Tunde Wey would like you to feel uncomfortable at dinner.
Mind you, the food he cooks will be delicious, and the surroundings for the pop-up he’s hosting on Monday at South Philly Barbacoa are colorful and welcoming.
It’s the topic of discussion that carries a rough edge.
Wey, a native of Lagos, Nigeria, who came to the US for school and ended up in the restaurant world, is currently on a cross-country tour showcasing the cuisine of his native country. The goal of the dinner series — outside of introducing more people to the charms of selim-spiced soup and jollof rice — is to get people thinking about “Blackness in America.”
“It’s about exploring black space, exploring white people’s comforts and discomforts with blackness,” he told Billy Penn by phone this week. “The most important message is that there is a system that privileges whiteness at the expense of other folks of color. Specifically — and usually and historically — black folks.”
Not that the dinner will be devoid of levity or enjoyable flavors. His most recent pop-up, in San Francisco, featured a menu where each course was named after a Solange song. A dinner slated for last February in Los Angeles attracted so much attention that New York Times critic Sam Sifton bought a plane ticket to attend. A Times video shot this spring, when Wey was running a Nigerian food stall in New Orleans (now closed), shows him smiling and joking with Louisianans who dared try his goat stew and egusi soup.
But in Wey’s view, the restaurant industry is not exempt from the racial and class unrest that roils America.
“Restaurants must understand their role as crucial levers in the economic machines of deprivation and racial inequity,” he wrote in a recent column for Civil Eats. “To be explicit, I am advocating restaurants take a more active role in the communities of color, whose resources they employ at subsidized rates.”
That his Philadelphia pop-up is held at South Philly Barbacoa is no coincidence. Co-owners Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller have emerged as vocal spokespeople for the need for immigration reform as it affects the hospitality industry, and on Tuesday Wey will be a panelist at their ongoing “Right to Work” dinner series.
A native of Mexico, Martinez is not eligible for a green card even though she’s married to Miller because she twice crossed into this country illegally. Earlier this year, Wey had his own run-in with immigration. On his way to Los Angeles, his Greyhound bus was stopped in El Paso so that border agents could make a sweep. Per NPR, Wey hadn’t ever renewed his student visa, and was detained for several weeks. So much for that heralded LA pop-up dinner.
Because Wey didn’t have prior blemishes on his record like Martinez does, he was able to avoid deportation. He charged back into the traveling dinner series with renewed zeal.
Ask Wey if the racism facing Mexicans in the US is similar to what black Americans face, especially in the age of Trump, and he takes offense.
“Is it really necessary to create a hierarchy of oppression?” he answered, with stinging disdain.
“I’m not breaking any ground,” he continued, “but the the takeaway is not just that white folks admit to having privilege — and then be uncomfortable or comfortable in that admittance — but recognize that it’s directly as a result of appropriating other cultures.”
However, he’s bullish on the idea that maybe, somehow, humanity can make progress: “Each of these dinners serves to show that there are more similarities than there are differences.”
“Blackness in America [Illadelph Edition]” takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 21. Tickets are $55. BYOB.