I recently talked to Nigerian Chef Tunde Wey, who has been hosting pop-up dinners in restaurants across the country as part of his latest dinner series "Blackness in America." Through these dinners, Wey creates a pleasant atmosphere where guests feel comfortable discussing uncomfortable topics like racism in America.

Wey and I discussed his perspective on systematic issues such as racism and how we can use food and open discussion to solve these problems. Both Wey’s cooking style and perspective on America have been heavily influenced by his unique background.

He was born in Nigeria but moved to America at the age of 16 to study science. After years of trying out different majors and jobs, Wey finally turned his love for cooking into a career when he opened Revolver, a restaurant that rotates different chefs.

However, his real goal was to introduce people to truly authentic Nigerian cuisine. In 2014, he started Lagos, a countrywide tour of pop-up dinners meant to honor Nigerian cuisine. The tour led him to New Orleans, where he turned his pop-up restaurant into a stall at St. Roch Market.

After a few months of working the stall, he began another culinary tour around America: Blackness in America.

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Spoon: What motivated you to do the "Blackness in America" dinner series? How did you come up with the idea? 

Chef Wey: There wasn’t any particular incident that made me want to start the dinner series. I think it was a combination of different things. I think I read somewhere that Nina Simone, an amazing singer, said that it’s an artist’s responsibility to reflect the times. I kind of share that same sentiment.

As someone who observes shit and who is living in this world, I can reflect what is happening. And food is a vehicle that allows me to share my perspective.

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Spoon: So, broadly what is your perspective on race in America? 

Chef Wey: It’s fucked up. Racism is the most ingenious invention of this country. It just keeps evolving rapidly, so much so that you don’t know what racism is until two or three generations after it has happened. We don’t understand the effect of race or racism until that time has elapsed. Our definition of racism is always lagging behind the reality.

People in power need to always be asking what are the effects of different power structures on people. Whether it is privilege or patriarchy or heteronormative ideas. They always need to check power against possible exploitation.

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Spoon: What was the goal of the Blackness in America dinner series in particular? 

Chef Wey: To learn and to understand a little bit better. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to create a space where I could understand the effects of race and the possible actions to negate some of the negative effects.

My benefit is knowledge, and hopefully other people’s benefit is being able to share their experiences and being able to connect with other people around their issues. Being able to enjoy food and being able to think different.

Spoon: Speaking of food, why have these discussions over dinner? What role does the food play exactly?

Chef Wey: When you create this sort of dining atmosphere that people understand as such, when there’s music, good food, and drinks. Not just food, but there’s an ambiance. When you create that, then it is easier to have a conversation. You begin to talk openly and honestly about certain things. When the vibe is a little dimly lit, kind of sexy, it’s a primer.

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Spoon: A primer for what? What types of topics do you all talk about? 

Chef Wey: The general topic is blackness. What that means is the effects of racism on black folks and the responsibility of folks with power, the white folks, to address the inevitable conditions that their power and their privilege have created. Plainly speaking, that is racism. It’s done accidentally. Sometimes it’s done intentionally, but it’s there.

That’s the type of conversations we have. What it means to be black in America. What it means to be black and the target of the criminal justice system. What it means to be a black woman and be invisible to white men, even to black men. What it means to be black, but not American, but living in America. All of these things.

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Spoon: So have you heard any stories or learned any lessons that have really impacted you? 

Chef Wey: Most recently, in Kentucky, these guests were talking about reframing the conversation about race away from one of loss for white people. We need to create parity, economic parity first of all, but for that parity to happen, white folks have to give up some stuff because white folks have their share plus a share that belongs to other people.

But we need to reframe that in terms of investment. What sort of world do we want to live in? If you want to live in a just, equitable world then you have to be willing to invest. So it’s an investment model as opposed to a model of loss or giving up. That was really something that blew my mind.

If you frame the proposition in terms of investment in your own emotional, spiritual well-being as a white person, then you’re not giving up anything. The things you might give up initially, like some material affluence, are the things that are holding you back from this spiritual experience.

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Spoon: As a white American, I think that’s a fascinating way of looking at it. I read in another article that you often find that white people often enter these discussions and try to come up with a solution, but that instead you think they should just listen and sit in discomfort. So, what exactly is the role of white people, if any, in these types of discussions? 

Chef Wey: I don’t think I can answer that. I’m still learning. First of all, if you are white, just come to the table and recognize you are the problem. It’s easy to externalize the problem. It’s difficult to recognize ourselves as the problem.

I specifically want white people come to the realization that America has a problem and that problem is race and privilege and class. Recognizing that you are the problem should inform your posture.

Spoon: So what kind of dinners did you serve or what is your favorite dish to make?

Chef Wey: I love making Jollof rice because it’s very difficult to make, but if it it turns out right, the payoff is amazing. It tastes great. I feel a sense of accomplishment. That’s the most enjoyable to make because it’s a lot of work and then you have to leave it to see what happens.

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Spoon: How do you think dishes like Jollof rice, and Nigerian food in general, impacted your experience as an immigrant? 

Chef Wey: I just think food is a powerful way to assert identity. For most people, eating is a cultural, social, and personal act. Everybody eats, and everybody expresses themselves through what they eat and how they eat, whether they recognize it or not.

And now eating has gotten this other level of status. It's this thing now. People go out to eat and are able to experience the world through food. Folks who want to learn about the world can. Folks who want to share their world can through food. It’s a way to disrupt power. Or it could be, done right. Food could also be a way to preserve and institutionalize power.

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Spoon: How exactly do you see food disputing power? 

Chef Wey: Food creates economic access. Food generates wealth. Food is political. Somebody who is Vietnamese can make Pho and can use it to express all that they want to share about their native country and also to comment on, for example, what they think is wrong with their current country, in terms of appropriation of their culture or lack of compensation for immigrants. 

Food has many facets. We only use one or two. We only talk about what the food looks like and what it tastes like. We don’t talk as much about how food creates economic opportunity or poverty in certain neighborhoods. We don’t talk about how it provides job. We don’t talk about how food can make political statements.

There’s a lot of power in food, and if we allow food to express itself truly then it can really be a more disruptive tool in terms of altering the balance of power through all of these difference facets.