Food as protest.
This is the premise of From Lagos, a traveling dinner series created by Tunde Wey that aims to get people talking about pressing matters—beyond just romanticizing about his delicious, homestyle Nigerian food over the dinner table.
His latest dinner tour series is titled "Blackness in America," and through piles of nkwobi, jollof rice, and stewed spinach, he is getting people of all races and backgrounds to participate in stimulating conversations about being black in America. "Everybody speaks from their perspective and usually their perspective speaks to larger themes," Wey informs me when I visit him at the location of his second pop-up in south Los Angeles, Revolutionario Tacos. He is busy frying plantains for the 50 people that will show up in an hour and he is as cool as a cucumber.
His menu changes in every city and is dependent on what inspires him. This particular dinner sold out in two days, which is not uncommon for him and speaks highly of the desire to have the kinds of conversations Wey is trying to inspire.
"What a lot of people usually end up saying is that if you're black, our shit is fucked up," he tells me.
Since March, he's traveled across the country to Detroit, Austin, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Louisville, and each stop reveals its own set of commentaries and personal revelations on the African-American experience. Sometimes, there are guest speakers; other times, it is a moderated conversation with the diners and Wey. The mood at these dinners—which address class, money, race, and privilege—can range from mirthful to frustrated and angry.
"There are statements that continually reinforce the realities of being black in America in every dinner, which is: You are not granted the same protection under the laws, nor the conveniences, and you're definitely not granted the same benefit of the doubt of whatever it is you've been accused of, until after the fact," Wey says. "From being a 'responsible Uber passenger' to believing you don't have the acumen of running a successful business and [getting] an investment, we are simply not given the benefit of the doubt."
Wey got into cooking by accident, when he couldn't find a chef to work at his restaurant concept that he started when he lived in Detroit. So he called his mother back in Nigeria, listened to the pointers given by his aunts, and watched as many YouTube videos as he could to figure out the recipes, techniques, and flavors of his home country's cuisine. He started doing pop-ups immediately thereafter. "My palate has the knowledge, I just had to have it catch up with my abilities and bridge that gap." He did pop-ups in Detroit until he opened a Nigerian food stand in New Orleans, where he competed with other more well-known cuisines. He felt he needed to evolve and take a more political approach to food, because his food "has always had an implicit sense of politics." So he closed it down and packed his bags.
"The reason I started cooking was to take an antagonistic position on contemporary, limited, pretentious American food," he says. In the beginning of 2016, Wey felt personally affected by the Black Lives Matter movement. He initially questioned what the movement was about, as well as its efficacy, but once he realized that his next step was to explore the question of race, he resorted to Nigerian food as a vehicle for his new mission.
Wey hopes that both black and non-black people come to his dinners and leave with a better understanding of blackness. He is currently working on procuring a restaurant space in a fixed location to document all of the discussions he and his customers have.
"Equity is fairness, to get to this point, people with privilege are going to have to give that shit up. I believe that powers are going to shift over time. Now, is it going to shift with grace or without grace? These dinners are wonderful to have, but these questions and conversations need to continue well outside of the dining space."