Black, White and The Grey is not only a cookbook. Nor is it only a memoir. It’s the story behind a fortuitous collaboration, a powerful friendship, and the building of an iconic restaurant.
The Grey, in Savannah, Georgia, happens to be a former Greyhound bus terminal—one that was segregated, right up until 1961. The story you’ll often read in the press is that the chef of The Grey is a black woman, Mashama Bailey. Sometimes obscured is the story of how she met her business partner, Johno Morisano, a self-proclaimed Italian-American “mixed-up mutt from Staten Island.”
And that’s a shame, because the tale of how—as a team—they tackled race, class and menu planning in Georgia is fascinating. Thank goodness they took it upon themselves to share the back story with us in this book.
Positioned on the edge of Savannah’s historic downtown, The Grey looms large like an old-timey cinema. Its style is Art Deco, restored in breathtaking detail. Mashama was born in the Bronx, raised in Queens and Savannah, and trained at iconic Manhattan restaurant, Prune. Johno leased The Grey without having hired her as chef.
This book is one part Restaurant Opening 101, one part dual memoir, and one part cookbook. Johno tells the tale of building out the kitchen without having a chef’s expertise, and Mashama’s parallel narrative lurks as an “Oy, vey!” over his decision-making. (One of the most marvelous aspects about its structure is that you can’t wait for the two of them to meet!)
Each chapter ends in a recipe. The first chapter, about a tragedy in the restaurant family, ends with instructions for making the late general manager’s go-to cocktail, the Paper Plane. A chapter centered on family wends its way towards Mashama’s grandma Margie’s deviled eggs. Johno’s memories of purchasing the space for the restaurant run parallel to Mashama’s dinner party adventures.
Below is a brief introduction to the book itself. Hear Johno and Mashama tell more about their memories—the best, the worst, the weird, their shared fondness for red wine—at our virtual event. A copy of the book is included with each ticket.
Black, White and The Grey: An Evening in Conversation with Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano: Tuesday, February 16th at 5pm PST
I was born in the Bronx, New York, and lived there until I was five years old. My memories as a young child in New York City are faint and overrun by loud car noises, music, and laughter. The comforting smells of incense and cooked food wafted through the marble-floored hallways of our tenement building. I loved how those hallways echoed with the patter of my feet. At that age, I was often carted back and forth to Georgia, where my grandparents lived, so when we moved to Savannah in 1980, being there felt natural to me. I was already familiar with the South. I remembered late-afternoon thunderstorms in the summertime, eating fresh figs off my grandparents’ tree, and drinking sun tea on the neighbors’ back porch.
In Savannah, we lived in the Baldwin Park Neighborhood on East 41 Street, just off Waters Avenue. I remember the neighborhood being diverse. In New York, my whole tiny world had been Black and Brown. But here, I was introduced to the mix of colors, races, classes. and religious backgrounds that filled the homes on our street. I even had a friend from Ethiopia who lived just a few doors down from us. That made Savannah feel worldly. The elderly White lady up the street baked cookies for the neighborhood kids, my best friend, Dee Dee, lived around the corner with her grandparents in a big pink house, and within only a few blocks there were palm dates to eat right from the trees, and dodgeball games to win. There were always children outside playing as the old folks watched from their porches or living room windows. It was a good place to be a kid.
Since returning to Savannah to open The Grey, I have stepped back and looked at how much Black people have influenced all things American, and food is no exception. Racism has been baked into the clay and cast-iron pots of the cooking across this country. It took moving back to Savannah for me to realize that I’d long suppressed those feelings of rage.
John O. Morisano
At my grandparents’ home, we could escape the battles of a family that thrived on conflict: a father who worked too many jobs and still never had enough money, raised too many kids, and drank too many cans of Schaeffer on any given night. My mother felt trapped by the decisions of her younger self, and with no place else to go she asked us to ride out the storm for twenty years or so. But for two hours on Sunday afternoons, Sunday Italian gravy at my grandparents taught me that food is family, refuge, and love. That has been a driving force in my life ever since.
The moment I met Mashama Bailey, in November 2013, I began to talk with her about the relevance of these childhood memories of mine. It was not long after our very first meeting, during which we decided to explore the possibility of entering into a business relationship, that I stipulated that we, Mashama and I, would have to become family if we were going to go into business together. That was important to me, and I wanted her to know that.
In retrospect, it is a minor miracle that Mashama actually agreed to even have another meeting, let alone join up with me. Think about it. Who tells a person they have just met, with whom they have no shared experiences, that in order to create a partnership in this new restaurant, not only would we have to agree to all of the deal points, we’d also have to work our f**king asses off for the next ten years or so, and we’d need to take a metaphoric blood oath? I was suggesting some sort of food omertà between me, a mixed-up mutt from Staten Island, and this guarded and slightly more than a little suspicious Black woman from Queens.
While we may not have shared the same formative experiences, we would come to learn that so much about the people we were when we met was astonishingly similar—our sense of commitment, loyalty, honesty, generosity, and a willingness to put ourselves out there. Maybe it was all this that made Mashama comfortable taking a leap of faith with me.