Mashama Bailey is the most important chef in America
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I’m sitting at the bar of The Grey, Mashama Bailey’s restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, eating fish dip on a slice of baguette. The lights are low. The dip looks like old potato salad from your aunt’s picnic. But the flavour is deep, acidic, smokey, eggy and a little bit sweet. It’s made of catfish, the bartender tells me, and has been cooking in a smoker behind the restaurant all day.
Two terrines arrive, square-shaped, pinkish grey, with a dollop of pork pâté and a pickled egg. To the eye, it’s a 1950s Americana cookbook still life. To taste, it’s far more refined. A bite of one makes me miss the other until they’re almost all gone. I ask the bartender to repeat what I’m eating. Foie gras, he says. Foie terrine.
As we talk terrines, the lights in the restaurant blast on. It’s a cold white light, like someone’s elbow hit the wrong switch. Above us is a tangle of harsh, round fluorescent lamps hanging from the rafters, spaced out like stars. They glare down, breaking the fantasy of our meal. I look around but two minutes later, it’s all back to normal.
“Is everything OK?” I ask the bartender. He hands me a laminated page on which three paragraphs have been printed. It’s a statement from a local Savannah artist named Marcus Kenney. The installation, it reads, was partly inspired by abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s escape to freedom, the “stars” in the ceiling analogous to the stars by which fugitives made their way north on the Underground Railroad.
Dating from 1938, this building was once a Greyhound bus station and was segregated under the southern states’ Jim Crow laws. Transit in America has always been a complicated and dangerous endeavour for black people, who were and often are harassed, stared at, turned away.
Ahmaud Arbery, the statement continues, was shot dead by three white men in 2020 while jogging near his home, less than an hour’s drive from here. The lights turn on every hour for two minutes, 23 seconds, marking the date Arbery was murdered. It’s an ugly glow on purpose. We’re not meant to look our best; we’re meant to look at ourselves.
More food comes. Candy-sweet beets with whipped feta. Local cobia, a firm, flakey whitefish found along the southern coast, with neon green romanesco. The room is humming. In one corner, Dr Jessica B Harris, today’s matriarch of African American culinary history, dines with Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, the food world’s most respected heirloom rice distributor. Tomorrow, they plan to survey the nearby rice fields, which Roberts says look like the plains of west Africa.
Bailey, 48, rushes over to me. “I gotta go,” she says. She’s tall, about six foot, quick to smile, and looks, in this moment, like she’s trying not to be recognised. We spent the day together, ending up at her restaurant. She has seen Harris, which she wanted, and it’s time to leave. A few months later, Bailey will be named the best chef in America, winning Outstanding Chef at the 2022 James Beard awards, the Oscars of food.
For now, I stay and nurse my drink, looking over this space that has been diligently restored to its original design, so the past seems to sidle up alongside us. Many of the diners in the room are in town, like me, specifically to visit The Grey.
America was built, its economy nurtured, its crops cultivated, its kitchens run, by the enslaved. What most people consider southern food is mostly a blend of west African and indigenous North American elements, with colonial European influences. Okra came on slave ships from west Africa. So did lima beans, watermelon and yams. Rice, one of America’s most lucrative crops, was harvested by African Americans, who brought the expertise with them to make it thrive on a new continent.
The food you know as American food? That’s also black. Barbecue has roots in west Africa, possibly originating from the Hausa word babbake, and the first pitmasters were enslaved men. One of the most important chefs in American history is virtually unknown: James Hemings, brother of Sally Hemings, property of Thomas Jefferson. Hemings trained in Paris, then cooked at Jefferson’s home Monticello for America’s revolutionary elite. From his small basement kitchen, he perfected and popularised the dishes most synonymous with being American: french fries, ice cream, mac and cheese.
Many Americans are looking critically at the history they’ve been taught, giving Bailey’s work, which reclaims ancestral and cultural history, new urgency. “What is black food in America, who are the black cooks in America, and how have black Americans influenced American food?” Bailey says when we meet in March. “That’s really what I’m in search of.”
