International Alert’s food pop-up Conflict Café welcomed 600 diners to House of Vans in London when it returned for its second year last September as part of the Talking Peace Festival.
The pop-up, which serves authentic food from conflict-affected countries to inspire conversations about places some diners might never learn about, ran for 12 sittings at this spectacular underground venue and raised over £6,000 to support Alert’s peacebuilding efforts.
Building on its successful launch in 2014, last year Conflict Café continued to encourage diners to discover the challenges – and cuisines – of even more countries around the world. Syria, Nepal, Colombia and Armenia and Turkey all took centre stage, with the menu and café transformed each week to reflect the different cuisine and culture.
Diners were invited to sit around communal tables, where they heard not just from the chefs but also experts from Alert, leaving feeling both full from a delicious three-course meal and more informed about the country in focus.
First into the kitchen was Syrian chef Haitham Yassin, who was born in Damascus and now cooks the food he grew up with at Ayam Zaman Restaurant in west London. Yassin started the series by preparing two Syrian feasts that included some lesser-known dishes from his home city. He recognises that food has historically been a powerful peacebuilding tool in Syria:
“Throughout the Arab world, food plays a role in resolving conflicts. When two families or tribes are in conflict, another family will act as a peacemaker, bringing them together, and serving food and coffee as part of helping to resolve their disagreements.”
Diners at these opening nights also had the chance to hear from members of the Syrian Platform for Peace, a project supported by Alert that aims to strengthen the role of the Syrian diaspora in promoting peace in their country of heritage or origin.
Haitham Yassin preparing fattet makdous – a traditional Damascene dish of lamb and aubergine
Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer then kept the Middle Eastern theme going with a mouth-watering Sunday brunch, featuring ijjeh – a traditional herb and feta frittata. The husband-and-wife team, who first met in a restaurant kitchen in Israel 10 years ago and now run Honey & Co. in central London, share Conflict Café’s vision that food and peace are intrinsically linked:
“For us, food is beyond conflict. Our cooking is a labour of nothing but love and an extension of our home … Food has that priceless power to bring people together around a table for a shared moment in a hectic world.”
Srulovich and Packer laid on a Middle Eastern feast that included a variety of fresh pickles and sauces
The culinary focus shifted to Nepal in week two, a country Alert has been working in for 15 years and where peacebuilding efforts continue to be vital even ten years after the end of the country’s decade-long civil war.
Nepali chef Rajiv KC, who learned to cook at a young age from observing his family in the kitchen, shared some signature dishes from his home country, including homemade dumplings called momos. For him, cooking is a way of introducing Nepali culture to Londoners:
“Food brings people together and when people come together with ideas and solutions, extraordinary things can happen. We can learn a lot about a nation from its food and, once you understand them, you can build bridges.”
Conflict Café was given a Colombian makeover for its third week, with colourful sombreros and masks hanging from walls around one grand banquet table in an underground tunnel. The Colombia nights coincided with a breakthrough agreement between the government and leftist FARC rebels signing an historic agreement in the country that will hopefully clear the way for a peace deal. Diners heard about the significance of this in the context of the conflict between these forces, which has ravaged Colombia for the past 50 years.
Chef Esnayder Cuartas has witnessed much of this violence, having been raised on a farm in the coffee region of the country. His memories of it are bound up in food, and all the dishes on his menu had a story to tell. Among the food he prepared was cazuela del pacifico, a seafood dish originating from the Pacific coast, his favourite part of Colombia, which has suffered from exploitation by mining companies.
Diners congregated on one long communal table for one of the sell-out Colombia nights
For the 2015 series finale, Armenian chef Natalie Griffith teamed up with Gulay Cay, originally from Turkey, to devise a special menu that celebrated the shared culinary traditions of these divided countries.
Cay (left) and Griffith (right) winding down after a busy night at work in the kitchen
Griffith is a self-taught chef who was recently inspired to set up her own Armenian supper club – the first of its kind in London – after returning from a visit to her home country.
“Food and its preparation is so important in Armenian culture and in its essence brings people together. When I found out about this project, I was instantly keen to get involved.”
Diners heard more about the historical conflict and ongoing tensions between Armenia and Turkey. Alert’s partners also attended and spoke about our ‘Recipes for Peace’ project in the border region, where food is used to bring these divided communities together and put forward a more positive narrative that celebrates their commonalities.
Conflict Café 2015 was made possible thanks to the fantastic support of our partners at Grub Club, Cult Events and House of Vans London, as well as all the chefs and volunteers who dedicated so much time, energy and expertise to making the evenings happen.
Stay informed, get involved
You can now book your seat for Conflict Café 2016! We have tickets available for both our Lebanon week (22-25 September) and Sri Lanka week (29 September - 2 October), as part of our Talking Peace Festival.
To find out more about our online ‘Recipes for Peace’ series and to submit an entry, visit our website here.
For any Conflict Café-related queries, email email@example.com.
Photos © Sal Alexander/Phil Kirk/International Alert