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In late March, not long after the coronavirus brought America’s restaurant industry to a tense and precarious halt, the writer, cook, and artist Tunde Wey posted, to Instagram, the first part of an essay titled “Don’t Bail Out the Restaurant Industry.” “We’re on the cusp of something… ordinary,” it begins. “We’re on the cusp of everything remaining the same.” The piece, which Wey released in ten installments in the course of a week (and later posted in full in his e-mail newsletter), mounts a forceful, deliberately provocative case against the survival tactics that restaurants have turned to in the past two months. Wey, who is thirty-six years old, was born in Nigeria and moved to the U.S. as a teen; after his visa expired, he spent a decade as an undocumented immigrant before finally receiving his green card last year. He’s spent the bulk of his life in America working in and commenting on the restaurant industry; in his Instagram essay, he outlines its racial and economic segregation, its reliance on destructive agricultural practices, its central role in gentrification and community displacement—and argues that, after past destabilizing tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, the rebound of culinary culture only reinforced and deepened those inequities.
Wey punctuated his essay with a refrain: “Let it die”—a phrase that also serves as the title of a video that he released, on May 9th, to kick off what he hopes will be a series about the restaurant industry at a time of covid-19-driven uncertainty. (“This is the first of a few episodes, or maybe this is the first and last episode,” he says in the opening voice-over. “We’ll see how this thing goes.”) In the eleven-minute video, shot by Wey and a producing partner, he visits the Oakland restaurant of Reem Assil, a Syrian- and Palestinian-American chef whose political activism has put her in a national spotlight. In virtually all respects, Wey and Assil are comrades in arms, both of them horrified by the injustices of capitalist white supremacy and passionately committed to fighting against it. But Wey hasn’t come to listen and nod—he’s come to fight. In front of the cameras, the pair argue about whether a rigged system can ever be changed from within, and whether the work of consciousness-raising is even work at all. Assil has faith; Wey is unconvinced: “If you … still can’t, within this framework, deliver anything more than important but incremental steps, then maybe is the whole project a wash?”
This sort of charismatic confrontationalism underscores all of Wey’s work. His multimedia œuvre comprises writing, videos, and an ongoing series of high-concept events and pop-up businesses that often blur the lines between commerce and performance art. A preferred medium is the price tag: in New Orleans, where he currently lives, he once ran a lunch cart that asked white patrons to pay more than double what he charged people of color, reflecting the city’s racial income disparities. In Nashville, he hosted a series of dinners where hot chicken was free for the neighborhood’s black residents, while white diners were asked to pledge a hundred dollars for one piece, a thousand dollars for four, and the deed to a property for a whole bird plus sides. Rather than provoking the ire of the culinary establishment, Wey’s events, writings, and criticisms have electrified and entranced them. In a 2019 GQ profile of Wey—a story that is currently a finalist for a James Beard Award—the writer Brett Martin described him as running “an abattoir for food-world sacred cows.”
Wey spoke to me recently on the phone from a public bench in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. The city is a covid-19 hotspot, where, as in so many other cities, infection and mortality rates are dramatically higher among black residents. “Right now I’m in a park and people are smiling and taking walks, they have their dogs. This is next door to the reality of folks who don’t have work, who can’t apply for unemployment, who need to to put themselves in positions that are dangerous and unhealthy so they can survive,” he said. “That difference is the shit I want to address in my work. Not because I’m Superman, but because if I don’t, I’m going to be affected.” This conversation has been edited and condensed.
The thesis of your essay is that the restaurant industry is so broken that it’s not worth saving. Did you already feel that way before the coronavirus shutdowns sent the industry into crisis?
I had never said those words explicitly—“let it die”—but I don’t think the sheer force of the idea is anything new.
I will say that with most of my work, I’m always a little circumspect. So even though the sentiment has always been “let it die,” I had never said those exact words. And it wasn’t like I was super comfortable saying it! I have people who I care about who are part of that industry. So, in a way, the essay is euphemistic—only because I know it’s not going to happen, I know the restaurant industry is not going to actually die, so I have the space to be very forceful.
But it wasn’t just an essay about letting things die, it’s also about what can rise from the rubble. There is something better on the other side.
Is there something unique to the restaurant industry that makes it particularly deserving of death?
