A Conversation With The Chef Who Charges White Customers More To Eat

Moyo Oyelola

The first time I heard about Tunde Wey’s pop-up restaurant in New Orleans, Saartj — which charges black people $12 and white people $30 for the same lunch, in order to highlight how wage disparity is driven by race — I laughed. “What a great idea,” I thought. It didn’t even seem controversial to me, to be honest. Then, I started to talk to other people about it.

As I surfaced the concept to friends and colleagues, I immediately discovered that there were a lot of complicated feelings surrounding Wey’s pop-up. Some came from people of color who had dealt with terrible injustices and wage disparities in their own communities and felt like the limited scope was… limited. Others felt frustrated because, though they were white, they grew up impoverished. They felt that this experiment left them out of the equation. And listening, I understood their frustrations.

Not that it necessarily changed how I felt. I think being uncomfortable, having to discuss these issues and wrestle with them, was the whole point. I’m half Puerto Rican and half Irish, so while I do identify as Hispanic, I have light skin. There’s privilege connected to that. I want to think about how that privilege has given me an unfair leg up at times, even when, of course, I’ve been discriminated against as well. Because the truth is, whatever discrimination I’ve faced doesn’t negate that having lighter skin has allowed me to move through America in a different way than someone who is also Puerto Rican but looks black.

At Wey’s pop up, named Saartj for Sarah ‘Saartjie’ Baartman who was abused, exploited, and paraded in shows around Europe as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, (and whose body parts remained on display in a museum until 1974), the experiment confronting wage disparity has led to plenty of debate about race and wealth in America, and how we address both. It’s made some people laugh, and others feel uncomfortable — which is absolutely the point.

Wey doesn’t have any easy answers and he’s the first to admit that. But through our discomfort, through our frustration, he’s going to make us ask the questions. How do we address this? How do we fix this? He’s going to make us at least think about the inequalities that make us uncomfortable. And he’s going to help work through those questions over a plate of food. Because if we aren’t willing to even think about these issues, then we’ll never be part of the solution.

I spoke to Wey last month — between his run of Saartj in New Orleans and before it reopens in Detroit this May (this iteration’s exact form is being kept a secret for now, but Wey has said it will involve a custom menu for each diner based on their level of privilege) — and we talked about food, the reactions to his social experiment, and the surprising problem he has with how we approach charity in America.

Can you tell me about the journey that led you to combine food with social commentary?