What’s Cooking, America? Ghetto Gastro On The Politics And Festivity Of Food

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What’s Cooking, America? Ghetto Gastro On The Politics And Festivity Of Food

Words by Mr Chris Wallace | Photography by Mr Eric Chakeen | Styling by Mr Mac Huelster

18 November 2020

From left: the Ghetto Gastro guys Messrs Lester Walker, Pierre Serrao and Jon Gray

Throughout a year in which there has been very little about which to be thankful, the guys behind the Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro have been a godsend. Inspiring, even when confronting the darkest and seemingly intractable issues of race and resource allocation in the US. Incredible when mobilising their local community to create and distribute meals during the nadir of our lockdown. And positively joyous while engaging their global network of influential friends and partners to drive necessary cultural conversations, both online and off.

The collective – borne of a mutual affinity for food between childhood friends, Messrs Jon Gray and Lester Walker, and Mr Pierre Serrao – was founded in 2012. What that meant in practice, at the time, was that Mr Walker, a champion of the cooking show Chopped, was bringing food scraps home from his day job as a chef at fine dining establishments in New York to create elaborate, genre-busting feasts for friends and family.

In short order, the guys took the show on the road, where the infectious grooves they created, and the friendships they forged – brokered in part by the sort of impresario of the squad, Mr Gray, who had studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and created lasting relationships within the industry – made them into low-key stars of the art and fashion worlds.

In 2016, they put together a kind of expat Thanksgiving at the home of Mr Rick Owens and Ms Michèle Lamy, and magazines started calling them (or recognising them to be) the coolest chefs in the world. Vogue did stories on them. Microsoft started booking them to put on events for their execs. Luxury brands hired them to host dinners at Art Basel in Miami and Hong Kong. In many ways, for the last four years, the world was their oyster.

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Then came the pandemic and the lockdown – of travel, of restaurants and of the sorts of live events that had been the collective’s bread and butter. But, perhaps fittingly for a squad that has always been focused on the best allocation of resources, they not only managed, they thrived. Most immediately, by rolling their sleeves up, and working with the kitchen staffs of shuttered restaurants in their native Bronx, the team helped get thousands of meals a day out to those in need. They dropped new merch, including T-shirts emblazoned with their message: “Food is a Weapon”, with the proceeds going to support black-owned businesses adversely affected by the lockdown.

And, when all of our eyes were online, watching Instagram tutorials on the best sourdough recipes and reading about the lack of diversity in food media, Ghetto Gastro launched its IG live series, Gastronomical Cribs, calling in on friends from Ms Lamy to Black Thought of The Roots, from Mr Tony Hawk to Ms Samin Nosrat of Salt Fat Acid Heat fame, to cook and talk about the politics of food. It was incredible – a very bright light in a dark time.

Then, just a few weeks ago, the collective released its first line of kitchen appliances, in collaboration with Crux. But if all does seem to be glowing up, and the mediums of creativity and activism in which it’s now thriving are somewhat new, its capacity for entrepreneurial innovation has always been at the core of what the collective does.

Mr Gray quit the “schmatta business”, as he calls fashion, after the economic downturn in 2008. “Growing up in conditions that we’ve grown up in, you’re always in survival mode,” he says. “Even when you are thriving. Because you’re dealing with survivor’s remorse, right? You’re dealing with imposter syndrome, and sometimes the success doesn’t feel real. You’re always ready for someone to take it away.” 

In the past, when they were working with clients, from Cartier to Airbnb, Mr Gray says, their time and attention wasn’t really their own. “You think about all of the great things we’ve done with the brand and it is great,” he says. “We got paid well, well above market. And we’re working with these luxury brands, but what they’re doing is taking our brain space and IP for an ephemeral thing that pushes their agenda. But it pulls us away from working on our agenda. The blessing in disguise with the pandemic, with the lockdown, with all of the money that we had on the books, all the brand partnerships wiped away, is that now we have the time to think about what we want to do.”

To begin with, Mr Gray says, the realities laid bare by both the pandemic and civil rights upheaval in the US was a fundamental mission. He calls it “collision of pandemics: racial inequality and oppression colliding with Covid-19”, which, of course, affected underserved communities at far greater rates of infection and death. “We really need to be of service,” he says. “To leverage corporate partnerships and our audience to amplify voices that needed to be amplified, figuring out ways to empower people on the ground.”

One of the things they’ve been doing, for years, and to which they might be finding some better reception in the wake of the waves of human rights awakenings across the globe this year, Mr Serrao says, is raising awareness around the disparity in access to foodstuffs. Food deserts and failures of distribution to underserved communities (which they rightly call food apartheid).

“I think that people are definitely open to hearing more and learning more about food apartheid,” Mr Serrao says. Though he remains understandably wary. The future of food, be it distribution, access, quality, conversation or media, is “really going to be about what happens next,” he adds. “When we get real policy change, when we see some active shifts in how people are getting fed and food sovereignty in marginalised communities. Meanwhile, they’re trying to cut Snap [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is often called food stamps], taking away even more resources for people who need them the most.”

To all of that, you add the very difficult element of the holidays – a time in which families usually gather to eat and be merry – when many families will remain apart by quarantines, if not bereft of loved ones lost. “And,” Mr Gray says, “going into ‘Thanksgiving’, which I say in quotes, because we tend to not to celebrate genocide and thievery.”

However, he says, the occasion does force us to confront our history and its lingering effects. “When you think about the economy of the entire western hemisphere being built on the backs of enslaved Africans and Indigenous Americans, who are still reeling from the effects of the past five centuries of trauma, genocide and oppression,” he says, it puts this time in perspective.

Not that there isn’t room for festivity. One of the most consistent threads running through all of Ghetto Gastro’s work – what they call “social sculptures”, which you will have encountered in their various dinner parties, or in watching Gastronomical Cribs – is the absolute joy they take in cooking. “And building community,” Mr Serrao says. “[Gastronomical Cribs] was showing people that, even if you’re in your tiny apartment, Naomi Campbell is doing the same thing as you. She’s in her house – maybe not at the same level – but she’s sitting in her house, putting together a little snack to eat and talking about her mental health practices and kind of just a place to share, right?”

So, in addition to bringing us some fun and fresh perspectives in the summer, maybe the show has given us a kind of how-to template for celebrating the holidays. “It’s spooky this year, man,” Mr Walker says, meaning the looming spectre of Covid and not any old Halloween decorations we’ve left up. “I’m from the Bronx. That’s when the mothers and aunties start working on their coquito recipes and there’s a lot of pastries being made, sweet potato pies.”

You can hear the bliss spreading across his brain as he says this. “And it’s important to check in with loved ones, but the best thing to do is keep it very intimate this year, and engage with people online, like, ‘Yo, what you got cooking over there?’”

However they end up celebrating – Mr Serrao is looking forward to the Barbadian rum cakes (great cakes) his family makes; Mr Gray also has sweet potato pie on the brain – these photos, from their little three-man party in Manhattan, in the freshest and cosiest outfits of the season are our entire mood board for holidays this year. Trust Ghetto Gastro to make even this socially distanced shoot into the decadent dinner party of our wildest dreams. It’s what they do.