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A Call For Uncomfortable Conversation With Mashama Bailey And Johno Morisano

The partners in the breakout success of The Grey restaurant are now putting in the work to talk honestly about what's really important.

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.

Executive chef and partner Mashama Bailey and founding partner John O. “Johno” Morisano renovated what was once a segregated Jim Crow-era Greyhound bus terminal in Savannah, Georgia, into award-winning restaurant The Grey. The restaurant reopened for dine-in service in July 2020 after a pandemic shutdown. Their forthcoming book about their partnership and experiences, Black, White, and The Grey, will be released January 12, 2021.

MASHAMA BAILEY: Trying to figure out the type of chef I was going to become, and the type of chef that I am, had a lot to do with reflection and pulling from my own personal resources, and also from some of the greater cooks in my own life. Honing in on that as my focus and using that as a catalyst for the rest of the food also helped me reach a little deeper into the region. Because there are a lot of foodways in this region that once were really profitable, and now they’re not as profitable for a variety of reasons. The oyster community is smaller and reduced down in this region. And the shrimping community is not as vibrant as it once was because the restaurants here aren’t using local shrimp, which is a little bit more expensive than something that comes from somewhere else and is already cleaned, packaged, and ready to go.

Moving forward, I think it’s important to research those smaller communities and smaller purveyors that are local. Using them in our own service is a way to keep the conversation going.

Having an opportunity to go to Sapelo Island or any of those bordering islands of Georgia, where there is such a strong Gullah Geechee history and culture—it’s really a good opportunity to explore those places adjacent to us. They cook the same food as us, they use the same ingredients as we do. It’s the next part of the conversation.

I try to stay in communication with my purveyors. One of my biggest concerns when we shut down was that this community we’ve been working with for the last five years was going to dry up. And so staying in contact with them, utilizing them wherever we can, was really one of the more focused things I’ve been doing. It was also important to stay in contact with our pig farmers and produce farmers during the pandemic. We did farm boxes for our staff, we used donations from people who were guests of ours, and we used that money to keep our farmers engaged.

JOHNO MORISONO: As soon as we shut everything down, the first thing we did was get in touch with our team. We held a series of meetings with every single person who worked at The Grey or The Grey Market, in small groups so we could social distance. The next thing we did was figure out how we could be a bridge between the restaurant industry and the local farming and fishing community. Each Saturday, we would prepare 100 farm boxes for our team and four or five other restaurants each week, and solicit donations from our regulars and other people who were interested, and buy products from local farmers and growers and fishermen so they had a steady source of income during the pandemic.

Like Mashama said, it was to keep those lines of communication open. That reaped a lot of benefits for everybody when we started to reopen, because it wasn’t like you had to go revisit all these relationships and start from scratch—we were seeing them every week anyway.

MASHAMA: One thing that happened during the pandemic was everyone pulling together and having conversations as a community. We had group meetings with farmers and different restaurateurs, just to see where everyone’s heads were at, and to see what their strategies were.

The farmers had to learn how to pivot within this environment, and they started doing CSA boxes that were becoming more popular and profitable. They weren’t receiving the same orders a week from restaurants, but people were coming to the farms and buying boxes, so they had an opportunity to restrategize as well. And being a part of those conversations was really interesting and helpful for all of us.

As far as the race conversation goes, people are willing to talk about it a little bit more. People are more willing to broach the subject, and also to listen to what others have to say.

It was really great being here in Savannah with our mayor Van Johnson—having him lead us through these protests, having him be a part of the protests and encouraging us to remain peaceful and look at the bigger picture that we are a community.

JOHNO: Being in Savannah during the demonstrations and when this all came to a head was interesting, because our government and police took the approach that we’re all in it together, and that this impacts all of us.

It was also interesting to be in Savannah and still have access to New York, and get glimpses of what was going on up there. We’re both from there, and all of my family is still there, and so that was a stark difference. I thought being here was enlightening.

Like anything else, it was a little bit of the moment, and there were a lot of people rushing to get on the right side of the racial justice fence. I think that happened corporately all the way down the line, and I guess any movement in the right direction is good. But I think there was maybe some exploitation—taking advantage of the situation—and this is a really long-tailed issue that requires constant, uncomfortable conversation, and not just, “Let’s donate money for racial justice this week as a corporate entity because that’s what everyone’s doing.”

That’s how Mashama and I ended up doing the book, which is just a big uncomfortable conversation between us that took a couple of years. Even though in retrospect I had these thoughts and feelings I wanted to talk about, we never talked about them until we started writing the book. I did the first draft, and when Mashama read it, her response to me was, “I don’t like some of this, and I’m a little upset and offended.”