I don’t think there’s anything inherent about the restaurant industry that makes it more worthy of death than any other industry. But it’s an industry that manages to encompass all the different realities of United States life—and I say “United States” because “American” isn’t the right label to encompass all the folks who live here. I’ll be very specific: let’s say you walk into Momofuku at Hudson Yards. You have your transaction: you’re going to buy whatever they sell, and you’re going to leave. But your money is going to Momofuku, which is owned, in part, by David Chang, and owned, in part, by [the real-estate billionaire Stephen Ross’s investment firm] RSE Ventures, which owns multiple companies. The financing of Hudson Yards was done through private capital but also speculative capital, so there was debt involved. But not any kind of debt, a specific debt: commercial mortgage-backed securities. So, all of that is to say that what makes the restaurant industry possible is maybe different from, say, the airline industry, or mining, or some shit. It’s at the intersection of capital, finance, social life, food production, sustenance. It’s all those things. So I think it offers a very important lens to examine the choices that we make.
It makes me think of something the Minneapolis restaurant critic Dara Moskowitz Gruhmdahl tweeted in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, which has been on my mind a lot: she wrote that restaurants are the closest thing the United States has to a social safety net. If you lose your job, you try to find work in a restaurant. If you’re formerly incarcerated, you can get a job in a restaurant. If you’re undocumented, restaurants will hire you.
I don’t know if I like that. There’s a conflation there of a safety net with employment—and with precarious employment, at that. It’s sort of like saying that because we don’t have socialized mental-health care in this country, that prisons and jails are the closest things we have to that, and so if we close down prisons and jails, we’re leaving these folks no option but to be on the street. I’m not equating restaurant work to being in prison, but I think the biggest issue with employment in general—anywhere in the world, but especially in the U.S.—is lack of choice. The existence of precarious jobs is not the same as security. On the face of it, that perspective sounds like an excuse to keep an industry going that’s problematic. It sounds terrible. It’s like somebody saying, “Stay in this marriage, even though you are suffering terribly. Stay in it for your children.”
I think she meant it critically—critical of America, as well as sort of hand-wringing about the state of restaurant employment.
Oh, well, in that case—as long as it’s not being used as an excuse to save the industry, then I agree with her. I don’t think we should save anything that causes pain and destruction. I want to be clear that I’m only talking about the pain and destruction that restaurants cause. I don’t think they cause pain and destruction to the exclusion of everything else. They do contribute value.
In your hypothetical rebirth of the industry, are there affirmative ways you think we can lessen the pain and destruction, and increase the value?
There are things restaurants can do, but it’s hard to do them in a system that doesn’t already, to use your word, affirm those values.
It’s not like I care about restaurants or workers more than a restaurant owner or a chef, but I do think they are loath to see a future other than what already exists. That’s because of their investment in the current system, which benefits them. I don’t mean to say that the benefit they accrue is so large and so bountiful that they’re consciously trying to keep workers down, though I’m sure that’s true for some corporations. What’s more true is that privilege and power become invisible when you have them. Even restaurant owners who may care about their workers ultimately care more about themselves. Workers care about themselves, too, but they don’t have the power to act on that care. I’m losing my point. What was the question?
Are there affirmative things restaurants can change to create a more equitable system?
The options available to workers are limited when this larger system exists as it does. It’s super strange right now to see all this energy around organizing for the benefits of owners and the ownership class. If there’s anything I think should be done, it’s that restaurant owners should abandon entirely their pursuit of a bailout specific to the industry, and focus on policy and government programs that support people generally. If everyone had access to health care, housing, leisure, education for their children, education for themselves—all these things I think are rights—and if all these things they had access to were of high quality, I’m sure some business owners wouldn’t even return to ownership.
The only truly affirmative and sustainable response is a governmental response—one that’s universal, that’s agnostic of industries, at least initially, and that focuses on developing a really robust social safety net, so we don’t have to rely on unfortunate, fake safety nets like poor restaurant jobs.
The “Let It Die” video was based on footage you’d shot pre-covid-19, for a different series. What was that originally supposed to be?
It was going to be a show—the working title was “Hard to Swallow: A Food Show Not About Food”—where we wanted to show the consequences of the production and consumption of food. Our first episode was going to be about New Orleans: how it’s a black city, the food is black, the folks that visit there come for all that black shit, but black chefs don’t get the attention. They don’t get the awards. They don’t get the same recognition as white chefs, which they are due.
But then covid-19 happened, and it’s such an overwhelming story, it touches everything—this is, in essence, what our show would have been about anyway. So we decided to re-cut some of what we’d already shot to tell a story about covid-19—one which is about more than the “resilience,” and I’m using scare quotes there—of the restaurant industry but instead is a larger story, one that’s historically grounded in other disasters that have affected communities and industries. What came from that? Who can we expect to win, who can we expect to lose? Spoiler: it’s the same people who win, the same people who lose.
