It’s been 10 years since the Bronx-based cooking group Ghetto Gastro was founded. And it’s a sign of how ambitious it was from the start that “we’re still in the early stages of achieving what we set out to achieve,” says co-founder Jon Gray, 36. Part of the “global movement” plan . Apart from Gray, a former Fashion Institute of Technology student who used to co-run a small denim company, the current team includes chefs Lester Walker, 41, who previously worked at New York restaurants Jean-Georges, Buddakan and Eleven Madison Park, and Pierre Serrao, 34, who trained in Italy.
The GG squad (as they call themselves) have already achieved a lot. They have hosted dinners for 1017 ALYX 9SM and Rick Owens; organized events for Cartier, Sotheby’s and Off-White; and developed merchandise including “Food is a Weapon” T-shirts, pantry items such as waffle and pancake mix and kitchen appliances (sold at Target and Williams-Sonoma). In the pandemic they teamed up with non-profit Rethink Food to distribute meals to Bronx residents.
Being where the art of cooking meets community activism, their core approach is about “using food as a medium to tell stories”, says Gray. Like the story of race relations in the United States told through his “Amerikkkan apple pie”, which was first served at an event in 2016 on plates with a chalk outline (or was it icing sugar?) of a dead body. “The only thing as American as apple pie is the oppression and brutality of black people,” says Gray. “It was really just to spark a conversation. The bottom line is always deliciousness. Because if [a dish] doesn’t taste good who cares?”
That pie – a layer of pickled and poached apples with apple compôte and ginger crumble – is one of the recipes in his first cookbook. Game Black Power Kitchen. Although “cookbook” hardly does it justice. Walker’s term is “Manifesto”, and the preface frames it as “a love song to the Bronx, but also a treatise and travelogue, Black history and food, and a culinary and cultural challenge”. Says Gray: “We wanted to break the norm in print.”
As well as recipes there are artworks by Amy Sherald, Kerry James Marshall and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, among others; conversations with the likes of rapper A$AP Ferg, Thelma Golden of Harlem’s The Studio Museum and Nigerian chef Michael Elégbèdé; plus a commendable foreword High on the Pig author/academic Jessica B Harris.
The book is full of stories; a lot about the Bronx, where Gray and Walker grew up, and its diverse food culture. We get their take on the classic bodega sandwich; a vegan version of General Tso’s chicken from their favorite Chinese takeaway; and a recipe for fritto misto, which comes heaped on plates at the kiosks on City Island (“Hood Hamptons”). They also share their “Twerk n Jerk” spin on jerk chicken. Because how could they not? “We grew up eating jerk chicken,” says Walker. “You go to certain parts of the Bronx, you smell the spices, you hear the conversations, the music. It is a dish about joy, about celebration, about recreation.”
The book also pays tribute to their mothers, celebrates Black pop culture (with dishes like King Jaffe Jollof inspired by Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America) and makes the case for healthy eating as a vehicle for social empowerment, including among prisoners: “This collard green salad [is] reject the nutritionally deficient foods that end up on the prison plate,” adds the entry for the State Greens, whose dressings include Bragg Liquid Aminos, toasted sesame oil, manuka honey, shallots, garlic, ginger and spring onion. .
Many of the recipes are plant based. As Serrao says, black people throughout the African diaspora have long had plant-based diets. And while so many African-American communities are still deprived of healthy options (through “food apartheid” by only having access to bodegas and corner stores), the focus on plant-based eating, Walker says, than prioritizing a “black future”. [over] black history”.
Usually, the team has high hopes. “I see this as The Joy of Cooking it matches the Bible,” says Gray. “AKA basic instructions before leaving the world.” Or to put it another way: “The market rate for GG’s dinner is a quarter of a million dollars. This is $10m worth of prescriptions.” As they talk about their own imprint, on TV and other media, this oven, as Gray says, is only heating up.
Ghetto Gastro presents Black Power Kitchen by Jon Gray, Lester Walker, and Pierre Serrao, by Osayi Endolyn (Artisan Books)