I recently met Ghetto Gastro co-founder Jon Gray in Detroit’s historic Church of the Messiah where he was speaking on a panel with performance artist Juliana Huxtable and cultural critic/filmmaker Dream Hampton. Assembled by Culture Lab Detroit, the discussion that night was about representation—"seeing and being seen." Four Bronx natives—Gray and his collaborators Pierre Serrao, Lester Walker, and Malcolm Livingston II—represent their borough in everything they do. Immutable to expectations of what culture is or isn’t, Ghetto Gastro brings identity to the fore of their culinary collaborations, compromising nothing, and willing and able to bring their vision to every sphere of culture, be it art, music, fashion, film, design, or activism. Their vision is one of inclusivity that requires seats at the table for them to represent and create dialogue about blackness and the African diaspora in what are (let’s face it, art people) predominantly privileged spaces.
Since their inception in 2012, the collective has hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for fashion designer Rick Owens and collaborated with conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas to create their now-legendary Black Lives Matter-inspired apple pie (“It’s about as American as killing black men,” explains Serrao in a recent profile in Wired). They’ve hosted dinners with Martha Stewart and were commissioned to develop a “Taste of Wakanda” menu for the premier of the film, Black Panther (“Bringing the Vibranium to your cranium,” Gray notes in a behind-the-scenes interview). They even appeared on Rachel Ray to make curried lamb. When I’d spoken with Gray, he’d just gotten back from a collaboration with London’s Serpentine Galleries where they hosted "Radical Kitchen," dissecting colonialism through the legacy of yams.
Even prior to Ghetto Gastro, Serrao, Livingston, and Walker had worked as chefs at some of the worlds undisputed best restaurants, including Copenhagen’s legendary Noma and Chelsea’s Rouge Tomate, and had been private chefs to clients like Diddy, Jay Z, and the Beckhams. Still, no matter how far they’ve flown, what remains true to the heart of Ghetto Gastro is bringing that visibility and activist spirit back to the community and creating opportunities that expand beyond themselves. In the following interview, I speak with cofounder Jon Gray about the collective's past, present, and future.
Let's start at the beginning for those who don't know—how did Ghetto Gastro get started?
We started Ghetto Gastro about six years ago just feeling like we wanted to really express our voices and our backgrounds in a way that was different in space—that space being art, entertainment, fashion... Food was always going to be the medium but we had a specific point of view and felt that we could merge all of the genres into a thing. When I think about Ghetto Gastro, it's the food, it's the aesthetic, it's the feeling, it's the vibe, the music... it's really all of those in conversation.
If it's possible, what would you say is the two-sentence mission of Ghetto Gastro?
Bronx to the world, world to the Bronx. Thinking about what that means in terms of a feeling, a spirit. It's about reducing the brain drain in the Bronx and also working and collaborating with people from outside to reimagine things in an interesting way.
Can you talk about how food plays into your own identity? How did you start cooking personally?
I don't cook professionally. I'm a decent home cook but my partners are some of the best in the world. It's kind of like playing basketball and having Kobe Bryant on your team. So like... I don't actually play ball. But food has always been my happy place. It's how my mother and I bonded. She was a single parent studying late so she didn't really have much time to cook but she was always a big arbiter and appreciater of cuisine so we used to go out to eat at different restaurants. We were living in Spanish Harlem at the time and we'd go up to the Upper East Side and eat at all these different spots—Indian, Chinese, Italian, Fuddruckers back in the day when they had those gooey chocolate chip cookies. I used to study all those menus and think about food with deep analysis. I would look at all the ingredients outside of the main descriptors of the dish and ended up becoming the one responsible for ordering for the table because I guess I made good picks.
That's a lot of trust.
A lot of pressure too!
How many people are on the team for Ghetto Gastro?
I have three partners—my buddy Lester who I grew up with, Malcolm, and Pierre. I also have my creative assistant, Carly and my operations assistant, Jose. We've got Diana who's our executive sous here and Maria out in Europe. We form like Voltron—our core team works every day but everyone else joins in when necessary.
That seems to reflect a kind of trend in the food/art world. I was speaking to DeVonn Francis recently about his events with Yardy.
Oh yeah, he's the homie. It's funny, we did a cooking show recently and DeVonn was part of the food stylist/prep team. He's super cool, I like that kid a lot.
He's so articulate about what he's bringing to this dialogue about food and art, diaspora and identity. Speaking of which, how did you formulate this project? Was it conceived of organically?
All organic. Towards the beginning, I'd made a document of what I thought Ghetto Gastro could be and as we've been plugging away over the years, we've just been seeing it get closer to being that. We don't really pitch ever so every opportunity is incoming, which is exciting. It lets us decide whether or not we want to spend time doing any certain project. From that perspective, it's kind of what keeps us true and keeps us enjoying what we do.
Why was it important for you to work with food within an arts context?
I think it kind of happened naturally. We didn't go into it thinking we needed to court galleries. From the onset, we thought about what we were doing as art. It's social sculpture and performance. It's an artistic service and a labor of love.
Completely. I'm really in love with this current movement that's been revitalizing the language of '90s Relational Aesthetics to talk about authenticity and identity and community building. How aware is the Bronx community of the work your doing?
I want to do more in the community. We've been on the road so much and in all honesty, when you're not grounded, it's hard to touch the people in a way that's real. Right now it's like we pop in, they see us on Instagram, and they love it when they see us. But right now we're trying to root ourselves more in our community and do projects. For example, we're working on a community garden and education initiative that's—no pun intended—in its seed stages. Just thinking about what that looks like and how we can make it interesting and who to partner with operationally. We've been talking to the botanical garden and Sweetgreen. We've just been trying to leverage our "cool currency" to really make it matter. Like how can we create more opportunities and continue to scale it?