Why did you choose to focus on Reem Assil—a Syrian-Palestinian chef based in Oakland, California—for the first episode?
I think Reem is interesting. Now that I think about it, in a way, she parallels Barack Obama. She’s an organizer, she’s someone who is an idealist and doing radical work, but who also thinks that the way to actualize her vision of the world is by working within a more conventional system. She thinks about it like, if she’s on the inside, she can change things from there. The first half of the episode, which we shot before covid-19, is the two of us dancing around that question: Can you renovate a burning house? Can you renovate a single room in a burning house?
I do think, after that conversation, I had convinced her to be less optimistic about working within the system. But, as she says in the show, she believes that you can have a dual existence, that you have to occupy multiple lives. One of the lives she occupies is running a business that sustains her and her family, and one of the lives pushes for a future that is abundantly equitable.
But then, for “Let It Die,” we interviewed her again—this time after the pandemic hit—and she’s now like, “This shit is crazy, and I can’t continue to do the work that I said I could do. You can’t make concessions, because any concessions you make will help you forget or ignore that a radical system can hardly exist in a conventional space.”
That’s interesting, to me. That’s a level of complexity, in a person, that’s hard to find.
In the video, after your initial conversation, you do say you think you’ve made her more cynical, but you also say that you might be a little more open to her belief in changing things from within the system.
I don’t think I was converted, though. There’s a difference between cynicism and pragmatism. With cynicism comes a certain dourness, and with pragmatism comes a more concerted choice to act. I guess what I was saying was that after our conversation I felt less sad. Not that I was any more convinced that what she was doing could work.
I definitely believe in making money so you can survive, and I would like to think that the work I do is grounded in numbers and lives. What I believe and what maybe Reem could believe—but she didn’t exactly say this—is that I don’t think money is a solution. I do believe that not having money is a problem. But the part where money is not a solution is so important. It takes us back to the idea of restaurants as a safety net: not having money is a fucking problem, and that’s why people need to work. But having money is not a solution, especially when you don’t have enough.
Money has been a subject of so much of your—what do you consider your work? Events? Installations? Public performance-art commercial actions?
My mom’s always like, “How you gonna make money?” and I’m like, look, bro, God will help us all. You can call my work whatever you want.
Let’s just stick with “your work,” then. Your most recent event, in December, involved asking hospitals to buy packaged food at a high mark-up, and you’d give the profits to the communities they served.
It’s interesting, because it dovetails with what we’re seeing right now with the pandemic, because it was about racial health disparities. It was born from a conversation I had with a medical doctor who does social-justice work, Michelle Morse. Infant mortality in the black community is higher than white infant mortality, and one of the places where this disparity is especially noticeable is Kalamazoo, Michigan. So that’s where the work began—we called it BabyZoos, because of Kalamazoo.
If you look at what’s being done to address these disparities, all of the efforts are focussed on medical solutions, with a lot of urgency around improving access to care, improving delivery of health services. But the doctors working on these problems, at least in Kalamazoo, they’ll all tell you the issue isn’t just that, it’s a broad range of factors, the so-called “social determinants of health.” Housing, income, education—all these things actually impact the health outcomes of black folks. So what I wanted to do was focus my efforts on the most direct health-correlation factor I could, which is income. It’s about resource transfer to address racial health disparities.
That was the plan. What I found out was that hospitals didn’t care. Hospitals and health organizations didn’t care.
What will you do next?
I figure it’s easier to focus on individuals, so I’m going direct-to-consumer. I’m launching a pantry-staples brand in the next couple of months that does the same thing I was trying to do with BabyZoos: sell food products, and distribute the bulk of the profits to black communities. We’re not asking questions, we’re not putting folks who get the money on camera, we’re not asking for testimonials. There’s a tendency among folks who are engaged in charity work to trot out the beneficiaries of the charity, and I think that’s fucked up. We’re just going to say, “Hey, take this money, and use it.”
We’re going to be selling salt. The salt is going to be called Lot.
After Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt?
Yeah, you got it. I’m also working with [the sustainable spice company] Burlap and Barrel on a condiment brand, Disappearing Condiments, which isn’t up and running yet. We’ll be selling fermented locust beans, which are indigenous to West Africa.
Will you be offering asymmetric pricing—charging more to white customers, for example—like you’ve done at some of your events?
No, not with the fermented locust beans. There are some things we’re thinking through with the salt, but I’m not sure if this is the right avenue for it. The idea is just to have a competitively-priced, high-quality product that competes with the more conventional condiments and pantry staples.
