Chefs to Watch 2016: Mashama Bailey, The Grey, Savannah

Eve Turow Paul

It’s been a year and a half since Mashama Bailey packed up her life in New York City to open The Grey in Savannah, Ga. Eighteen months in, “I’m starting to feel like my thoughts and views about food are taking shape,” she says.

The Grey has made quite an impression in its first months on the scene, collecting a number of accolades from press and locals alike. There are a few elements that make it stand out. First, the location: an abandoned, once-segregated, 1938 Greyhound bus depot that’s been transformed with renewed brilliance by an investor, John O. Morisano. Today, it’s considered one of the most beautiful restaurants in the country, with art deco-inspired details and restored elements such as the diner bar, numbered gates and refurbished waiting chairs. But even more important to the restaurant’s success is Bailey’s impressive debut role as head chef.

Bailey spent several years in New York City. After graduating from Brooklyn College, she worked her way through many of New York’s elite kitchens, including Aquagrill and The Oak Room at The Plaza Hotel. For a short time, she trained in Burgundy, France, at École de Cuisine La Varenne under Patrick Gauthier before returning to New York to serve as sous chef at Gabrielle Hamilton’s restaurant, Prune, for nearly four years. Eventually, Hamilton connected Bailey with Morisano, and through that out-of-the-blue opportunity, the idea for The Grey was born.

The opportunity to go south brought back memories for Bailey, who’d spent a handful of her childhood years in Savannah. “Savannah is an old city,” she says. “I’m so curious about the food culture in the homes, where locals buy their fish and produce. I love that part of this journey.” Her new city brings with it a host of new ingredients, techniques and history that are woven into dishes that equally channel Bailey’s European training.

The food at The Grey is unique to Bailey: flavors and ingredients of her surroundings, interpreted via traditional French techniques. “I’m not sure if I want to shape the local cuisine, but I do want to add something to it,” she says. “I want to highlight how special this coast is and the pride that locals here have for their city through food.” Savannah, she points out, was one of the first port cities to be settled, bringing with it influences from Spain, Ireland and even the Caribbean.

The historical and political aspect of being a female, African-American chef running a business in a once-segregated location is also top-of-mind for her. “To be a woman a part of this, to be a black woman a part of this, and to be in the South in a Jim Crow-era building, it is beyond, it is amazing. I don’t think my grandmother or my great-grandparents would have even dreamed that this day would be possible,” she told the Southern Foodways Alliance.

As for her experience as head chef? “I’m surprised by how much teaching and mentoring there is in running my own kitchen,” Bailey reflects. “You must always stay connected with your staff and continue to have them engaged.”

Q&A with Mashama Bailey:

When did you realize that you loved food?
Age 11. We moved from Savannah back to New York, and my grandmother took her oldest grandkids to Zabar’s in Manhattan. Once we walked out of Zabar’s, my perspective on food was changed.

What cookbook is most important to you?
Edna LewisThe Taste of Country Cooking. I have loved Edna’s cookbooks for years. I first read this book in 2007. She has a lot to do with why I moved back south to cook.

Who inspires you?
My business partner, co-workers and my family.

If you could stage at any restaurant in the world, where would you go and why?
Chez Panisse. I admire Alice Waters; she’s a trendsetter.

How do you find calm in your kitchen?
Music. I rarely listen to music while I’m working, but the few times that I do, I like the energy of jazz and blues and hip-hop. I feel like it matches the energy in the kitchen.​

What meal changed how you feel about food?
A Hawaiian chicken dish made by my grandmother around the same age. Before eating this dish, I didn't realize that something like chicken could be so versatile.

How do you describe your food?
Port City Southern.

If you had to describe your restaurant in one word, what would it be?
A beast.

What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
I’d be a nurse or photographer.

Can't wait until I got Savannah Ga
Can't wait until I got Savannah Ga

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