The palazzo-style building in the heart of the Bronx known as Andrew Freedman Home was once a retirement refuge for rich New Yorkers who fell on hard times. Today it’s a sprawling event and gallery space. It stands majestically on a tract of lawn behind a neat procession of trees that have gone naked on this crisp, overcast Tuesday in February. Outside the lawn’s gate, an apartment-packed stretch of Grand Concourse is furious with movement and sound. The building’s first-floor kitchen is just as lively: Quavo and Lil Yachty’s “Ice Tray,” an entrancing trap song, purrs then quakes.
The main attraction lies just past the kitchen doors, where a long, horizontal sign—“STURDY GANG NEVER NOT FRESH”—leans against a large steel vent. There’s some serious cooking going on in here. Witness: A pantry yawns wide, stuffed with spices and seasonings in labeled containers—“Wasabi Powder,” “Corn Meal,” “Hibiscus”—and in a that’s-what-she-said wink familiar to any New Yorker, “Meat Rub (Pause).” A pot simmers somewhere on a sizable industrial stove. Surrounding it, clad in black from head to toe, three chefs move about with melody and purpose—slicing into carrots and thick hooves of ginger, rinsing purple potatoes, sifting through activated charcoal, moving from table to stove to sink and back again.
The choreography is so precise you’d swear it was lifted from an Alvin Ailey performance. The all-star cast includes Lester Walker, Pierre Serrao, and Malcolm Livingston II, three-quarters of the Bronx-based food collective known as Ghetto Gastro. They formed in 2012, but their ambitions go beyond the conventional song-and-dance of a mere catering firm (which they will tell you they are decidedly not). Together, they’re helping to redefine the intersections of fashion, music, film, and visual art by using food as the spark to larger conversations around inclusion, race, and economic empowerment. You can’t fault them for a lack of ambition. Right now, they’re in deep prep mode for Taste of Wakanda, a Black Panther-themed food event they and Marvel are hosting for New York Fashion Week.
The fourth member of Ghetto Gastro, its cofounder Jon Gray, surveys the restless scene. He’s a formidable presence, armored in gold-rimmed shades and a silky, sea-green durag, and is prone to speaking in rhyme and parables. “We need to expand to them tech bags,” he says in a low baritone, using the current slang for lump payments. “They want the curry goat? Nah, I need a billy goat”—a billion dollars, a cheeky reference to the collective’s demand among well-heeled clients, which have included Airbnb, Microsoft, fashion maven Michèle Lamy, and Bank of America.
While Walker, Serrao, and Livingston fuss with the anatomy of a given dish—between them, they’ve paid dues in the world’s top kitchens—Gray’s eye is on impact. The 32-year-old wants every Ghetto Gastro dish to be a technicolor experience, something familiar but also something new, a flare of the senses, a culinary experience with dimensions.
Launched half a decade ago, Ghetto Gastro has become a micro-revolution in food and art. Conjuring dishes that have a strong sense of narrative, the four-man collective’s pan-culturalist approach to dining works on a much grander scale. Through their food, borders collapse.
They don’t have a brick-and-mortar restaurant. There's no food truck with their logo on it, its Futura Bold sprayed on in gaudy red. Ghetto Gastro exists mostly among the people. They aren’t just chefs; they’re cultural ambassadors. The collective turns a profit by arranging events for private clients, mid-level brands, and major corporations, which can range from a dinner with a dozen guests to a tricked-out, lavish bazaar with 2,000 people.
These days a full-service Ghetto Gastro event takes on the vibe of an art installation, as they oversee each small detail of the process: cooking the food, selecting DJs, designing the event space, and having input on performers. The group’s base rate is $60,000, but their eyes are on a larger goal beyond money: They want to bridge the vast gulf in culinary access and experience that exists in communities like theirs and create a more sustainable future for the Bronx.
Like I said, ambitious. They want to be on TV and in film; to expand into publishing with a line of cookbooks; to sell merch and cookware (they plan to issue a line of knives this fall); to host exhibitions; to build a state-of-the-art cultural hub in the South Bronx that functions as a test kitchen, media studio, gallery, commercial space, and educational facility for kids in the neighborhood. They have plans for a vegetable garden at Andrew Freedman Home and a series of all-natural food lines (seasonings and vegan ice cream, the latter of which is tentatively titled 36 Brix, inspired by the technical term for the sugar level in ice cream and by 36 Chambers, the Wu-Tang album). “Robin Hood theory,” Livingston called it in an interview last year.
