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Conflict Kitchen Project serves the food of adversary nations to bring people together

It's a take-out window for a $5 sandwich, but, like baseball and "The Wizard of Oz," Conflict Kitchen offers consumers an experience more intricate than what's on the surface.

Jon Rubin, the man behind Waffle Shop: A Reality Show at Baum Boulevard and Highland Avenue in East Liberty, sprung the new public art project in the same building three weeks ago. With partners John Peña and Dawn Weleski, he opened the kitchen door, wrapped a colorful facade with huge Farsi letters around it and began selling on the sidewalk kubideh, a national sandwich in Iran.

Conflict Kitchen shares prep space and staff with Waffle Shop, which opened two years ago as a two-semester art project for a class at Carnegie Mellon University, where Mr. Rubin teaches art. His "storefront project" involves students in creating a real-life place for community to gather and share ideas. Waffle Shop: A Reality Show, which continues to operate with a staff mostly of students on work-study, live-streams video from the restaurant on its website, waffleshop.org.

Next door at The Shadow Lounge, owner Justin Strong challenged Waffle Shop by putting a hot dog vendor on the sidewalk, said Ms. Weleski, who manages Waffle Shop. It was a friendly challenge, she said. "He said, 'You gotta compete. Business is tough.'"

The hot dog guy isn't there anymore, but the competitive result next door was to use the sidewalk door from Waffle Shop's kitchen to purvey food that's quick, like hot dogs, but more interesting.

Every four months, Conflict Kitchen will feature one take-away item from a different country in conflict with the United States.

The kitchen recently expanded its hours beyond weekends because of the number of people who were stopping at the colorful facade and staring at the closed door. During a recent interview at Waffle Shop, Ms. Weleski jogged outside several times to talk to people on the sidewalk.

"'What is this?' is always the first question," she said when she returned. "Then they ask, 'Do you serve food?'"

"Having a photo of the kubideh helps," said Mr. Rubin. The photo was put up recently.

The hours are now 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, with late Friday hours of 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday.

In the fall, Conflict Kitchen will wear a new facade featuring a favorite food from Afghanistan. Next up may be North Korea and after that, maybe Venezuela.

Mr. Rubin said he hopes patrons begin to realize that a nation the media present as belligerent or anti-American is populated by people who have misgivings about their government just as many Americans have about their own. "I think we lose sight of that," he said.

Mr. Rubin consulted with Iranian friends here and in Iran to get started. Illah Nourbakhsh, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon, invited him and the crew to his house to learn to make kubideh the way his mother makes it, he said. It is a sandwich of ground beef and spices with onion, mint and basil on Barbari bread -- a flatbread with sesame or poppy seeds. The kubideh is served in a little pocket of paper that, when unfolded, is a 3-square-foot poster of informative text from interviews with Iranians in Pittsburgh and in Iran.

"Iran has rich cultural traditions around food, so food is sort of a way of accessing Iranian identity," said Mr. Nourbakhsh. "Pittsburgh doesn't even have any Iranian restaurants."

The kubideh is "a fabulous example of Iranian food because of the fresh greens and the ground beef we love. A ton of Persians are eating that sandwich day in and day out in Iran."

He taught Mr. Rubin and his crew the recipe, which he insisted be made of freshly baked bread and fresh beef. "I am a locavore, so the beef we use is from a cow in Ligonier, and the flour is from a gristmill in Latrobe."

The kubideh "is a seduction" to open the door to a culture and its people, not to Iran as an abstract nation, said Mr. Peña, who three years ago as a CMU graduate student teamed with artist Ally Reeves in a performance-art project to deliver more than 300 letters by bicycle. "The U.S. and Iran may have conflict, but any given individuals from the two countries can meet and have no problems."

Events will be scheduled during Kubideh Kitchen's four-month run. A large meal at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Waffle Shop will coincide with a large meal at a gallery in Tehran and use Skype -- a video-conference application -- to make the meal a virtually shared one.

On June 26, young Iranians and others who have lived in Iran will hold a discussion about Iran's predominate youth culture.

"We will do screenings of Iranian films without violence, sex or swearing," said Mr. Rubin. A video show will pair local YouTube videos with videos from Iran.

Event dates will be posted on the blog kubidehkitchen.com. All events will be held at Waffle Shop, 124 S. Highland Ave., where conversation from the shop is now broadcast from a billboard on top of the building.

Conflict Kitchen, which has funding or other support from the Sprout Fund, Sota Construction, Whole Foods and East Liberty Development Inc., is soliciting foundations for support as well.

Asked if the nonprofit shop is a money-making venture, Mr. Rubin said, "It is meant to be sustaining."

The restaurant business may be risky, but few things are as sustained as conflict.

"What everyone tells us is that we could go on forever," said Mr. Rubin. "It would be fascinating to do this for 20 years and see all the countries that are represented."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at http://blogs.sites.post-gazette.com .