Moyo Oyelola

Saartj, the chef's next project, is a month-long pop-up in New Orleans that runs through February.

Andy Meek
January 31, 2018

Tunde Wey, a chef from Nigeria who provoked and inspired diners around the country with his pop-up dinner series Blackness in America, had one request before he’d agree to an interview about his next project focused on racial wealth disparity, which will run throughout February.

“Don’t f--- it up.”

That insistence — he said it only half-seriously — comes in part because food journalist types so often get it wrong, or at least only partly right, when writing about the chef, his projects and his message. Tunde, who came to the U.S. from Nigeria as a teenager, until recently has been traversing the country curating meals and free-flowing political discussion as part of his dinner series, and if the ink spilled about him is your only guide, you might mistake his purpose as more or less provocation. That he’s here to sort of rub your nose in the uncomfortable realities of race and class in America, to use the meal he prepares for you and the time he spends with you to shake you up and leave you unsettled, full stop.

The reality, as with anything, is a lot more nuanced. There’s a simple arithmetic with other chefs someone might encounter, for whom the meal is a thing of beauty and welcome, both in its presentation and enjoyment. You consume it, and you are content. And then there’s Tunde, a chef who serves you Nigerian cuisine with a side of existential inquiry: Why are you here, he prods you to ask yourself? And what have you done lately for your fellow man, in recognition of the opportunities you’ve enjoyed but did not earn?

Questions like those are inherent in Saartj, his next project, a month-long pop-up he’ll run from a stall in New Orleans food hall Roux Carre. It's counter service, with a changing menu every week—no reservations needed. Through a conceit he’s keeping close to the vest until diners actually arrive, he’ll be using the pop-up to not just feed attendees, but to confront them, white and black, with the reality of the racial wealth gap in the U.S. And not just confront them, but he plans to encourage their feedback about that disparity, to tease out of them how they think the disparity should be addressed and to even record some of the interactions.

“We want to engage the public in a certain experiment to sort of figure out how we think about this individually and collectively, and what sort of solutions we’re willing to participate in,” Tunde tells Food & Wine.

The project has a particularly timely resonance. For context around how much of a gaping chasm the wealth disparity represents, the average level of wealth for white families is seven times higher than average wealth for black families, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

In talking up the project to friends, Tunde acknowledged that it will be “interesting” to see how it’s received in New Orleans, where he lives. His thesis, he writes in an email he’s distributed to a small circle of people, is that “the individual is the site of choices which perpetuate racial wealth disparity, and given the option, white people and people with privilege will refuse to end wealth disparity because it means contravening very familiar and dear privileges.

“This thesis is parallel to another truth: wealth redistribution is the only long term sustainable solution to the problem of wealth inequality.”

Uncomfortable yet? If so, perhaps it’s on account of a particular word in that thesis. Let’s face it, you might reassure yourself; you’re just here for a meal, after all. Maybe you’re even an adventurous foodie, keen to see what Tunde has on offer. You don’t feel special, certainly not privileged, as such. You punch a clock, same as the next guy. You didn’t elbow anyone out of the way to get where you are, right?

Tunde’s work has always given anyone with that kind of thinking a particular degree of discomfort. To understand why, it may be worth considering a phrase in the legal profession — “the fruit of a poisoned tree.” The point being, in that legal context, that evidence obtained inappropriately renders its use inappropriate, as well. Tunde would argue a similar reality exists when it comes to privilege and power — if you benefit, even only by degrees and in a distant way, from a system that once legitimized oppression, well, you have a responsibility to do something about that.

“When you accept privilege, you have to accept responsibility,” he says. “And when you accept responsibility, in the short term, I think you have to deny yourself of the things you’re used to. And it feels like a theft for you. It feels like somebody taking what it feels like belongs to you. I think acknowledging privilege means — at least as far as recent human history is concerned, it’s confronting yourself, the ego. It requires a lot of transformation. And it’s hard, you know?”

One of the things you don’t do with Tunde is assume his work has taken this bend toward activism and now even the narrower, more specific focus on wealth inequality, because it’s some kind of reaction to the past year or so. That would be the lazy analysis. As he points out frequently, the political insanity roiling the country today is symptomatic of long-standing, structural realities.

You also shouldn’t come expecting answers at this or really any event he holds. They’re rather about making space for a discussion. And taking a hard and maybe even a disquieting look at yourself.

With all due respect, he points out to the writer of this article, “you’re probably not the best writer out there.” You had opportunities, he continues, that maybe in a perfect world, a more equitable one, would never have come your way. Understanding that, how does that change you? How does that change your sense of obligation?

“My work didn’t become political until 2016,” he says. “Before then, I was just cooking food. My goal was to cook Nigerian food, but present it in a way that wasn’t gimmicky. That didn’t pander to Euro-centric ideas of what food could be. I was very intentional about that ... I guess that was a politics, of sorts. I’m African, I’m specifically Nigerian, and I want to share my food in such a way that doesn’t circumscribe what our food is and doesn’t create false reference points for Americans to enter this food space.”

Where it becomes so natural for a chef like Tunde to add a political dimension to his work is in the fact that food culture, obviously, does not exist outside of the larger social space. Systems of power, privilege — they cast a shadow over the people and institutions and ecosystems within them.

“All the things I want to talk about — issues of dominance and power — I realized I needed to talk about outside of food,” Tunde says. “Around that time when I started doing this, that was when the publicized killings of unarmed black folks — it was everywhere. The Black Lives Matter movement was starting. I was reflecting the spirit of the time. Food was my response. It was like a natural progression that I would move from … a shallow and provincial politics to a more — a more, I guess, vibrant and expansive politics. Which critiques systems outside of food.”