Back in the kitchen, conversation shifts to the practicalities of the Taste of Wakanda menu. Is goat a better choice than lamb? Will eggplant ash enliven the cabbage tacos? Gold skewers or wooden skewers to serve the jerk chicken? The charcoal patties Livingston had been working on are ready; he brings them to the table for us to try. “This is a test kitchen. You can be honest,” he says and looks at me, making sure I understand that candor is a kind of currency in their kitchen. The patties, he tells me, are filled with sweet chickpeas that were stewed in coconut curry.
Gray is the first to comment. “Is there something we can brush it with, to give it a nice sheen?” Maybe oil, Serrao suggests, or cooking it with more butter. A consensus overtakes the room: The patties look “ashy.” Livingston decides to coat a portion of the patties with edible gold leaf. As he begins to brush, Walker and Serrao nod in agreement. Gray pulls out his phone, snaps a picture, and uploads it to Instagram Stories. “That shit is art,” he says.
By his own estimate, Gray’s family is four generations deep in the Bronx. He grew up in Section 5 of Co-Op City—with more than 40,000 residents, it’s the largest cooperative housing development in the US—and, with his mother splitting time between grad school and work, he ate out a lot as a kid. It was during that time that Gray was introduced to the flavors and possibilities of Vietnamese, Filipino, Hispanic, and Caribbean cuisines across the Bronx’s diverse set of neighborhoods. He admits, “That’s when I started being real curious around food.”
After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Gray experienced mild success with a small denim company he put together with colleagues from school, but it flamed out around 2009 when the recession took hold. Gray had also grown disaffected with the New York fashion scene and decided he wanted to make a living from his two passions: food and travel. “It kinda started from a place of selfishness, or just self-preservation,” he says. One day, after eating at the West African restaurant Abristro in Brooklyn, the name came to him. “I thought, ‘How can this become my work?’ ” The answer was Ghetto Gastro, which officially launched in 2012.
For Walker—who studied at Johnson & Wales University in Miami and would go on to work in kitchens at Jean Georges, Buddakan, and Eleven Madison Park—movies provided the entry point to a culinary career. “I was a big fan of Scorsese,” he says, “and the main thing that brought all of the goons together was food. Shit like that was inspirational to me. I wasn’t really inspired by the cooking channels.” Just as Ghetto Gastro was getting off the ground, Walker won an episode of the Food Network’s competition show Chopped. In the episode, speaking about the life he was up against at a young age after the death of his father, he admits, “Cooking saved me.”
Walker, who has a son of his own, is Ghetto Gastro’s flavor czar. (That flavor extends to his deep acuity for language; he unloads phrases with the blaze of a machine gun. “We got the Ice Lord,” he tells me with a grin, gesturing to dessert specialist Livingston, “and you can call me the Spice Lord, also known as the W.O.L.F., Wizard of the Lingo Finesse.”) From his time working at a trio of Southeast Asian restaurants in the city, the 37-year-old became enthralled by the flavors used in the kitchens—jaggery, fish sauces, chilis, lemongrass. Those years and those experiences changed his whole perspective on cooking. Now he says he likes to make people contemplate the alchemy of a dish, “to trick the senses out a little bit.”
Livingston, 31, grew up close to Gray and Walker before moving to Connecticut for a handful of years and settling back in Pelham Parkway for high school. After studying at the Art Institute of New York City, Livingston landed an externship at Marcus Samuelsson’s Riingo. He parlayed that experience into work at Thomas Keller's Per Se, and soon after at wd~50, the 65-seat New American restaurant that was making waves for its pioneering use of molecular gastronomy.
It was during his time there that Livingston met Gray, who came into the restaurant one night and soon introduced the idea of Ghetto Gastro to him. At the time, Livingston says he thought it seemed “very organic, very guerilla.” Still, he tells me now that he only “put about 25 percent into the company” during its early years, a time when he was ascending into the upper echelons of the culinary world.
In 2015, Livingston, who’s got a baby face and a quiet, single-minded presence about him, landed one of the most coveted positions in the fine-dining world: head pastry chef at Noma, the Michelin-starred Denmark eatery considered to be one of the world’s elite restaurants. Living in Copenhagen limited his commitment to Ghetto Gastro, still just an upstart enterprise—but after Noma temporarily closed in 2017, Livingston decided it was time to go all in. “I made the decision: Let me just jump on faith,” he says. “And it’s been rocking. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
The last component was Serrao. In 2014, after training in Italy, a stint at New York City’s Rouge Tomate, and working privately for clients like Diddy, Jay Z, and the Beckhams, he came onboard. Serrao, 30, joined at a make-or-break period for Ghetto Gastro: Walker was working in DC and Livingston would soon be headed to Noma, which meant Serrao managed the kitchen, broadening Ghetto Gastro’s diasporic bona fides (his father hails from Barbados, where Serrao lived on and off as a kid). A fountain of black dreads spouts from his head, and he speaks with relaxed confidence. “For me, it’s like, we’re not just making food or making something that looks good,” he says as N.E.R.D.’s “Lemon” rattles through the kitchen. “It’s being able to tell the story behind the dish.”
