Mashama Bailey returns home and proves food can bring people together.

By Jessica B. Harris
March 10, 2020
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Chia Chong

The story of Mashama Bailey’s rise to the culinary stratosphere is the stuff of a legend in the making. A career changer, she studied at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City and at the famed La Varenne cooking school with gastronomic icon Anne Willan, who became a mentor for her. She worked in multiple New York City kitchens and ended at Prune, where she rose to the rank of sous chef under the equally iconic Gabrielle Hamilton (another mentor).

Bailey’s next career choice came as a surprise to many. She accepted an offer to partner with entrepreneur and venture capitalist John O. Morisano in a new food opportunity—opening The Grey restaurant in Savannah. In 2015, it was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Then, in 2019 came Bailey’s earning of the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. This was an amazing and seemingly rapid ascension, but the story is much deeper, more complex, and more interesting.

The Grey's pastrami sandwich.
Chia Chong

As Bailey tells it, “I was born in The Bronx, and (between the ages of zero and five) we went back and forth from New York to Georgia because my mom’s mom was there.” Eventually, the family stayed in Georgia until her 11th birthday, when they moved back up to New York City. Visiting grandparents in the South as an affordable summer childcare option is a common African American pattern, but for Bailey, each return to Savannah was a jubilant homecoming.

You’ll find her culinary journey with Morisano recounted in full in their forthcoming book, Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Landmark Restaurant, to be published by Lorena Jones Books in 2021. That partnership took Bailey into what had been at one time a segregated Greyhound bus terminal, through which her grandparents had probably passed.

The Grey occupies an old Greyhound bus terminal.
Peter Frank Edwards

One might expect her to have felt horror or distaste in the location, but her experience was different. “When I first walked in, it seemed like a warm place even though it had historically been segregated. It was a building that was meant to divide. But it ultimately brought a lot of people together, and there was happiness flowing through it. I think that, being a black woman, cooking and working and eating in that space, it feels very comfortable.” She continues, “That’s what clinched the deal for me. If I had come here and it hadn’t been so warm and inviting and ready for me to take the helm, then I wouldn’t be doing this in Savannah. It makes me proud that a place that was intended to separate people is now bringing together those of all nationalities, ethnicities, and races.”

And Bailey’s passion for change and commitment to her craft extends beyond the doors of The Grey. As chairwoman of the Edna Lewis Foundation, which was founded in 2012, she is carrying out the mission “to revive, preserve, and celebrate the rich history of African-American cookery by cultivating a deeper understanding of Southern food and culture in America.” Bailey says, “It’s about pooling our resources and helping each other up.”

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As for The Grey, she and partner Morisano continue to serve incredible dishes like their signature lamb that artfully combines the flavors of Greece, Ethiopia, Trinidad, and the American South. They call it “Port City Cooking,” a name that speaks to the history of the place in which they operate in a space that they have truly reclaimed and made their own, a spot to bring the whole world together around—and on—the table.

Her dream dinner party

JH: Imagine any meal you can create in your head. Who would be there, and why?

MB: Definitely both of my grandmothers, because neither of them got to really see all of this; my parents; Miss Edna Lewis, Maya Angelou, and Prince. I’d also invite James Baldwin, Miles Davis, and Marvin Gaye. Like chefs, poets and musicians have a real pulse on what is happening in the world. I might also include my nephew so he could be a witness to some of the great minds in the world.

JH: What would be served?

MB: We’d have crab cakes, baked chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, Parker House rolls (with butter and jams), a big salad, deviled eggs, and my grandmother’s seafood salad. For dessert: red velvet or carrot cake.

Her cooking inspiration

JH: Who taught you to cook?

MB: I learned so much from my paternal grandmother. She loved throwing parties and hosting Sunday dinners and Easter. Whatever the occasion, she wanted everyone to be at her house.

JH: Do you remember the first dish you prepared with her?

MB: I think it was a seafood salad. She directed, and I did all of the chopping, cutting, and mixing. The most delicious thing we ever made together was codfish cakes.

Jessica B. Harris is the author, editor, or translator of 18 books, including 12 cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African diaspora.

thegreyrestaurant.com, 912-662-5999, 109 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Savannah, GA 31401