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?

I came to food by chance. I opened up a restaurant in Detroit in 2013, I believe. Prior to that, I didn’t have any experience with food but I was just in a place in my life where I was searching to do something different. Then, this opportunity came up, and I said “yes.”

I wasn’t cooking at this restaurant. A friend of mine and owned it with me, and we had different chefs come through and cook. The food that was being served was new, modern American food. But over time, and with exposure to different sorts of food, I came to realize that I had a unique food tradition because I’m Nigerian and I grew up eating Nigerian food. I realized my palette and the flavor I appreciated and connected with was different from what we were serving in that restaurant. And I also just felt like restaurants could do more than serve food. So, about a year into owning the restaurant, I left to open up my own Nigerian joint.

I wasn’t a cook, but I couldn’t find a cook familiar with the food. I grew up on it, and I know the food. So I thought I could just do it better myself. My parents live in Nigeria, so I called my mom to ask her about recipes, and I called my aunt too. That’s how I learned. Over the phone, going online, and just trying to get my skill set to match the tradition that I knew I needed to be able to deliver.

How did your mom feel about you trying to carry on her food legacy?

I wouldn’t call it a food legacy, I would just call it food. Because it wasn’t…food wasn’t this, like, special part of our life. It was just normal. You know? That was part of my critique. American food has become abstracted. The way that people understand food in America is different from the way that I grew up eating food which is just an experience that you enjoy. You don’t celebrate it beyond what it is. It’s just eating for us, sustenance, a way of convening. All of those natural, very matter of fact things. But the way I experience food in American popular food culture, through restaurants, is this kind of abstracted reality.

There’s this sense of taking food from another country, and Americans believing they’re elevating or celebrating it… but there are also questions about whether they’re just co-opting dishes.

I think that goes back to the idea that food has been commodified. And the experience of eating has been commodified in such a way that it has become necessary to keep having new features and dimensions to what’s on the plate, and how we experience that. Because the consumer gets bored. So you have to have the new gimmick, and a new angle, but food is elemental. So, that was what I was trying to go back to when I started cooking.

I was critiquing popular food culture, but my critique expanded from experience and from paying attention to things outside of food. I realized the food culture that I was criticizing was part of a larger social contract. I started to move away from critiquing food, to critiquing the systems that have created the food and the food culture that we consume. That’s how I started intersecting my politics with the food world.

Why did you decide to tackle wage disparity in this particular pop-up?

I had been hosting this ongoing dinner series on blackness and race from the perspective of black folks. The last dinner, I did, which was in October of 2017, was inspired by an essay critiquing Jay-Z’s 4:44 album, which was espousing notions of wealth and politicism as a way to transform the black community, so talking about wealth and its importance in communities that have been historically disenfranchised. But, also, trying to understand the limitations of that solution. So, that was the dinner series that I was hosting, and then when the opportunity to have this store in New Orleans came up, it was a short window. I wanted to continue that conversation. I just had to figure out a way to have that conversation given the format that was available — which was lunch counter service. So, then the idea kind of just evolved from that.

Can you tell me about the conversations at Saartj? Did people really respond and get into it with you or did you feel that people were just listening for the most part?

Well, often people were just coming for food on their lunch break. So there were conversations but they were brief and concise. They revolved around a transaction, and so the opportunity for me was just to share very key facts. Simple facts. Like: racial income disparity in New Orleans between black and white Americans is two and a half times, racial wealth disparity nationally between black and white Americans is at 10 and a half times. So, what does that look like in practice? And it looks like this: (if you translated the statistics) if you were white (for this meal) this would cost you 12 dollars, and if you were black it would cost you 30 dollars.

So, how about we create the scenario where you have an opportunity to participate in switching up that disparity and feel, at least for a moment, the burden of cost. A burden of cost for a lunch. So that was the conversation. In that framework, the folks who were there were very responding and kind. Meaning the (white) folks were sharing their experiences and opinions about what they thought about disparity and the project in which they would have to pay two and a half times more. But, it was all cordial. There wasn’t any craziness.

How did you determine white versus black in a scenario that tackles wage disparity? Did you have anyone with lighter skin, like, for instance, someone who is Native American and may have light skin but is also suffering from a huge wage gap in America feel like they were left out of a wage conversation that was centered on being black or white?

