

Serving Nigerian food like efo riro, a rich and brothy stewed spinach, and yam pottage made sense to him because it was the food he felt most connected to and he found its unfamiliarity to American diners disoriented them. There was enough of a gap between expectation and result on the plate that Wey found he could wedge some discourse in between. And then, one day in 2015, he got on a bus, headed to Los Angeles to host a dinner. At a checkpoint, Border Patrol agents in Las Cruces, New Mexico asked passengers if they were citizens. Wey told the truth. Within hours, he was detained and ended up spending weeks in a Texas detention center. Thanks to the tenacity of friends, family and his American wife Claire, he was released on bond and had a hearing set for two years later. He got back to work.

In 2016 he shifted from Lagos to a different dinner series, Blackness in America, which was rooted in his ongoing study of race and political theory. In cities like Oakland, Pittsburgh, Austin, and Memphis, Wey invited food activists, professors, writers and artists to engage guests from varied backgrounds on racism from the perspective of black people — a topic white America tends to avoid. He served Nigerian dishes like egusi stew and fried plantain and watched repeatedly as black diners did most of the emotional grunt work of explaining the personal effects of oppression; meanwhile he found white people mostly felt awkward, responded defensively, and sought patchwork solutions without dealing with the impact of a system they benefited from. The dinners were thoughtful, emotional, and frustrating. They were very Tunde Wey.

He’d used the term “discomfort food” to describe what he was trying to get at — that food was not always a salve or an escape, that communal dining spaces could be used confront injustices, to prompt meaningful action. In the widespread media coverage that followed, he disliked how the description became shorthand with wider audiences thereafter, as if he was providing unease as entertainment. Like so many African American figures who push forward conversations around racial identity — among them, comedian Dave Chappelle — Wey had to consider whether or not he was contributing to the problem he wanted to expose: in an America that consumes and exoticizes blackness, when does being provocative cross into a kind of blackface? “It was an opportunity for me to investigate my own work,” he says. “I’m not here to cater to white people’s discomfort. You think I’m here to make you uncomfortable? That’s my job? That’s ridiculous.”

In 2018, he opened SAARTJ, a pop-up food stall in New Orleans where black visitors were charged $12 for dishes like isi ewu, a goat stew, while white visitors were asked to pay $30. The price difference reflected the racial wealth gap in New Orleans, where white families enjoy a median wealth of $100,000 compared to $10,000 for black families. That disparity finds echoes throughout the country, a result of centuries of enslavement, racially-biased policing and mass incarceration, as well as housing and job discrimination. Wey named his pop-up to honor Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman whose perceived wide hips and large buttocks landed her as a marquee attraction in 19th-century Europe. After her death, her body was dissected and displayed in Paris until 1974.

Also last year in Nashville, Wey explored the root causes of gentrification in an event called Hot Chicken Shit. As part of the project, white diners were asked to pledge $100 for one piece of chicken, $1,000 for four pieces, or to sign over a property deed in North Nashville in exchange for a whole chicken with sides. For black people, the meal was free. And in Pittsburgh earlier this year, against the backdrop of border wall debates and influenced by Wey’s recent change in status from undocumented to permanent resident, he launched Love Trumps Hate, a blind-date dinner series between immigrants and U.S. citizens.

Those projects are behind him now, but he thinks of his work on a continuum. Wey is in New York to develop BabyZoos, a company that will sell wholesale applesauce to tackle black infant mortality in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and then hopefully nationwide. Black American babies are four times as likely to die before their first birthday when compared to their white counterparts, regardless of class. BabyZoos will sell applesauce to institutions like healthcare systems, and the net profit will fund black-women-led projects and organizations working to reverse the rates of black babies dying.

He hopes one day he can personally make good money, but for now, he’s not distracted by it. The advance from a narrative book (exact subject matter to be determined) that will be published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has bought him some time—his greatest asset, he says—to dream up new ways to think about food as an instrument to address injustice. “Money isn’t power. Money is a tool of power,” Wey says. “Folks are comfortable giving up money. But they’re not giving up their power. That’s a different situation. That’s what the whole shit is about.”

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