We’re in Forsyth Park, Savannah. Within seconds, we’re deep in conversation as if we know each other well. We spot her business partner, John O Morisano, walking toward us through the park, his foot in a massive orthopaedic boot. “Here comes Johno, limping along,” Bailey says, laughing. He shrugs, tells a detailed story about his broken foot, and they ping-pong through topics: physical therapy, his dogs, her dog, how hard it is to staff in Savannah, their respective levels of stress. They’re opening a restaurant in Austin, Texas — the Diner Bar in the Thompson hotel — and she’s training all the new chefs, which is hard because “the way I cook, it’s very nuanced”.
Morisano shakes his head. “What?” Bailey says. “So anyone can cook my food?” There’s a pattern to their back-and-forth: raise an eyebrow, lightly tease and follow with a heavy dose of loyalty. “The funny thing about Mashama’s food is, everyone thinks they can cook it, because of how it shows up,” says Morisano. “And then they eat it, and they say, ‘Wait, what’d you do there?’ A lifetime. That’s what she did there.”
The past few years have been a whirlwind of press and praise. In 2019, Bailey was featured on the Netflix show Chef’s Table and won a James Beard award for best chef in the south-east US. That made her one of just two black women ever to have won a James Beard. In 2021, Bailey and Morisano co-wrote a memoir, Black, White and The Grey, about the journey of a black female chef and a white male investor starting a restaurant.
Bailey and I walk from lunch through downtown Savannah to The Grey. We talk about a yoga retreat she went on (“which was really hard! I had been smoking and, after that, I was like, forget it, I quit”) and stress management (“every time I break up with someone, I cut my hair”).
She tells me she wants to get more involved in local politics as we turn on to Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard. The art deco facade of The Grey stands before us. We cross the threshold, an original Greyhound bus logo beneath us, worn by thousands of feet.
The work of researching, recording and reclaiming African American history through food is much bigger than one person. In 1976, the esteemed chef Edna Lewis wrote The Taste of Country Cooking, a seminal cookbook that inspired Alice Waters to found the farm-to-table movement and, 20 years later, inspired Bailey.
Harris, a professor emerita at Queens College, City University of New York, and a culinary historian, has been writing about black food for nearly as long. Her 2011 book High on the Hog became a Netflix docuseries of the same name and motivated hundreds of chefs, journalists and academics to continue tracing and codifying the history of African American food.
To a certain extent in the south, southernness is always the subject. The region’s most lauded chefs, especially the celebrities, often focus on what makes specific ingredients or techniques or tastes uniquely southern. This can quickly turn into pantomime. One of the things that makes Bailey so fresh is that it’s clear she’s not performing southernness. She’s currently chasing lost foodways along the Georgia coast. Here are some things she’s obsessed with:
Hearts of palm. Hundreds of years ago it grew in Georgia but has since been depleted. It was called swamp cabbage, and she’s looking for a farmer in the region who will grow it for her again.
Cumberland sauce, a British condiment often eaten with game. It’s usually cooked with port and citrus. But in Georgia, a plant called roselle (otherwise known as hibiscus or Jamaican sorrel) is plentiful. They use that, rather than port wine, in their sauce at The Grey; it’s tart and floral and slightly sweet.
“Mashama’s super-obsessed with old cookbooks,” says Trevor Elliot, her chef de cuisine. We’re standing in The Grey’s small kitchen, on the site of the old bus ticket office. Elliot moved to Savannah from New York’s fine-dining scene to work with Bailey. “That’s one place where we really hit it off. We got excited going through recipes from the 1870s,” he says.
Historic downtown Savannah is a haunted grid of Victorian homes and old oak trees, drooping with Spanish moss. Houses, statues, streets and parks bear the names of military generals: Oglethorpe, Mercer, Greene. Because there were no restaurants, these men’s wives entertained frequently. Their cooks were often African American, their names lost to time.
But Elliot says you can tell from the cookbooks they were brilliant. “These old books, there’s no pictures in them,” he says. “So you just read something like ‘jellied ham foot’ and it gets your gears going.” He shows me a ham hock terrine. They brine ham shanks, smoke them, braise them, then set them in aspic, a jelly made with meat stock. It wobbles in cubes. “Cool,” I say. “Yeah,” he says. “Super old school.”
