In ‘Black, White, and The Grey,’ Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano Dig Deep

A Q&A with the partners who've created the beloved restaurant

In Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and Beloved Restaurant, John O. (Johno) Morisano and chef Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah, Georgia, describe how they navigate a business partnership and found unexpected friendship through collaboration on their restaurant housed in what had been a segregated Greyhound bus station. Neither were from Savannah, with Morisano originally from Staten Island and Bailey from New York, but in opening The Grey in their adopted hometown, it became a national sensation, drawing accolades well beyond its debut.

Now, they're taking the next step of their journey on a national book tour. This month, the duo will visit 11 cities to discuss Black, White, and The Grey. The Bittman Project spoke with them about their past, their journey forward, and their hopes for the future.

KS: Why was it important to write this book?

Mashama: It just seemed like a great way to let people in on how someone like me from [my background] — social work into food — who hasn't taken that normal path, to show them how I got where I was and what I was learning along the way. It was a big learning curve for me to move from New York to Savannah, and to move from a sous chef position to an executive chef position. Once I realized that — that it was a unique journey — talking about it became important.

Johno: Originally, I felt like Mashama and I were doing something that was unique in that we both had kind of transplanted to this new city. I had never even been involved in a restaurant and Mashama had never been involved in the running of a restaurant. It felt like even in the darkest, busiest, craziest days where we were worried about our health because we never slept and we just worked — even during those days, I just felt like something unique was happening.

I think maybe in retrospect, I can say that something special was happening, in between the building, and the city of Savannah, and my being there at that point in my life that I was, and Mashama being there at the point in her life that she was. I had worked at enough young companies and startups to know that, this… was a rare thing. As we were going through it, I was documenting it along the way in little blog pieces I was writing, some just personally. I just felt one day that telling the story might be helpful to other people dealing with new businesses, dealing with restaurants, dealing with people they've never encountered before, dealing with race, dealing with difference, dealing with change. 

Few restaurant books detail the pre-opening process. Why was it so important to go into detail about this period in the restaurant’s history?

Johno: I don't know that I had a choice: We were living it so deeply — and we still live it so deeply that I think that there's a lot of characters in the book that are untraditional. Savannah is a character; that building — the Greyhound bus terminal — is a character. How we got from the idea of wanting to do something to executing on that every night? I thought that those details were really the thing that carried the story all the way through.

Mashama: I think the building and the city [were] a huge draw for both of us —and the fact that neither of us really knew what we were doing. We were both, to a certain extent, faking it until we made it; we were both really vulnerable. We put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves and on each other. I think this book helped to release some of that and show how we're just human beings working hard and trying to produce something really good.

What have you found to be appealing about the city of Savannah, Georgia?

Mashama: You know, it's funny, ‘cause I was quarantined in Austin, Texas for 11 days — it was more like 12 days. I was in a hotel, and that was fine and dandy. But when I came back to Savannah, when I got home, I was just like, ‘Oh, this city feels really good.’ I wanted to do all the things that I normally do. I wanted to go get pizza at Starland Yard and I wanted to go have a nightcap at Savoy Society.

In doing that, you run into people that you see in town. There’s a class system here, right? Like most cities, you have the haves and you have the have-nots, but there's a lot of people in the middle that really respect and love being here. When you come home, when you come to this city, you really feel the warmth of it because all those people — the haves, the have-nots, and those in the middle — there’s a lot of pride that they hold to being here, and it's just a warm place to be. It’s accepting in a lot of ways.

[Also], it’s very walkable. There are like a lot of cities downtown, in the South and in America, where you go downtown, and there's not a lot going on; you can't really walk anywhere. Being from a city like New York, you walk everywhere — especially if you live in Manhattan, or you live in the outer boroughs. So that was very attractive about Savannah: the walkability from the river to the Historic District to the bordering neighborhoods. You get to soak it all in, I think, and it's good.

Johno: I got roped in the way a lot of Northerners do. The South is kind of mysterious to those of us from the North, especially if you haven't spent a lot of time there. So there's a built-in curiosity, the first time you go there. When we drove around the South, we found that the physical beauty is really compelling in Savannah. As you’re here, you start to realize that Savannah is different from other Southern cities, at least that I had been in.

