Ghetto Gastro Is Shaking Up the Culture of the Bronx and Beyond
Powered by ideas on community and Blackness, the culinary trio is using food to share their philosophy with the world. With their new book, Black Power Kitchen, Ghetto Gastro is taking the art of cooking to new heights.
I’m on a video call with Pierre Serrao, one-third of the Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro. He’s getting his forearm “blasted” with some tribal tattoos and geometric shapes. We discuss tattoo etiquette and my uninked virgin skin while we wait for his comrades Jon Gray and Lester Walker to join us. He tells me that when it comes to getting inked, there’s “no time like the present” – an ethos of calculated spontaneity that runs through the trio. Ghetto Gastro doesn’t operate within the confines of the traditional modalities of the culinary world, instead tying the art of food with conversations on race and activism. Having made a calculated decision to avoid opening a brick-and-mortar establishment their show goes on the road. Zooming between destinations, they soak up cultures and pick up tips and tricks of the trade as well as share their own with locals. Remixing the lessons they learn, they conjure up new recipes and provide exquisite dining experiences which, like them, are deeply profound and rooted in theories of Blackness. In 2020 they teamed up with Rethink NYC to feed Black Lives Matter protestors in New York, demonstrating how the food industry can show up and help in the fight against racial injustice. With the release of their new cookbook, Black Power Kitchen, Ghetto Gastro is taking their message to the world and expanding towards new frontiers.
Ten years ago Gray, a former Fashion Institute of Technology student, Serrao and Walker – chefs who have worked in renowned kitchens across the world – founded Ghetto Gastro. Initially bonding over breaking bread the trio went on to “bring the vibes to the world,” declares Gray, whilst celebrating Blackness in all its forms. In the decade following their formation, they quickly grew to become one of the most sought-after culinary arts groups. In 2018 they were tapped by Marvel Studios to produce a dish for the people of Wakanda – a fictional country from the record-breaking film Black Panther. They have catered events for Givenchy's creative director Matthew Williams, fashion label Rick Owens and brought the Bronx to “Pari-ee” with a takeover of the Place Vendôme.
Ideas around Blackness and Black culture take centre stage in the trio’s practice and are the driving force behind the new cookbook. Put together with the assistance of Nigerian writer Osayi Endolyn, Black Power Kitchen doesn’t read like your typical book of recipes but rather like a carefully curated art tome. It places works from renowned painters Kerry James Marshall and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye alongside food and lifestyle photography from Nayquan Shuler and Joshua Woods. Conversations with A$AP Mob’s very own A$AP Ferg are included with original recipes by the collective. It seamlessly manoeuvres from one reference point to another, tightly wound together by a palpable love for Black culture. “We don’t exist in a binary form,” Lester remarks. “We are such a multi-dimensional operation, from art and music to politics. It's part of how we do things.”
“As Black people, we have a different mission in this country. In our households, we have a more open discourse around the mistreatment of Black bodies”
The trio evokes revolutionaries throughout their book. The Stewy Newton, an homage to the late Black Panther founder Huey Newton, stands out as an example of how the collective effortlessly blends worlds to create new ones. Its recipe is derived from feijoada, a peasant dish conjured up by enslaved Africans in Brazil that requires people to bring together different ingredients from their communities to create a stew-like amalgamation. The dish could only exist with the help of others, highlighting the importance of community – an integral part of Black revolution according to Newton, who assisted in the formation of over 60 community support programmes. “Kwame Ture is from the Bronx. The essence is in the water,” announces Gray. “For me, it started in the home. Some of the first literature my mother gave me was the biographies of Malcolm X and Assata Shakur.” Lester opines, “Inherently, as Black people, we have a different mission in this country. In our households, we have a more open discourse around the mistreatment of Black bodies. So it’s only right we carry those philosophies with us.”
To Ghetto Gastro, food, like Blackness, “is a very political subject,” Serrao says. They share a deep understanding of the role food plays in politics, calling back to the United States of America's former minister of agriculture, Henry Kissinger's, infamous statement: “Who controls the food supply controls the people.” By most accounts, the Black people of the United States have found themselves residing in areas often referred to as ‘food deserts’, but Gray points out, “There's nothing natural about food deserts. It’s definitely engineered. Think about the levels of access based on income, race and class. So that's why we call it a ‘food apartheid’, based on the works of Karen Washington.” Expounding on Gray’s analysis, Lester adds, “At the end of the day it's about understanding why there are more liquor stores in Black communities. It’s easier to access processed foods than it is to access whole foods in the Bronx, even though it is home to the largest whole foods distribution centre of its kind in Hunts Point.”
