Summer Dinners with Tunde Wey

I consider artist, philosopher, chef, Tunde Wey, a friend. He’s not a friend who will be calling me to discuss relationship issues. Tunde is more like a shooting star or supernova—something that captured our ancestors’ imagination for a moment, and sparked their curiosity and imagination. Tunde is a brief experience, that in the right situation, leads to ripples of creativity.

I was first invited to meet Tunde by my friend Kilolo who was hosting him in Pittsburgh. She had sent me a number of articles about his past art from GQ, Time, and Vogue. Tunde has a knack for putting issues of race and economics in people’s faces. In one example, Tunde charged white and black patrons of his restaurant different prices to represent the difference in opportunity in the United States. In another, a man paid $100 for dinner, and received an empty container, all by random chance. I imagined paying $100 for dinner and receiving nothing. Is this art or just mean?

Because of Tunde’s provocativeness, I was a little afraid of the spot I might be put in, an unknown surprise to stoke my emotions. I feared leaving hungry. I feared leaving shamed. That fear in itself was somewhat visceral and provoking—I felt nervous walking into the building.

That first meeting was a round-table dinner and discussion about economics and equity. All attendees read a scholarly article about monetary policy and inflation and effects on the economy and people. We then shared our thoughts. What I found was Tunde focused on framing and then making space for conversation. There were no right or wrong answers. Tunde had his opinions and he wanted to listen to mine.

Tunde succeeded in getting ten dinner attendees to get past academic jargon and have a real conversation. “Inflation,” “interest rates,” “recession,” and “unemployment,” are often wielded by economists and financiers in ways that make most of us recoil, rather than seek and strain to understand. Yet, the discussion pushed past the professional jargon in a way that included and invited us all in, leading to a a rich and essential conversation about democracy, “The American Dream,” and living with each other.

The article explained the Volcker Shock, a plan to control inflation by raising interest rates and thus risking recession in the US economy in the early 1980s. It was named for Paul Volcker, chairman of the US Federal Reserve at the time, who is responsible for setting interest rates for money lent by the United States’ central bank, “The Fed”. In the early 1980s, prices of everyday items were rising at 10% per year. By increasing interest rates, Mr. Volcker thought inflation would be limited. Prices would stop rising. At the same time, unemployment would rise, because there was less money being lent to make investments or start new businesses. There could also be a recession. However, it was necessary to tame inflation and keep prices from increasing. There was no other way. We had to trade jobs and recession for price stability.

No other way. We had to.

Sorry, why do we need to tame inflation? Do you know?

I was clueless. I haven’t taken economics since college. I stopped listening to the Planet Money podcast in 2015. Paul Volcker knew better, right? If he says inflation is the thing that will destroy the world and there’s no other way, then there’s no other way, right?

“Ding!” Oh, my phone. I need to check my Insta…

But wait, what if we had chosen to leave interest rates alone and inflation had continued?

💰 If you have savings of $100, and inflation of 15% happens, your savings can buy 1/2 of what it could before: $85 worth of stuff. That’s just $15 less. Not so important.

If you have $1 Billion in the bank, your money is now worth $850 Million… That’s a loss of $150 Million—a number people really care about.

The ten of us had budgeted two hours for dinner, but ended up staying almost four, talking. We learned a little about economics, politics, and each other. We weren’t experts by the end of the night, but “interest rates,” and “inflation” were more approachable. We were free to ask questions and collectively answer them. Most importantly, the question of taming inflation was properly reframed from being a technical question to a values question:

  • Prioritizing inflation, prioritized existing wealth over employment → Inflation maxed out at 13.3% in 1979 but rising interest rates triggered a recession and unemployment hit almost 11% in 1982.
  • Prioritizing employment/jobs may have raised inflation, and in doing so it would have made existing savings and fortunes worth less. It would have made home and student loans worth less to the bank, at the same time making it easier for people with those loans pay them off as wages would have had to rise.

This is a discussion of values:

protecting existing savings versus protecting jobs.

Wall Street saved $ billions, but what happened to the people who lost their livelihoods?

We don’t talk about these things in the 2020s. If we read an article, it’s often presented in a sanitized, technical way. It’s seldom presented in the context of the people who will be affected.

Maybe most importantly, were there alternatives? The article presented this as a binary choice. Maybe it’s a failing of the article, but everything is presented as binary these days. Red, Blue. Black, White. Capitalism, Socialism.

It’s my experience in complex problem solving that there are always myriad solutions. Some solutions even complement each other. My experience in leadership and teamwork has convinced me that presenting a diverse group of people with a context and problem lead to diverse, creative, and effective options. Was there another way?


On a summer morning, I walked with Tunde through Point Breeze to Bakery Square. He had something to show me. We walked through the winding paths of Mellon Park, to Penn Ave and a place between two new office buildings. We talked a little about relationships, divorces, growing apart. We talked about roots, Nigeria, Iowa.

