Tunde Wey never made it to the last pop-up dinner he had planned in Los Angeles.
In late January 2015, the Nigerian-born thinker and chef from Detroit — whose dinner at Roy Choi’s POT promised “a night of spicy food and raunchy music” — was swiped from his seat on a Greyhound bus by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents as it rolled through El Paso, Texas, en route to L.A.
Because he was technically in the United States without papers (due to overstaying the student visa that got him here 15 years prior), Wey spent the next three weeks in an immigration detention facility while the federal government decided whether to deport him. Needless to say, he was forced to cancel what was supposed to be his sold-out West Coast debut.
In the year and a half since Wey’s first attempt at a dinner in L.A. (he returns with two events next week), a lot has changed. After his release from detention, he returned to New Orleans, opened and subsequently closed a Nigerian stall in a Grand Central Market–like food hall, and contemplated what his food could say beyond the plate.
“I’ve accepted that food was tertiary to my goals,” he says. “My goals were to say something apart from the food — to shift culture, no matter how small.”
With the high-profile police killings of unarmed black men continually airing on social media and the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum throughout 2015, Wey saw how a Nigerian national — who identifies as black in America, though not African-American — could use his casual dinner projects to create conversations around the topics of race, gender, immigration, class, power and privilege.
So Wey launched a new dinner series called Blackness in America and held the first four in March in his new hometown of New Orleans. The dinners were a hit, bringing a room of mostly black people together over jollof rice and fried plantains to explore the theme and openly talk about how blackness affects their work and their lives.
“To me, race is the most important question in America, period,” Wey says. “This is the thing. This is what we need to figure out.”
Wey’s Blackness in America dinners have since occurred in Detroit; Austin, Texas; Louisville, Kentucky; Pittsburgh; and Boston. The unfamiliarity of Nigerian food, he says, works as a lubricant for what could turn into an otherwise uncomfortable or heated conversation.
“Comfort food is stuff you’re familiar with, and no one’s familiar with Nigerian food. So I’m creating a space where you’re already eating different food and so you’re more open to different programming and suggestions,” he says.
Wey returns to L.A. next week with not only two dinners but also two separate experiences. If you want the night of spicy Nigerian food and raunchy music denied to you a year and a half ago, you can find the immigrant chef at Good Girl Dinette on Nov. 7.
On Nov. 10 Wey will host a separate dinner and conversation on blackness. For this dinner, Wey is teaming up with Crenshaw Farmers Market as a community partner, and North African taco creator Revolutionario as the event host.
“It’s an important pilgrimage,” Wey says. “Now I have an opportunity to express more fully what I didn’t completely understand before — issues of power and oppression. I can return to L.A. for the first time and engage with a fuller sense of purpose.”