Tunde Wey is on a mission.
Wey, 34, a self-taught chef who has worked in a variety of fine dining restaurants is also a undocumented immigrant from Nigeria, so it’s safe to say that as a black man, there are a lot of intersectional issues that touch his life.
To deal with the anxiety around these issues, he's channeled his energy into a series of conversational dinners across the country. About a year ago, he hosted a conversation on blackness at South Philly Barbacoa (1703 S 11th St); recently he came back to the beloved South Philly restaurant to host a dinner about anti-immigration sentiment.
These dinners shared learning experience both for him and the guests. He's learned that these conversations are difficult, intense, confrontational, and they take a great deal emotional energy. While dining out can be an escapist exercise, Wey’s dinner and conversation events enable guests to confront, learn and discuss the current issues that affect a percentage of the population.
Perhaps the greatest thing this past presidential edition brought to light is that there are some deep seated anxieties among American citizens as it relates to immigrants. However, it’s no secret that immigrants fuel a huge part of our food system, from farm to table, literally. Whether they’re out in the fields picking crops or in the kitchen preparing meals, it’s generally likely that the food we consume passed through the hands of an immigrant.
Being an immigrant can present a series of challenges depending on what age you are when you get here. The number of systems and cultural cues that you have to become adept in can be staggering, you're learning new geography, having to find housing, schooling, and a job, it's no small feat. But the entrepreneurial spirit that fuels the immigrant's drive to leave his own country and culture to start anew is the same one that helps make them strong economic contributors and business owners.
It was about 17 years ago when Wey decided he’d move to Detroit. His foray into the culinary world arrived by chance; a former roommate wanted to open a restaurant, so they pooled about $10,000 and started an eatery in about three or four months.
The restaurant opened only on weekends and served contemporary American food made by a rotating series of guest chefs. Wey wasn't cooking at the time, but after a year he became disillusioned and conflicted with the concept along with its limited menu. So he left to travel and learn how to cook; born Nigerian, he still had to teach himself to make Nigerian food via YouTube videos – along with some assistance from his mom and aunt. Wey describes Nigerian food as a series of starches, stewed vegetables, smoked fishes, assorted fried seafood, along with fermented legumes and seeds.
His primary goal? The food he prepares has to be as African as possible.
In 2015, he settled in New Orleans after he got an opportunity to cook there. However, it’s his status as an undocumented immigrant that serves up a consistent plate of anxiety. See, his visa expired in 2007, and although he’s married to an American citizen, he’s currently in the process of going through deportation proceedings, he has a court date in November.
His spouse also filed a petition on his behalf to help him start the path toward citizenship. For that to go through, they have to prove their union is authentic. In preparation for an upcoming interview with immigration authorities, he said he's asked to remember mundane details that most of us never have to pay attention to, such as the color of a bathroom wall in the home he shares with his wife, for instance. They've had to create a paper trail of their union to provide that it's real, they've even kept receipts for their wedding ring.
Once his marriage is approved by immigration services, he has a better chance of getting on track toward achieving legalized documented status.
Depending on what type of communities you're in or your social circles, being undocumented can be extra challenging. He has no state-issued ID card. He has his Nigerian passport, but he still can’t open a bank account. Wey said the most challenging thing is being detained and having to constantly be prepared for something to go wrong. To confront the feelings of powerlessness surrounding his immigration status, he figured that what he could do was create spaces where he can assert his own perspective of this issue.
Self-medication: That’s really how his dinner and conversation was spawned.