In late 2008, Jon Rubin, an artist and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, took over a vacant Pittsburgh storefront with his students and opened the Waffle Shop, an experimental art project in the guise of a cafe.
Inspired by the Seinfeld episode where Kramer rescues a Merv Griffin Show set from the trash and sets it up in his living room, Rubin built a ’70s-style talk-show set in the back of the restaurant, aiming to “use waffles to lure people into public storytelling.”A dedicated host—sometimes one of Rubin’s students, sometimes a community member—sits at a desk on a raised stage and engages the diverse cafe clientele in impromptu and completely unpredictable conversations that range, as Rubin puts it, “from Lady Gaga to conspiracy theories to unem-ployment to ghosts.” The talkshow “episodes” are streamed live online, and the most compelling ones are archived.
To his delight, locals embraced the unusual project. “Food creates a space of comfort for people,” Rubin says. “People who wouldn’t normally go into a theater would get up and perform. It allowed the possibility of unexpected interactions to take place.”
Rubin’s experiment continues to evolve. His own cravings for ethnic food in chipped ham-inclined Pittsburgh inspired the Conflict Kitchen, his latest collaboration with fellow artists Don Peña and Dawn Weleski. The goal, again, is to use food as a way to get people talking—in this case, about politics. The takeout window, adjacent to the Waffle Shop, sells street food exclusively from countries the United States is in conflict with, spotlighting a different country, dish, and storefront facade every four months. The kitchen’s first iteration served Iranian kubideh sandwiches (spiced beef, basil, onion, and mint rolled in flat barbari bread and sprinkled with sumac)wrapped in paper printed with interviews with members of the local Persian community.
Recently, the kitchen’s focus turned to Afghani cuisine. Though the flavors may change, the goals for both shops are the same: to engage the community by tempting their palates.