So we spent the next year and a half going through it, and at the end of it we were like, “This is a pretty good conversation that people should be having.” It’s meaningful, and it helped us get to this point in our relationship. I think we’re both desirous of continuing to be more self-aware and always getting better, doing better, being better. I think the conversation is ongoing, and maybe that’s representative of what needs to be going on outside of our little slice of the world here in Savannah.

MASHAMA: Yes, but also, like, “give me the money,” you know what I mean? If you and your corporation feel bad about the way you’ve been spending money, and now you want to invest in a local community program that’s going to help people you weren’t willing to invest in before? Do it. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s how we can start to heal. There is a lack of investment in Black communities and poor communities, and it’s a real major issue in this country. If your guilt is telling you to donate $5 million to all these causes, then by all means do so.

In our initial meeting for the book, there were some expectations set where I was like, “Uh, that’s weird.” I thought we were just two people meeting. I didn’t realize there were going to be all these preconceived notions. I didn’t think about partnering with a white person, I just thought about partnering with someone accessible. When you dig deeper, you have to come to terms with the person that you’re partnering with, regardless of where they’re from. It was more of a class thing than a race thing for me, so I thought that was interesting.

JOHNO: I just think about a line from the book where Mashama says, “Racism in the north is dressed up in a classy suit but still smells like a wet dog.”

MASHAMA: It’s very hidden. It’s very buried. I think it’s about money in the north, and it’s about position in the south. I think they’re one and the same—it’s more about physical position in the south. It’s about where the people of color physically work within the same spaces with people who are not of color.

We need more inclusion—having more people in the room, having different opinions about the state of the country, recognizing the history of all of us. We all had a major part in building this country—at least our ancestors did—and recognizing our places in that and including us in the conversation is really the next step.

JOHNO: One of the things that occurred to me as I started to get self-reflective about this, and my upbringing and my own feelings towards race and class and culture, is that it’s a work in progress for all of us. Especially for those of us on the white side of the fence. It’s incumbent upon us to put in the work and to get educated not just on where we went wrong historically, but also on how we can go right going forward.

I started out in a pretty racist place where I grew up and the type of community I grew up in. That’s just who we were, it was cops and firemen and Staten Island. I don’t think anyone in my generation will deny that’s what it was. But I know most of my contemporaries have come a very long way from that environment which seemed so normal back in the day, and seems so abnormal in retrospect. I think all that comes from open and honest dialogue, and confronting your past in a really honest way.

For a long time I was really hard on myself. And one of the things my relationship with Mashama has taught me is that every day is a new day, every time you learn something new and you advance the ball, that’s good. Don’t beat yourself up for all of the things in the past, but look forward.

MASHAMA: The cops and firemen in the environment Johno was talking about—Black men weren’t allowed to be in those positions historically, so maybe it’s about fear and control, keeping those people out of those positions by creating a racial barrier where they won’t want to be included. It’s really about who has control of the narrative of money and power.

JOHNO: That’s where this needs to go, right? At some point everyone who’s in control of the money and the power now—not at the government level, but at the business level and at the entrepreneurial level—needs to accept the fact that not everyone in the room can look like them if we’re going to change the game.

Where would I like to see this go in 2021? The African-American community, the white community, the minority communities coming together to create wealth together. Not just the white community creating wealth in an insular fashion, which frankly is what’s gone on, especially as it relates to the African-American community for the last 400 years. And there are many examples even in the last 150 years of whenever a prosperous African-American community popped up in America, it’s been squelched or destroyed.

MASHAMA: We’re learning a lot about our business model, we’re learning a lot about our team. The silver lining of this pandemic is that we’re looking at our business in a more human way, which is really cool.

We’re in a city that if you have to go to outdoor dining, it won’t be the worst thing in the world. We’re in a climate which never gets that cold. We have a community that’s rallying around us and that supports us, but it’s scary because we still need more money to survive. The less we do, the more of those hard conversations we will have with our staff or purveyors for not being able to keep them full time, or whatever the consequences may be from some outbreak or governmental shutdown. We don’t know what’s going to happen in winter. We haven’t had time for a lot of focus on steering this ship. We’re all just figuring it out together.

JOHNO: We started doing this thing in 2019 called “mafia lunch” once a quarter. On a Friday we would just invite our regulars, our die-hard people, and we would open our doors at 11 a.m.—open the bar for drinks, and we’d eat and drink the day away. I would love to be back to mafia lunches in 2021 where you can be together. We’re a hugging restaurant—we hug our guests when they come in because we’re just so tight with our regulars. If we could do that by the second or third quarter of 2021, that would be awesome.