In 2016, for an event hosted by the artist Hank Willis Thomas, Serrao devised a deconstructed apple pie dessert that was inspired by the social-justice movement Black Lives Matter. (“It’s about as American as killing black men,” he says.) Some plates even included a chalk outline. “At the time, race tensions were high,” Serrao tells me. “I didn’t think it would still be generating conversation.” But it turned out to be glaringly representative of their mission statement as a collective: a dish that marries the personal and the political into an urgent, unflinching provocation—that also happens to be delicious.
Last December, Ghetto Gastro made an appearance on the daytime talk show Rachael Ray (averaging around 2 million viewers, it was one of their biggest national TV appearances to date). Resplendent in polychromatic durags (except Serrao, who sported a green camouflage vest), they schooled the viewing public on how to make the perfect curried leg of lamb and Coquito, a Puerto Rican coconut-based cocktail. “I always look at it like performance art,” Gray says of the appearance. “A lot of guys are like, ‘You’re underground, that’s commercial shit’—but it’s such a contrast that it’s fun. We on there with durags, talking slick; Rachael’s loving it. That’s the vibe. I think we are in a unique position where we can appeal to a lot of people, while staying true and not changing who we are to grow our audience.”
Growth: It comes up a lot with the Gastro Ghetto guys. At the beginning of 2018, they decided that to expand the company they would need to initiate a more aggressive game plan. “I’ve always had a big arc,” Gray says. “It’s no mistake that we’re gonna do books, film, whatever. It’s always been the plan, because we think big.”
Part of that big thinking included a web series with Spotify called The Cook Up. It debuted in January and followed the guys across eight episodes as they visited the homes of musicians and made dishes strictly using the ingredients available to them in the kitchen. For Kelis, they made sofrito-seared pork shoulder. Flying Lotus was treated to steak and crab fried rice. Vic Mensa chowed on a quinoa jollof inspired by his West African roots.
“Go to an event they curate,” says Danny Lee, cocreator and director of The Cook Up. “You’ll see how they infuse their unabashed point of view as strong black men with real knowledge of self. They’ve coined it ‘the Black Power kitchen’—for me, that says it all.”
In the past decade, the grassroots culinary world began to take a new shape, with outsider chefs emboldened by platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which allowed for around-the-clock communication and novel approaches to cultivating business. As a result, micro movements bubbled up across the country in cities like Austin, Seattle, and Portland. In Los Angeles, social-media-savvy underground chefs like Trap Kitchen and All Flavor No Grease have done away with the idea of gatekeepers altogether (both are part of a collective in South LA known as The Foodminati).
In a lot of ways, Ghetto Gastro is in the vanguard of this shift. But unlike many of their contemporaries, they’re not outsiders; they came up on the inside, having labored in the haute-cuisine world of restaurants like Jean Georges and Le Cirque. If LA phenom Roy Choi opened the floodgates, kindling the food truck revolution—an industry said to be worth $1.2 billion—and chefs like David Chang and Dave Beran have allowed for a more acceptable blurring of regional identities in cooking, then collectives like Ghetto Gastro have taken all of that and transformed it into something more expansive and true, into something refreshingly essential.
“We’re here not just to disrupt the food world, because I don’t even look at us as a food company,” Gray says, “but to bring another tone, another language when it comes to aesthetics and what hospitality looks and feels like, and who’re the people that we’re talking to. We wanna make it more inclusive and expand. People always talk about getting a piece of the pie. We don’t even want a piece of the pie—we just wanna make the pie bigger.”
To do that, Ghetto Gastro intends to break ground on their formal HQ, the Idea Kitchen, within the year. When I speak with Gray again in early March, he’s identified a few possible locations. (He’s also in constant motion: He’s just gotten back from Paris Fashion Week for an event with streetwear label Off White and is headed to Tokyo for Amazon Fashion Week, followed by Art Basel in Hong Kong, and the TED Conference in Vancouver.) He won’t say exactly where, though, afraid that the mere mention of the neighborhood will drive prices up—“you know how this shit go, it’s a fucking bloodsport out here.”