I guess what I’m asking is: did you have people that felt excluded from this particular conversation and social experiment?

Well, I’m sure some people did, but the white/black paradigm sort of like shifted in this case. The income disparity in New Orleans is a spectrum that, at the lower end is black, and at the highest end is white. Latino folks make, on average, about $10,000 more than black folks in New Orleans. Asian folks about 10 times more than Latinos and white folks still make about $20,000 more on average than Asian folks. We were talking about the spectrum. We were talking about how on the spectrum of racial wealth disparity the lowest end is black folks and the highest end is white folks. So, we only had people who identify as white pay the 30. And all other people of color, including black folks, paid the 12. For people who are white-passing, we left that choice up to them.

There was a woman who looked white and understood that she passes as white, but was a first-generation American and her parents are from Iran. She’s Muslim, and so she identifies as a woman of color. She paid the 12. So, identity is a part of these issues — we used a scale of self-identification as a way to filter — but generally, white folks know who they are. They understand.

I think that’s so interesting. I’m Hispanic, but I have very light skin, and so I’ve had to recognize a certain level of privilege that comes with that.

I would hope so! But yeah, there was a Latina woman who came to Saartj, and she presented as white, and she said that because she passes, she’s had white people react in a way to her because they think she’s white. So, she felt in-between these two spaces.

But the thing about being white-passing is that I think, among many differences, there’s an actual historical or structural advantage that comes with whiteness. So, in this one instance, she passed for white, and whatever that means because light skin privilege is a thing here and internationally. It’s a reality.

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because egusi is what we need right now

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I read in an interview that you struggled in this pop up with people’s expectations of charitable giving. People asked where the money was going to, and that…power dynamic of wanting to control how the money is distributed bothered you. But it makes me wonder… how do we fix that? It’s really not something I’d thought about before, and you’ve made me really explore that. So, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on how we can get away from people dictating where their money goes when it comes to issues like redistributing wealth.

Yeah, I’m not quite sure. But I do know that we have problems when we look at folks who have less resources. Folks who don’t have resources are somehow judged. It’s a different understanding of the distribution of resources. It’s more a function of power and, these sort of social dynamics than it is a function of an individual’s ability to succeed.

Unfortunately, we think of wealth and those who are rich as being virtuous, and those who are poor (or who don’t have as many resources) as having some sort of vice. And we can see it nationally with policies around aid and welfare. Recently, the administration has wanted to regulate or dictate…. by basically taking away agency from folks who received benefits… what they should be getting as food, like fruits or vegetables.

I’ve heard about that.

Yeah, and it’s ironic considering that the Republican party is the party of the rugged individual and small government. We have these ideologies that we prefer, but we have different underlying ones that are connected to our generational wealth and resources by privilege. We think that just because somebody has more resources that, automatically, they know how these resources should be spent and directed.

When people were trying to negotiate how much they wanted to pay, and also, find out or dictate who the money was going to, I told them negotiation wasn’t possible. It’s either 12 dollars or 30. In terms of where the money was being redistributed it’s not based on merit or need, it is distributed indiscriminately, the same way wealth has been distributed. The people who are rich aren’t more handsome, or more generous, or more intelligent. It’s indiscriminate.

Right, and you don’t have two people who are being paid for the same job, but one is being paid more because of their race getting a say in the wealthier person’s spending. You don’t have the person who is being paid less being able to be like, “Okay, you’re being paid more, but don’t use this extra money on a vacation or only use it for your kids’ school.”

Exactly. That is so true. It’s crazy that we can’t imagine a society where we tell rich people how to spend their money. But, we are invested in telling people with fewer resources how they should spend them. It’s actually problematic. So, being able to dislocate from people’s minds, you don’t get the opportunity to be charitable here. That’s not what this is.

Where do you go next? Do you feel like you have a lot more to say about this particular issue?

My next project is going to be in the Detroit area. I’m working with a partner there who is doing work around equitable development. Detroit is changing, with restaurants, and now farms that have been weaponized into sort of development trajectories to displace people. In Detroit, those are people of color, black folks. So, the work that I’m doing there is going to highlight this issue and look at ways that we can talk about self-determination in communities of color.