Community activist and co-founder of Black Urban Growers Karen Washington coined the term ‘food apartheid’ to encapsulate the systems of oppression that segregate areas, providing some with access to nutrient-dense foods whilst denying that same access to others. This is typically carried out across race and class lines. Washington’s works introduce elements of intersectionality to an otherwise whitewashed sustainable food movement which has experienced enormous growth in popularity in recent years.
“Travel is essential. Through it, we learnt a lot about culture, utensils and ingredients”
Listening to the collective it’s evident their aspirations expand beyond the art of food. They’ve constructed their own world around the culinary arts, blending body politics, human rights and culture into the amalgamation we now know as Ghetto Gastro. They practise what they refer to as Durag Diplomacy, a term they coined and brought to wider audiences by means of Gray’s 2019 TED Talk. Made for function, durags are a staple piece in the wardrobes of many Black men; a necessary tool for the protection of Afro hair. Following their ban from the NFL and NBA, discourse around the piece of fabric grew in the United States. In an act of cultural affirmation, the collective has decided to wear their durags in places where subscribers to the mechanics and ideologies of respectability politics would deem them otherwise inappropriate. According to Ghetto Gastro, Durag Diplomacy is about standing up to attempts, from a society that champions whiteness as the golden standard, to assimilate marginalised people and erase their cultures. At its core, it is about highlighting the importance of cultural diversity and living your truth. It’s about bringing what your culture has to offer to the table, educating others on it and growing through diversity of expression and being.
Describing themselves as a “Pan-African pantry”, the collective also credits their travels and interactions with different cultures as touchstones for the message they hope to communicate through their work. “Travel is essential. Through it, we learnt a lot about culture, utensils and ingredients. I can’t imagine Ghetto Gastro without our passports,” Lester says amusedly. “Working in kitchens across New York I was surrounded by immigrants,” contemplates Serrao. “West African and South American influences which gave me the initiative to speak to people from other countries. Learn their lingo and connect to their culture. All this happened through food.” Gray also attributes the expansion of his understanding of the world to a prismatic event they threw in the south of France. “Bringing the Bronx to the south of France allowed me to fall back and travel around Europe. I hit up Lisbon, London, Copenhagen, San Sebastian and Barcelona. My mum’s met me in Barcelona. That trip opened up a lot to me because growing up in the inner city you don’t get the opportunity to see there's other ways to do things, other aesthetic ideas. You don’t get the chance to tap into that gaze and see other vibes. I got to link up with my big bro David Adjaye who introduced me to African architecture and aesthetics, and somehow being in Europe connected me to the African continent. I look forward to getting out there and working.”
The trio has had transformative experiences on the road. Discussing his and Gray’s trip to Thailand Pierre excitedly recalls, “One moment that really stood out was when I went on a journey into the depths of Bangkok and had a meal prepared for me by a woman in her garage over open fire coals. It was a massaman curry dish and honestly, it was one of the most memorable meals of my life. It’s between that and breaking fast out in Senegal and having the maafe.” Interrupting, Serrao says, “Travelling to Hong Kong specifically, dining out there and having General Tso’s chicken and in Tokyo having the karaage – that touched home because growing up we would eat Asian food every day as an essential meal. After school, we’d go to the Chinese spot and order General Tso’s, order orange chicken, order fried chicken with french fries. Just to be out there and see the different techniques they use was very touching and emotional because it brought me back to my childhood. We tried to express that through the book, so now everybody has an opportunity to experience our travels.”
The collective’s distinctly Bronx energy shines through as they bounce off each other, making jokes and quips. As veteran travellers, they provide tips on how to sneak into first class, as well as their favourite in-flight or airport foods, which include the sushi at Newark airports Terminal C, Tiffany Derry’s fried chicken and Mashama Bailey’s dishes on Delta Air Lines’ flights out of Atlanta. However, no matter how far they travel their hearts remain with the people in their community. Back in the Bronx, Lester has been working to fundraise for new equipment for their community gardens – a space which allows people to bond and connect through the one thing we all need: food. Lester exclaims, “We want to continue to be pillars in our community, whether it’s sowing the seeds or bringing the harvest from the soil to the oil.”Ghetto Gastro's guide to their favourite restaurants in NYC.