Every few years, a restaurant comes on the scene that changes the conversation not about what we eat but why we eat and how we eat. Outside of awards bestowed by institutions like Michelin and the James Beard Foundation, these restaurants win the hearts of the people who work and eat there. They become the lifeforce of communities and cities.
The Grey in Savannah, Georgia, is one such culinary institution, and its co-principals, Mashama Bailey and John O Morisano, are powerhouses.
On Friday and Saturday, April 1 and 2, 2022, the Rockhouse Foundation hosted Getaway with They Grey — another of its annual celebrity chef weekend fund-raisers. Approximately 120 people gathered in Negril, split between Rockhouse and Skylark hotels, to support the foundation’s work while having memorable meals created by Bailey, Morisano, and Miss Lily’s Culinary Director Andre Fowles.
Fowles was in charge of Friday night’s meal held at Pushcart Bar at Rockhouse hotel. The evening began with cocktails — highball, soursop daiquiri, light pina colada, and watermelon daiquiri — all made with contemporary Caribbean rum Ten to One.
Ten to One is the brainchild of Trinbagonian-born entrepreneur Marc Farrell and is a beautiful blend of rums from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and the Dominican Republic. Fun fact: Farrell studied chemical engineering at MIT, was the youngest vice-president at Starbucks and landed superstar Ciara as an investor in his rum brand. The dark rum is a beautiful expression of traditional-aged rums. The top notes are regal with a finish with just enough playfulness to keep it intriguing.
During cocktails, Rockhouse Foundation supporters nibbled on moreish oxtail patties and decadent shrimp rolls and closed their eyes as they sipped shots of pepperpot soup that had just enough spiciness. Dinner, served family-style, began with ackee hummus with sweet potato and plantain chips for dipping and yam croquettes. You could have easily filled up on the well-seasoned yam croquettes with their creamy centre and crispy exterior, making for a delightful bite.
The main course saw curried goat with gnocchi, pan-seared escoveitch snapper atop what Thursday Food will call the best callaloo rundown it has ever had, and spice-dusted carrots. Dessert comprised a guava-glazed rum cake, vegan jackfruit ice cream and a sliver of tree-ripened East Indian mango.
Fowles knows how to create dishes that appeal to Jamaican and international palates. What he served on Friday evening were authentic twists, not replicas, of beloved Jamaican dishes.
On Saturday evening at Skylark, Bailey and Morisano (with Fowles supporting) created a meal that was a constellation of flavours. Each item consumed that evening had cultural significance. The meal was a praise song for African foodways.
During the Ten to One rum-fuelled cocktail, Bailey and Morisano served classic devilled eggs, fried Savannah rice balls (inspired by jollof rice), and chicken liver mousse toasts with country ham. Each item was sheer perfection! But the devilled eggs, a dish that is not easy to master, especially when serving hundreds of them, were the talk of cocktail hour.
The three-course dinner began with a Kingfish Crudo cured with papaya, lime and Scotch bonnet pepper. The micro arugula was a tad overpowering, but after placing it to the side of the plate, the thin slice of cool, cured fish danced on the tongue. The second course was a Jamaican-inspired version of the southern American classic — Chicken Country Captain. This Lowcountry dish dates back to the 1850s. It is chicken braised in a tomato sauce redolent with curry powder, onions, and bell peppers. Bailey first smoked the chicken in jerk pans before crisping up the pieces and enrobing them in a luscious curry-forward tomato sauce. The meal ended with a parfait made with an airy tres leches cornbread. Those familiar with cornmeal wondered how Bailey made a cake so delicate and light. Sorcery!
After its opening, The Grey quickly became a globally recognised locus for American cuisine. It also became known as the restaurant occupying a previously segregated bus station of which a black woman is at the kitchen’s helm. Bailey and Morisano are both native New Yorkers from families whose meals were almost celebratory. But celebrations, even if they are midweek meals around the table, are also times for reflection and discussion.
The Grey, in the space it occupies and by the food it serves, celebrates American cuisine while interrogating the country’s ignominious past. During the thick of the pandemic and before the last US election, the world saw the scourge of racism, a lived experience for black people in predominantly white spaces. But The Grey and its harmonious mix of black and white continues to be a culinary and cultural lodestar.
Because whenever you think America has lost its way and its heart, a friendship like Bailey and Morisano’s and a restaurant like The Grey is here to remind us what the country’s soul really is.
Photographers: Michael Condran and Vaughn Stafford Gray