Like, it’s just a really good salt, and people buy it because it’s good salt—not because they’re going out of their way to buy it in order to exorcise a sense of white guilt?
What I’ve realized with the work I’m doing, hosting dinners, doing these—what did you call them? Public-performance actions? You have to convince the customer of your ideology before they divest of their resources. With the salt, I wanted to try to decouple the two. If you need salt, buy the salt. You don’t need to believe that you are anti-racist, or believe that you are racist, or even believe that the world is fucked up. You can just buy the salt.
I want to create viable products that can compete in the marketplace, so I can extract as much resources as possible and redirect them to communities that need them the most.
Isn’t this the same approach that you’re so skeptical of in “Let It Die”? That seems like exactly what Reem was trying to convince you of in the first half of the episode.
I guess! This is not an ideological question, right? It’s a material question. When you can’t buy malaria medicine, or you can’t put food on your table, it becomes about more than ideology. It’s a concrete, material battle. I mean, people are dying. Right now, people are dying. A month ago, in Lagos, where my parents live, there were young, able-bodied men going into neighborhoods demanding food from people under threat of violence. There were other people who formed a militia to encircle neighborhoods to keep those men away. This is reality. That’s not a consequence of Africans or Nigerians being incompetent or unprepared, it’s a consequence of a global system that extracts more and more from Africans, people of color, black folks, working-class folks. That needs to be addressed. If that means running a conventional business, I guess that is what it is. I’m conventional in that sense. I don’t want people to die.
Last year, you were profiled by Brett Martin in GQ—and now that piece is a finalist for a James Beard Award. That must feel strange, to see someone be rewarded for observing you closely.
It’s a mindfuck, on a couple levels. A friend pointed out that I myself write about my own life—and now somebody else is being recognized for writing about my life, even though I already do this. Her example—and I thought it was great—was that it’s like somebody going to [the legendary New Orleans chef] Leah Chase’s kitchen, watching her make fried chicken, working with her, taking her recipe, tweaking it, and then winning an award for that recipe. I was like, Shit, that is incredible.
But also Brett, who wrote the essay, is a friend, and he had become more of a friend in the course of the writing of the profile. As we started developing our relationship, I was very critical of his coverage of white people—white chefs, specifically. I remember saying to him, “Brett, this exploration of the minutiae of whiteness is problematic.” I was like, man, we don’t need to read another Sean Brock profile. The shit he’s doing is cool but, with all due respect, we don’t need to hear about him again. Can we get some other people on the books?
Do you hope your profile wins?
I hope Brett wins because I like Brett. But it doesn’t matter to me. I actually got e-mails and texts congratulating me, and I was, like, “No, dude, that’s not me, that’s not me at all.” I have a book coming out about my actual life, so maybe people can tune into that.
When is that coming out?
I’m still writing it. My editors are being very kind to me.
I do want to say, about the profile, that I’m ambivalent about media, but I also crave it. I need it, because my work is not tangible, and it’s small in scope. So I need these media milestones as reminders of my work, to myself and to others. It’s also my calling card. It lets people know what I’m about. When I introduce myself in an e-mail, I say, “My name is Tunde, I’m a Nigerian immigrant, artist, cook, and writer.” And then I hyperlink to the GQ article and something I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. People click on GQ’s Web site and they see my fucking oily face on there and they don’t even need to read the thing, they just know I’m for real and they give me a chance. I need that.
But I also recognize that GQ didn’t write the essay. It was a person. Brett Martin wrote it. By that, I mean that GQ is a network of people. Brett made the case for me, and then there’s an editor who is also a person—they put the piece together, and it came out. People made that choice. A lot of the time, when some article comes out about me—and I’m sure when this interview comes out, it will happen—people will be like “congratulations,” as if this came by divine force. But it’s people. Helen Rosner woke up one day and was like, “Let me talk to Tunde,” and that’s it: you make decisions, you have the imprimatur of The New Yorker. But The New Yorker is made up of people, and they’re people who are mostly white. So my ambivalence toward these institutions is my ambivalence toward the institutions of whiteness.
My work is no more or less worthy because it’s written about, but I’m so glad it is, because otherwise I would be more disposable than I am.
I wouldn’t say you’re disposable.
Shit, Helen, we’re all disposable. You’re disposable, too. The New Yorkercould be like Helen, we’re downsizing because people aren’t advertising anymore. That’s how this works. Same with me. We all have to find ways to keep ourselves indispensable, for the time being.