So, looking at Detroit, and looking at places that are quickly gentrifying and becoming more prosperous, how do you tackle the issue of making a neighborhood more prosperous without taking prosperity from the people who live there? How do you keep a neighborhood engaged and make sure the people who live there equitably receive wealth?

I think you said it. Actually, you’re giving me something to think about. When you talked about how we don’t just dictate to rich people how to spend their money, I think a part of what you’re saying is that we have to think about wealth differently. I think we have to think about prosperity differently. Prosperity doesn’t mean that every neighborhood should have a coffee shop. It means that neighborhoods should have certain amenities. It means that neighborhoods should have access to amenities, but we have to think about it in context.

I used to live in Detroit, and there was this idea that if you wanted to prevent crime in neighborhoods in Detroit, you needed street lighting. On the surface that makes a lot of sense. But then I lived in Detroit while working in a very wealthy suburb of Detroit. That’s when I realized that, in most wealthy suburbs in America, there is no street lighting.

Oh, that’s interesting.

Or at least very minimal. So, the problem isn’t street lighting. And that’s not to say that having street lighting in certain communities wouldn’t reduce crime, but that is not the issue. The issue is what is happening in those neighborhoods, and how can we think about those neighborhoods in those contexts. It goes back to self-determination and having people in those communities decide for themselves what it is important to have.

My point is that we can very much be interested in the cosmetic or aesthetic divides that communities have. All the buildings in this neighborhood are kept up, or how the lawn looks. But all of these things that may, in a certain way, help a community, are only signifiers. If you actually work on the health of the community, then those so-called signifiers wouldn’t be as important. We wouldn’t need street lights in those communities if they were invested in, and there was wealth in those communities. And, wealth doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is driving a new car. Wealth just means access to opportunities. I think the answer would be that we need to reevaluate the way we define prosperity.

Thinking about the health of a community and gentrification, do you hope to bring restaurants in that connect with communities rather than change communities?

I think communities are always changing, and I think that we should be changing. I just think we have to talk about who determines that change, and how we’re thinking about that change. Is the change imposed or is the change generated by the community? These are very nuanced conversations, right? But we have to start to talk about who is a part of the community, and who isn’t, and, how long do you have to be in a community to be regarded as “part” of the community? So, these are really important questions that need to be asked, but, it’s in the asking that we become more aware, over time, about how we can go about interacting and being in communities.

I think that’s the most important thing, asking those questions. I’m not advocating for a static community, I’m advocating for dynamic and responsive communities based on the principles of equity and self-determination.

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there's a generation of young nigerians my age, more weary than millennial, disconnected in body from the place we were born but we carry it in our chests– even if we don't admit it. it's why we cloister about each other, and hold on to old slangs from secondary school. it's why we celebrate each other; protect ourselves against the negative stereotypes with codes (handshakes that break into finger snaps and belly laughs at inside jokes that don't require an elaborate backstory or an american accent to deliver). it's why we cook, because the smell of palm oil, crayfish and onions has been painted into the roof of our nostrils. it's why we blink furiously, because the sand from this place which exists in memory and real time is stuck in our eye. it's why we cook– we all cook: stew, rice, dodo. even meat pie, puff puff, efo. of course jollof, fried rice. but we're also afraid of… nigeria. scared of going back to the sand that is not allegorical. and the sand flies that bite and the mosquitoes that rob. but we'll go back one day– and melt into it again. into the frustration and champagne and garri with moi moi. in the mean time we cook and talk shit in our voices. our real voices, the ones buried under beige accents and baggy expectations. love to all my nigerians in the diaspora. love to the ones I call and text when everything falls apart. to ife and chuck who shit on my food but support the movement. the only people I cry to and really laugh with cus they're me. nigerians are the best fuck everything else you heard. and come through and eat my food cus it's my life when it tastes good, and it's especially my life when it tastes shit but that's when it's the best! naija no dey carry last 🙌🏾🙌🏾

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You can buy tickets to Wey’s next pop-up in Detroit (which will be up from May 2nd to May 5th) here.