Name: Jon Gray
Place of birth: New York, New York, United States
Mr. Gray, your culinary collective Ghetto Gastro is pushing the boundaries of gastronomy, activism, and storytelling. Which have you found is more resonant for your messages: food or words?
I think they all have a place! You can't tell the story of food without words. But you can't come up with any words if you haven't eaten. (Laughs) I think they both have a role, but I think what myself, and Pierre Serrao and Lester Walker, the other co-founders of Ghetto Gastro, have learned is that humans need an explanation. The difference between us and other species on the planet is our ability to create and our need for mythology. So I think words are extremely important.
Has cultural storytelling always been something that’s interested you, even before you started Ghetto Gastro in 2012?
Yeah, it was always about storytelling! It's always been about telling the story of our communities in a way that was radical and different and laced with inherent value. Because often we're told lies about what's valuable, and what's not, and that's dictated by people usually outside of our culture. So it penetrates. The slave mentality is real, and the chains can often be in our mind: how we see ourselves and how we view each other in our contribution. So we just wanted to shed light on the importance of these contributions. We wanted to create a platform for that. It's not like we have to be Bruce Wayne, and put on a suit to become activists, right? We can do that, we can incorporate it into whatever we do. And we didn’t see that being done in the gastronomy world, so we decided to do it.
“We care about the things that we care about because they affect us. I don’t have the privilege to not care about all of these things.”
You’re broaching those topics in your cookbook Black Power Kitchen, and products like your Sovereign Syrup. Are you also telling those stories through the dishes you serve at your events?
Sure, I mean, look at our cornbread, crab, and caviar dish. This is a dish layered with storytelling. Cornbread, which we see as a collaboration between Indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans who were brought to the continent. Then you have the crab salad: there's a saying about crabs in a barrel, that people coming from difficult environments often pull each other back, versus letting people get out the barrel. And then we have the caviar, which is perceived as a European opulent, the most luxurious thing. So that’s a different way to think about two communities that have been abused in this country.
Do you think people are taking a vested interest in that kind of storytelling? Or is it enough that they just like the food?
Look, we’re not the intention police! As long as we're doing work that we're proud of, we don’t mind. It might have been polarizing in the past, but I think the beautiful thing now, it's that the kind of messages we’re sharing is more in vogue. People care about black businesses, and they're not offended when people are really passionate about putting their blackness in the forefront, especially since George Floyd got murdered. But at the same time, although we talked openly about that in that dish, it's not always so literal. Sometimes it also comes out naturally in the way we think about our reality.
What do you mean?
Well, for me, it’s not an effort to think about people that are in bondage or poverty. I have a brother serving 18 years, you know? This is my reality. I might do a TED talk, but I might right after have to take a call from prison. We care about the things that we care about because they affect us. I don't have the privilege to not care about all of these things. Like, even with material success or being celebrated, life is still very real. I still live in the Bronx, I see people in illegal housing here, there’s a real sense of community. They watched me grow up, they watched me do the wrong thing. And now they can see me do the right thing.
Is that why you’ve started at home in the Bronx with your culinary projects?
Home is where the heart is! We often take for granted the things that are super accessible to us, whether it's our people, our family, your neighborhood; sometimes you take them for granted until you no longer have them in your life, right? So I think being able to delve in and gain knowledge on the things you’ve experienced over time and have an understanding. We’re exploring this in our podcast, In The Cut, actually. We’re exploring different foods and cultures we know and love from The Bronx and really getting to the root of them, so we’ll take something like jerk chicken or chopped cheese, for example, and go to the restaurants and bakeries and delis, get to know those nuances, learn the origin story. It's a deeper resonance for our lived experience.
The Bronx is also where your journey with food actually started, eating those kinds of iconic dishes like jerk chicken and chopped cheese.
Exactly, but also even earlier than that, living in Spanish Harlem with my mom, we bonded by eating and going out to restaurants. I got my first bit of independence and confidence in the restaurant when I would find something on the menu that was good. I was good at ordering, you know, even at the age of six and seven, people would give me the responsibility to order for the table. Food was always something that I loved, I loved to take my friends out to eat, I loved to spend money on food. I was hustling — this is back in my drug kingpin days as a teenager — and I would drive around with this guide book of the best restaurants. I knew if I had to go hustle and do some drops in a certain neighborhood, I'm looking in the guide book, like, what’s popping over here! (Laughs)
“I feel like whatever we’re gonna do, it’s gonna work! When you put in the reps, and you do the work and take your time, it will be fine.”
How did you go from drug kingpin to co-founding a culinary collective that has worked with everyone from Marvel Studios to Rick Owens?
I found myself at a crossroads in my early twenties! I didn’t know what I liked I had no idea what my “passion” was because I just was about making money. So one day I asked myself, what would I do if it wasn't in a pursuit of money? And the answer was food.
Were you ever worried about the path you chose?
I have an extreme level of confidence, so I often feel like whatever we're gonna do, it's gonna work! (Laughs) I think also when you put in the reps, and you do the work and take your time, it will be fine. I wasn’t concerned. I mean, some days I did wonder, “How did I have more when I was 16?” It was an internal battle about my own value… But I really wanted to do something positive, something different.
And can you see the seeds of change that you’re creating within your community?
I think a lot of times, you can't smell your own flowers from the seeds that you planted. Especially when you're in the work, it’s like when people ask you, “How does it feel?” I'm like, “It feels the same way when I'm waking up and going to work!” I'm trying to get better at letting it sit and absorb enjoying the moment because I don't want to just go through life and not have any memories. That said, I do think that communion and coming together, convening in a literal sense is something that can be used for change. Talking about things like the environment, climate change, agriculture’s effects on ecosystems… If we come together to change some of our practices around food, we actually can change the world.