Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant is a new book written by Chef Mashama Bailey and Johno Morisano of The Grey in Savannah, Georgia. The pair share the story behind their award winning restaurant.
I have to admit, when I first saw the title and premise of this book, I was concerned. A Black chef and white investor cowriting their experience of opening a restaurant together in the South? I was sure it would be some kind of kumbaya, food and laughter unites us. 2021’s nonfiction version of The Help.
Boy was I wrong.
I fell in love with the book–and Bailey’s unapologetic Blackness–on page 150, when Italian-American Morisano poses a question during their first trip to Savannah:
“By the way, what does your name–Mashama–mean? How’d you get it?”
Mashama laughed a little bit, explaining, “My dad was definitely a little bit Black Power in the 1970s. My parents gave us all African names…‘Mashama’ means ‘surprise’…”
“That’s cool,” I said, admittedly not having any real understanding of what Black power was.
And then, Mashama added, “Johno, you should know something as we get into this.”
“I’m a little Black Power too.”
This exchange between Bailey and Morisano captures the essence of the novel: race matters, always. It underlines our interactions, paths, and feelings about ourselves. And in dialogues of racial “reconciliation”, Black people carry the load of teaching and understanding while waiting for well-meaning white people to catch up.
The Story Behind The Grey in Savannah
Morisano, a fireman’s son from Staten Island, is a wealthy entrepreneur who purchases an old Greyhound bus terminal in Savannah, Georgia. He is excited by the idea of transforming the dilapidated building into a chef-driven restaurant. After failed chef interviews with “macho White guy after macho White guy”, he has an aha moment: Wouldn’t it be great to have a Black woman as the executive chef?
This is a clear symbol of progress, given that the terminal was once segregated under Jim Crow. However, Morisano conjures an image of a mythical, bordering on Magical Negro figure to fulfill his vision: “An African American woman is who should run this place with me. I need to find someone who is classically trained, would move to Savannah, wants to get into business with me, cooks kick-ass food, knows how to plate, can run a kitchen, and wants to do all of that now. If she can cook Italian, I feel like she would be the holy grail.”
Pause. The irony is palpable here. Morisano seems to have so many requirements for this nameless, faceless Black woman. Much more than he had for any of the white men he was considering for the position.
A Chef For The Grey in Savannah
Enter Mashama Bailey, a classically trained female chef from St. Albans, Queens. Her own family fled Georgia in the 1920s after her great-great grandfather was lynched and the family’s land stolen.
Bailey states, “As a rule, I normally don’t trust White men and their motives…[but] we saw an opportunity in each other.” I appreciate that she asserts her own autonomy here.
Bailey is interested in opening a restaurant and needs investors. Morisano has the funds and wants the authenticity that having a Black woman at the helm of his eatery will bring. Fast forward, and the partners have two thriving restaurants in Savannah, The Grey and The Grey Market. The Grey was named Eater’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year, and one of Time magazine’s Greatest Places of 2018. What a story!
A Clear Imbalance of Power
But the story was not that simple. It never is, especially when race, gender, and class dynamics come into play.
This book was originally written solely by Morisano, who wished to share the unique story behind The Grey. Bailey was uninterested due to her hectic schedule as a chef as well as her lack of belief that she had anything to say.
As she explains, “I really didn’t want to write a book. I wasn’t even sure if I knew how to write a book or where to begin. The story of The Grey was going to be told by Johno, and I was cook with that.”
Despite her talent, 2019 James Beard Award and feature on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Bailey seemed content to regulate herself to the margins. While unfortunate, it is understandable. From a young age she was made to feel less than due to her Blackness, a simple childhood scuffle ending in her being called the n-word. This is how it starts. A subconscious tremor buried in your memory that resurfaces as perpetual self doubt.
Although Morisano writes of his own struggles with imposter syndrome due to his working class roots, his whiteness acts as a shield and salve. He came into this project guns ablazing, aware that he had a story to tell. It was only after the book was written and sold that a glaring issue becomes evident to Morisano and the publishing company: the Black female chef had been erased from her own story.
A Path Forward
First, they try to patch up the issue by annotating Morisano’s manuscript with Bailey’s words, but she is a clear afterthought.
This will not do. Morisano and Bailey are partners. They will start from scratch, taking time from work to craft this book together–just as they built The Grey itself.
They tell their complicated and messy truth through a series of nonlinear vignettes that allow the reader to truly grasp the story of the restaurant and their partnership:
- interactions with police;
- the significance of the restaurant bordering a Black housing project and a bustling white downtown;
- how Black chefs and cuisine are devalued; and
- what it means to be “partners” when one individual is a white man and has the money, and the other is a Black woman and provides the labor.
Bailey and Morisano’s story is much more than one of an interracial friendship between successful restaurateurs. It is a testimony to the depth of work America must undertake if there will ever be racial equity.
Black people cannot be added as a postscript to the country we built. It is not enough to give us a seat at the table or a chef title in a building we were once excluded from. The systems must be remade in a way that fully include us. The entire structure has to be rebuilt. This is the only way we–Black and white people–can be true partners.
If I do say myself, Mashama, I’m a little Black Power too.
A Taste of The Grey in Savannah
Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant is not only a nonfiction account of founding a restaurant in Savannah. It also includes delicious food descriptions and recipes from the authors.
One of the themes of the book is that The Grey in Savannah is led by a Black chef who loves and respects traditional Southern cuisine, but also enjoys investigating the culture behind food.
As Chef Bailey says, “Many people assume these foods [like collard greens] are all I know how to cook, and I am happy to cook and serve the food I was raised on–often that’s the food I crave–but I also want to explore Southern food through the lens of a girl who was raised between the North and the South and felt compelled to understand my ancestry through my cooking.”
Her culinary adventurousness is evident in the recipes, which are presented after chapters that relate to the events that inspired them.
The Recipes I Tried and Loved
All of the recipes were really tasty, but the standout was the Chicken Schnitzel with White BBQ Sauce. It is the show stopping dish that Bailey made when she auditioned for the chef position at The Grey.
This was my first time making schnitzel, and deep frying the chicken in clarified butter was a game changer! It added an incredible punch of flavor and buttery texture.
I admit that I was initially suspicious of the white BBQ sauce, which hails from Alabama. It is a mayonnaise and apple cider vinegar based condiment. However, it paired perfectly with the chicken.
It was almost like eating chicken tenders with ranch. This brought back childhood memories. Growing up, this dish was the only one I ordered from the kid’s menu in restaurants!
Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant is a fantastic book. I devoured it in two days. I was so interested in the dynamic between Bailey and Morisano as well as what really goes into opening a restaurant. The social relevance of it all is evident, and the recipes are delicious. I can’t wait to visit Savannah and The Grey one day, to experience the storied history and taste Chef Mashama Bailey’s food.