Bailey is obsessed with potlikker, the liquid left at the bottom of the pot after you cook greens. One night she came home from Austin to an empty fridge and a freezer stocked only with shell-on shrimp and a ziplock bag of collard greens. In her pantry, garlic and lima beans.
She cooked the greens, then used the potlikker to cook the beans. She made oil with the shrimp shells and garlic, and poached the shrimp. Not in the usual way, in a court bouillon with wine and lemon, but in the potlikker and shrimp oil. It was an earthy, funky, bitter, deep stew. “I’ve never seen that anywhere before,” she says. “But it totally made sense, and I could see someone a hundred years ago eating it. These ingredients keep giving.”
Potlikker has history, too. Every good southern cook knows that flavour is concentrated in this swampy green juice. The nutrients, too: vitamins A, B and C, as well as iron and potassium. In the antebellum south, plantation owners ate the greens and ignored this juice, which the enslaved kept and fed to their families.
For generations, black families in America have used potlikker in their cooking. Generations of poor working families, black and white, have lived on it. A salvage food and an elixir. But who’s not to say it isn’t akin to a Japanese chef’s ramen broth or an Italian chef’s tomato sauce? That night, Bailey realised she could standardise potlikker as a stock. They use it now in a variety of dishes for an earthy, southern backnote.
“Mashama’s a badass,” Roberts, the Anson Mills founder, told me in the restaurant that night. He’s brought many of America’s best chefs to his rice fields, he said, but Bailey was different. She and her team went right into the fields. They wanted to know how rice was historically cultivated, ripped off the stock, sifted and ground. And they worked out there for 10 hours straight.
Bailey was born in The Bronx in 1974 to social worker parents. They were young, and her name means “surprise”. Four years later, they moved to Savannah, a time Bailey remembers as “pure and free”. At her grandmother’s house nearby, she formed her warmest early memories of food. Bailey’s mother is one of nine siblings and Bailey among the oldest of 30-plus grandchildren, so her grandmother’s home was “active and loving”, the food on the stove simple and delicious. When she cooked, Bailey’s grandmother told her to “love that thing up!”.
When Bailey was 10, her parents moved their family back up north into the basement of her father’s family home in Queens. New York was different. “I felt like I immediately was not an innocent child,” Bailey says. “I had to be protective of who I was and where I came from.” As her parents worked multiple jobs, finished college and got their social work degrees, food became a comfort.
Her paternal grandmother was an excellent cook, with bougier taste. They’d go to Zabar’s, a Jewish deli, for bagels with scallion cream cheese. She’d open Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking and make goulash. She introduced Bailey to different ethnic foods.
A self-defined latchkey kid, Bailey would pick up her siblings from school and make sure they were fed. “I had responsibility from a very young age. And I was super-resentful of that for a very, very long time,” she says. “I think that’s a lot of the reason why I didn’t want kids, and why I live this independent lifestyle, because I felt like I was robbed of my youth.”
She laughs. “My mom and dad are going to kill me.” They also taught her she could do whatever she chose, regardless of who she was. Today, they’re proud and worried she isn’t getting enough sleep.
After college, Bailey trained in social work and took her first job at a homeless shelter in Queens. She hated it, got fired and went to culinary school. She became a personal chef to a wealthy white family in the Hamptons, which her parents did not like — “it reminded them of being a domestic” — then moved to Prune, a beloved Manhattan restaurant run by chef Gabrielle Hamilton. Through Hamilton, she met Morisano.
Morisano and Bailey each had something the other wanted. Morisano made his money in the tech sector, had moved to Savannah from New York and decided on a twilight career as a restaurateur. He just wanted one great local spot with consistent service and excellent food. He had purchased a rundown former bus station and frantically needed a chef and business partner.
After meeting with a few white men “who looked like me”, he decided the right chef for a formerly segregated space would be a black woman. A white man “seeking” a black woman made Bailey cautious. But she also knew that if she wanted to start her own restaurant one day, she’d probably need a white investor or to borrow from a white-run bank.