Through the Idea Kitchen—what Walker refers to as “an institution of creativity”—Ghetto Gastro doesn’t just want to help make healthy food a more sustainable reality in the South Bronx, they want to show youth that sustainable futures exist there, too. Think of it as an incubator of possibility. The space, Serrao says, should “generate a new awakening among kids who only think you can rap, trap, or be an athlete to get up out of the hood.” Compounded with levels of suffocating unemployment, violent poverty, and reports that the South Bronx has one of the highest rates of hunger in the country, Ghetto Gastro’s multitiered HQ will arrive as something of a lifeline to the borough’s most ravaged residents.
Right now, the goal is to find a big enough space to house their dreams. If it all goes according to plan, Gray says there will be an ultramodern food lab for Walker, Serrao, and Livingston. A media studio to stoke Ghetto Gastro’s drive for more editorial content with companies like Spotify and on their own digital platforms. There will be an event space for parties and art shows, a store to sell merchandise, and classrooms to host workshops on cooking, photography, fragrance making, furniture design, and more.
Gray is telling me about all of this on the phone, and now there’s an uptick in his voice; I can tell he’s beginning to see it, and proud of it too. When I ask who will teach, given the substantial offerings, he rattles off the names of friends and associates, like the Met’s social media strategist Kimberly Drew, famed architects David Adjaye and Kunle Adeyemi (a k a “the homies”), and Ben Gorham of fragrance retailer Byredo.
But really, Gray says, it comes down to this: “Success is really about scaling. And how do we create opportunities for there to be 400 of us. People who don’t get the same opportunities—women, people of color, LGBTQ, those communities. How do we engage those communities and do what we do?”
On a Monday night in mid-February, a turquoise glow beckons from the inside of 775 Washington Street. Industria, a brick-walled event space in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, has been transformed into a Wakandan fantasia. Outside, a crowd intensifies with anxious excitement; two lines jut down the block and snake around the corner.
A mass congeals at the front entrance, encompassing an assortment of bodies and temperaments—industry executives, fashion types, Marvel diehards, Bronx natives, nightlife regulars. There are people in black leather jackets and black berets and black boots and black tights and black durags. I spot a purple fur and acid wash denim, winter-crisp Timbs and long pea coats that nearly scrape the ground. There are gold chains and luxurious weaves and clouds of curly hair and expertly manicured faces, women and men shielded in hoodies and thick bubble jackets. It’s New York Fashion Week. It’s a Ghetto Gastro party. And we’re all here to celebrate the release of Black Panther.
By the time I arrive, the lines are already unmanageable, and given the chilly temperatures, I text Gray, hoping he can expedite the process and get me in. Waiting for a response, I scan the crowd and begin to think about what Gray said the week prior—about how he wants to change the perception of not just what people eat, but how they experience food and, essentially, understand it.
Word begins to spread that the space is at capacity and no one will be allowed entry until people inside have exited (the two-hour event is only 40 minutes into its run time). “Could be 30 minutes, could be an hour,” says another black-suited security guard to a cluster of people herded around him at the front. From where I’m standing outside, you can feel the rumble of music. I wait awhile—10 minutes, 20 minutes—but eventually head home.
On my subway ride to Brooklyn, Gray texts me back; he apologizes and informs me that “Ryan [Coogler] was like, ‘This is what I was looking most forward to.’” But all I can think about is the strange irony of the night: To experience Ghetto Gastro in 2018 is sometimes to not experience their food at all. It’s to experience The Experience. And sometimes The Experience is getting caught in the anticipation and thrill of who they are and what they represent without ever coming into contact, without ever tasting their food.
When Gray refers to Ghetto Gastro as part “performance art,” it’s hard not to wonder if 300 people waiting in the cold to taste their food is just part of the performance. It’s difficult to tell if this is what they envisioned six years ago when they dreamed of making it. They control the production—the menu, the design, the overall vibe. But what happens when people get left out—what happens when people who have come to gather, to support, to uplift the mission and hear your gospel, are standing on the other side of the door?
I never got to ask Livingston if he was able to get the charcoal patty just right, but it was strikingly evident, even just standing outside Industria, that Ghetto Gastro’s artistic fermentation was just beginning. They’ll grow, it’s only natural, but how they manage it, how they go about sustaining their own dreams and hopes, and for who, will be their true test as a group. Before I depart, the security guard offers one last announcement: “We’re only letting in VIPs.”
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