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Race, restaurants and the messiness of friendship

John O. Morisano and Mashama Bailey.
(Marcus Kenney)

When the Grey opened in Savannah, Ga., late in 2014, the national food media instantly latched onto the restaurant’s unlikely origin story: New York venture capitalist and first-time restaurateur John O. Morisano purchased a once-grand former Greyhound bus depot that operated until 1964. Pre-renovation, he could see where waiting areas and restrooms had been marked as clearly segregated.

His search for a chef — specifically, he had decided to find a Black woman chef as a business partner who would helm the kitchen — led him to Mashama Bailey, a sous chef at Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton’s tiny East Village game changer. Bailey had been in the restaurant industry for almost 20 years. She was ready for a big leap; a native of Queens, she also happened to have spent part of her childhood in Savannah.

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This month Lorena Jones Books (an imprint of Ten Speed Press) published a dual memoir about their experiences starting a business together called “Black, White, and the Grey.” As the name implies, the heart of the book is a frank conversation about race, the grueling realities of restaurant culture and two very different people learning to trust each other.

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Bailey and Morisano took a chance on one another, and the Grey blossomed into one of the country’s defining modern restaurants for its astounding Streamline Moderne beauty and personal, sense-of-place cuisine that Bailey sometimes describes as “port city Southern food.” She deservingly won the James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2019; I named the Grey restaurant of the year in 2017 as Eater’s then-national critic.

In most chapters the writing shifts between Bailey and Morisano; Bailey’s words are printed in bold. At times it can feel a little clunky by necessity. In Bailey’s prologue and Morisano’s introduction, they each clarify that the project began with a manuscript written by Morisano; Bailey notes that at first she felt too immersed in the running of the business and its many commitments to want to work on a book.

Encouraged by the agent and editor to contribute her voice, Bailey read the initial draft. “It turned out that Johno [Morisano’s nickname] wanted to talk about all parts of our partnership and why it’s so complicated,” she writes. “He wanted to delve into his relationship with race. Reading some of what he wrote was hard for me. He wrote things that were just plain insensitive. He had never said those things out loud. It made me angry and defensive. … Why were we even talking about race? Who wants to hear about that from a white male? What did he know about the Black community and our history in this country?”

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A first attempt at a revision fell flat: Early readers felt that Bailey’s additions read like margin notes. “Until that feedback,” she writes, “I never took ownership of the project or realized the lasting impact my voice could have.”

Cover of the book "Black, White, and the Grey" by Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano.
(Penguin Random House)

These details around the structuring of the book matter: They mirror the way the professional relationship and ultimate friendship unfolds in the story. There are times when Bailey’s portions still read like commentary to Morisano’s tales. It works best when he recalls details of planning a kitchen before ever having run a restaurant or consulted a chef. In her reactions you can see Bailey pretty much shaking her head, likely itching to rearrange the letters in the oft-mentioned “dishpit” into a word not suitable to print in a family newspaper.

Ultimately, Morisano lays down the narrative’s baseline road map and Bailey overlays her thoughts like mesmerizing weather patterns. It’s her storms and cloudless days — her family history, her process of racial reconciliation, her progress as she inches toward the Edna Lewis-inspired style of cooking that comes to define the Grey — that sink in most deeply.

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You feel her relief as she describes the day she spent with Cynthia Hayes, the co-founder of the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network (who has since died), meeting oyster farmers and other local purveyors. You lean closer to the page as she talks about the roots of violence in our society while recounting the painful loss of beloved general manager Scott Waldrup, who was hit by a car and killed in 2017.

The back and forth between the authors, including their examinations of unconscious bias, is sometimes uncomfortable — in the important way that honest, needed conversations must sometimes be. The book arrives at an ideal time to help facilitate the tough, continuing conversations around social justice and equity in the food space. However challenging their journey (including how they needed to navigate their business and connection during a pandemic), Morisano and Bailey have learned to lead by example.

Lunch with Costa Mesa’s Knife Pleat on Jan. 31

The next installment in The Times’ Dinner Series moves the action to daytime: Chef Tony Esnault and restaurateur Yassmin Sarmadi of Costa Mesa’s Knife Pleat will host a four-course lunch to be picked up and reheated at home. “Ivory soup” (a purée of sunchokes, celery and leeks with winter truffle), sea bream with fennel and olives and a citrus pavlova for dessert are on the menu. The event, on Jan. 31 at 1:30 p.m., includes a virtual live conversation with actors Eric McCormack and Dan Bucatinsky.

This is a benefit for meal delivery nonprofitProject Angel Food. Tickets are $95 per person, with a minimum of two tickets per household.

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Our stories

Arit John has a terrific story on how fufu went viral on TikTok (and mentions some places you should try the West African staple if you don’t know it).

— Winter gorgeousness: Try Ben Mims’ citrus salad with celery, feta and oranges.

— Former travel editor Catharine Hamm writes about the infinite possibilities of modern hydroponics.

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Kate Linthicum reports on the devastation that COVID-19 is wreaking on Mexico City’s dining scene.

— Closer to home: More than 50 Bay Area restaurants and wineries are suing to overturn the state ban on in-person dining.

Ben Mims' citrus salad marinated in a "salty-things" vinaigrette.
Ben Mims’ salad of sweet orange citrus marinated in a salty-things vinaigrette that includes feta, grated celery, anchovies, salt-cured olives and capers.
(Ben Mims / Los Angeles Times)


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