They met in 2014. Morisano showed her the building’s blueprints. He talked about the old “coloured waiting room” and the “white waiting room”, and she realised it was a bus station. “Is it intact?” she asked. “Yeah,” he said. “I got on that plane just to see a piece of history in the south,” she tells me. “But as soon as I walked into the space, it felt like my space. It felt like it belonged to me. To us, really. I thought, I belong here, and I’m supposed to do this.”
We’re sitting upstairs at The Grey, in what was once the white women’s bathroom and powder room. Below is a cramped space with a low ceiling, which housed the entire coloured waiting area and bathroom facilities. The upstairs room is now a spacious private dining room, but you can see marks in the floor where there were toilets and walls.
“When I moved down to Savannah,” Bailey says, “I was totally in over my head.” She’d never led a kitchen or made a menu. She tested dish after dish; they didn’t quite hang together. Morisano kept floating Italian-influenced food. “After a while, I told him, ‘I’m not Italian!’” she laughs. “I’m black. I don’t want to take something people have been cooking for generations, that they hold true to their heritage and make it my own when it never belonged to me.”
Bailey needed a guiding principle, something that would invoke memory and presence, something she could return to repeatedly for inspiration. Once that was settled, she could let in other influences, the Italian, say, or the techniques she learnt in France as an intern, or what she held on to from growing up in Queens.
She landed on two people who conjure her deepest food memories: her grandmothers. It wasn’t about their actual recipe, so much as their intuition. Not “they cooked greens so I’ll cook greens”, so much as “how do you know this food is done?”.
I ask Bailey what she thinks it takes to redefine black food in America today. A lot, she answers. This is arguably the biggest moment black people have had in US history to express the true black experience in America, both the joy and the heartache. “We’ve been kept out and away from so much that the little bit that we have, we haven’t wanted to share or educate others on it, because it feels like there’s not enough for us to even hold on to.
“When we start to, we get this traumatic feeling that things may be taken away. Because there’s a history of when we have joy, when we express joy and try to share that joy, it’s taken or exploited. And you know, that’s abusive.”
You’re taught at home to protect that, she continues. Her grandmother’s generation didn’t talk about anything. Her mother’s began to talk. And now, in 2022, black Americans are sharing more than ever. This work of reclaiming has been collaborative and educational, and includes a lot of people. But for all these reasons, “expressing it, and figuring it out through food, it’s going to take a long time”.
Bailey says she “worked really hard in my thirties to be invisible”, and I ask her how it feels to be celebrated. Uncomfortable, she says. “I feel insecure; I feel super-secure. I feel proud; I feel really scared. I feel fear; I feel happiness. But mostly I’m humbled.”
On my last morning in Savannah, I have coffee with Morisano and ask him how much this project matters to him, the work Bailey is doing with her cooking. He’s been resisting my attempts to get him to answer the question, insisting his interpretation is not important. But, finally, he gives in. Bailey’s point of view is fresh, he says. She has a world-class palate, she’s vulnerable and she never wanted to be famous. But she is also never afraid to speak honestly.
“If she continues to develop her voice and her point of view, could she be [like] Dr Harris? Yeah,” he says. “Does she want to follow in the footsteps of Dr Harris and Edna Lewis and all those people who laid the tracks? She definitely does. And I think she should.”
In early April, after the James Beard Foundation names Bailey as a finalist for the outstanding chef award, we catch up on FaceTime. She’d told me in March that she wants her legacy to be one of opening doors: that her cooks can work anywhere, and people will know they came from The Grey. In the wake of this nomination, I ask her what she wants. “I just want time,” she says. She looks tired. “I want to mentor, and talk to people, and absorb this amazing life I’m living. I want to support my chefs and influence my team. I want to make sure I can process, translate and pass it on.”
Two months later, I watch Bailey win. I see her and Morisano hug for a long time. I see her thank her staff for “betting on black”. Someone in the crowd shouts, “We love you!” and she finishes her speech by saying: “Today, a little black girl or a little black boy can see themselves as a future Outstanding Chef. They can see themselves in a space they’ve never seen themselves before and do what they did not think was possible. Until just a few minutes ago, that was me.”
Lilah Raptopoulos is the host of the FT Weekend podcast
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