There was a forest of white metal trees. They were laid out perfectly. Each one was the same, with three layers of branches, starting about ten feet off the ground. The branches had LEDs underneath. They were street lamps, there to illuminate the pebbled concrete corridor between the buildings. An architect’s attempt to soften the concrete and make it look more natural. As the pathway continued, 300 feet beyond, the path was flanked by real trees, green, illuminated by the early morning sunlight. The leafless, white, metal lamps felt very desolate.

These are the choices we are making.

Values.

  • A lifeless approximation created with toil and sweat, but needing no water, no nurturing. Neither growing, aging, changing, living.
  • Or our constant companion since humanity began — The Giving Tree, symbiotically taking our breath and using it for their lives while we take their breath and use it for our lives.

The choice of two futures.


My second dinner with Tunde was the second seating for an experimental dinner gameshow he worked on during Pittsburgh residency.

Thematically, the evening unfolded showing the hidden luck each of us have by the lottery of our birth. This culminated in the ‘working class’ of diners having to work for our main course, while the wealthy were able to sit and watch. Our “work” consisted of blowing up balloons, counting balloons, folding dollar bills, and other tedious, satirical metaphors for modern professional life. We then had to pay for dinner with our earnings.

Some of the “work” was done answering questions that took me back to high school in their presentation: needing a written essay. However, I think they are absolutely essential questions for living with others.

  • What’s the last thing that made you anxious? How did you deal with it?
  • What was the last impossible choice you had to make? What made it impossible? Who were the characters? How did they suffer or benefit?
  • What is power? Is it the absence of constraints or the presence of limits?
  • When are you most free? How has that freedom affected other people negatively?
  • What are the talents you’ve nurtured? What were you born with?
Dinner Theater schedule and menu—we went 2 hours over…

Is this art or is this just mean?

This is essential.

We need to take time to wrestle with selfishness and selflessness. We need to account for the truth that both are human nature. Our emotions drive us to help ourselves. Our emotions drive us to help others. I think it’s only by wrestling with these things that we can move from the struggle to an integrated whole with fluid movement and respect for both.

Tunde spoke about living in the United States and then returning to his home in Lagos, Nigeria. He explained how the contrast between the overwhelming poverty in the slums of Lagos led him to anger. I didn’t ever see this anger projected. I only felt a constant challenge to look at the world from a different angle.

One thing I reflect on now, but barely noticed at the dinner: we all started with a secret amount of money. Those with money in their bank accounts, didn’t have to work for their dinner. The rest of us folded our dollar bills and blew up our balloons. I think the intent was to show the inequity of starting places. This worked, if you were looking for it. However, the activities were interesting and novel enough that I never felt bitter or angry that I had to do them. I was open to them, which is fundamentally different than suffering through a daily grind, working for food. Also, we were never at risk for not making enough to have our meal. While I am thankful for this, I think it’s important to be congnizant that we don’t all eat, and we don’t all eat the same thing.

Kilolo Luckett comments on John Barbera’s money folding, as they work to earn money to pay for dinner from the gated executive suite. Festive balloons rest on the floor, destined for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Bread and the Contours of Capitalism was a benefit dinner to celebrate the completion of Tunde’s summer residency at Alma|Lewis. Tunde was the head chef, but hosted by Kate Romane and her staff in her Black Radish Kitchen space. Seating there is communal, with groups of 2-4 seated with strangers at 10-person tables. This creates an atmosphere around new relationships, sometimes with diverse points of view.

The dinner was a victory lap, the way the final day’s ride in the Tour de France is 100 miles, an intensity in serving dinner for 60 people. Tunde interrupted and asked questions to prompt conversation. He had tables nominate speakers to provide responses to earlier topics. Yet, most of the dinner, he was in the kitchen, sweating over plating and making sure the diners were happy. When I met him on the stairs outside after dinner, he looked exhausted. I wonder if he enjoyed it. —I think he has a dream of the slums of Lagos being one day changed, of the asymmetric suffering of black people being assuaged, and I think he will find it hard to rest until that dream is realized.

While the crowd leaned Liberal, the discussion was generally non-political, and very open. There were no recriminations voiced or ideologies espoused without critical thought. It was a large discussion of what it means to live in a free society, how deeply rooted work and economics are, and how we affect each other, here in the United States, and globally.

I didn’t check my Insta once. [1]


We are lucky to have Tunde in the United States. I think the world is lucky. As a nation with tremendous economic power, it is essential we think about our place in the world and how we affect others. When I think about art, this is something few paintings, drawings, or sculptures can do. Yet, every time I ate agege bread with Tunde, he knocked me over and rolled me around. I was left thinking about it for days.

The anxiety I felt when I first read about Tunde and went to meet him for the first time was completely unwarranted. Tunde’s opinions were his own, and he would confidently express them outside his dinner experiences, but he was never judgmental. He was genuinely interested in sharing.

The absurdity of blowing up balloons, folding dollar bills, and answering essay questions to pay for my dinner is pure comedy, brilliant satire, but I can’t find anything funny to say. Tunde has reminded me of the importance of breaking bread and sharing. It’s nothing, if it isn’t profound.

Author’s Note: I had to end this somewhere. There are persistent, urgent questions [2] here.

[1] Disregard the fact that I look at Instagram once a month…

[2] “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

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