The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has a really big impact, especially on the downtown community. You get lots of kids that come from other places, other countries; there's a big international student body. You get this feeling of being in the deep South with genteel locals who are warm and welcoming, Spanish moss dripping off of the live oaks, and then this little bit of edge to it from the grit, and from the fact that it's a city and suffers from citylike problems. Particularly as a New Yorker, I think that is appealing to those of us who like the grit….It just feels, you know, more genteel and smaller and compact, but it shares some of those characteristics that, for those of us who love cities, you get.

This moment in our nation has led to ongoing conversations about race and power. Has your professional relationship, as it relates to race and gender, evolved throughout this period, and if so, how?

Mashama: Being Black in America, there’s a lot of “no’s.” There are a lot of places you can't go and things you can't do. There are a lot of boundaries, right? Even before you even leave home for the very first time, there's this armor that's put on when you go out into the real world to be a part of society.

There’s a lot of things you have to look out for. There's a lot of things you have to be careful about because there are a lot of misconceptions about who you are and what you can bring to the table. I think for me, the big evolution about this relationship is that none of that matters — and unlearning a lot of that stuff has been really monumental for me.

I'm learning that, because Johno is white and has this certain role in the restaurant, doesn’t make him my boss. It took me a long time to kind of come to terms with that idea …because I've always worked in that sort of society and I always was vulnerable to those perceptions. So just unlearning a lot of things that I was taught growing up, and how to work and deal with white America has been really monumental for me.

Johno: I've never had a relationship that is even nearly similar to this — and almost at every level, right? I've never really run a business so collaboratively with someone before. I don't think I've had this close a business relationship with a woman before; I certainly have never had this type of relationship with a person of color before. So for me, it was all brand new.

I was so naive going into it that, honestly; if I knew that there were going to be cultural differences between Mashama and me, and how the lenses that we brought to both each other and to the business, and all the things that come along with dynamics of relationships, and dynamics of partnerships, and dynamics of management and management styles, and culture, and all that shit — there's just so much stuff that goes into it. We never even talked about it the first couple of years. We just went along running the business. It wasn't really until we started writing the book that we really started to have our conversations about race. It was really when I gave the first draft, that I think that the top came off the can of worms as it relates to having all of those dynamics between us in terms of race, class, and culture. So there was a lot of evolution going on. I think the book was a little revolutionary for us in terms of our own relationship.

Mashama: It could have gone really left, but it didn't — thank goodness. It was hard to have conversations about the initial subject matter in the book. They were uncomfortable, and they were too revealing, quite frankly: too revealing for the stage our relationship was in. We were really just getting to know each other. We had become business partners within like, months of knowing each other. So it was like, ‘Oh, we got all we thought about this. OK.’ Like, yeah, am I prepared to really talk to you about this honestly? What will that bring up for me?’ It was very therapeutic. I’m happy that it had a positive ending — and that we were both very open to learning more about each other because it could have really been bitter.

Many of your initial conversations either happened over a meal or included discussing a meal. How has food played a role in you building a relationship with one another?

Mashama: It’s the foundation. It's our happy place. It's our comfort zone. It literally helped us open up to one another. It made it easier to talk about the things we didn't like. It just is the most fundamental part of why we get along so well.

Johno: We’re building our entire business around it, so it’s so important. We do everything around food. We work around food and we play around food. It’s just everything. Even in the book, there's a couple of examples of when our relationship was going sideways, and it always repairs over food. We had the opportunity to be in Paris together two weeks ago for just like four days. Mashama had a bunch of stuff going on, and I was there with my wife and I was working and touring, but we managed to meet at least once or twice a day for a few days in a row just to eat.

Did you learn anything new or surprising about each other during the book writing process?

Johno: I've always considered myself to be a frank person, but maybe frank in a startling or an aggressive way: almost frank to the point of confrontational. I learned that being able to articulate not just what you're feeling, but what you're thinking, and what you're thinking, intellectually and emotionally: It’s all a package deal…..I really learned through the book writing process to shut up and listen a lot. Then when I'm trying to articulate my thoughts that I package — the intellectual, the visceral, and the emotional, into as cohesive an expression as I can, because all of those things go into what you're trying to communicate — I was not good at parts two and three of that before the book writing process, I don't think.

Mashama: I learned that confronting the things I'm afraid of are the things that are going to make me more of who I am.

I am an emotional person and I don't really express my emotions until they have really sort of overrun me; so I'm overrun with emotions, be it anger, or fear. I think this was a process that I was afraid of from the beginning. I didn't want to write a book: I was afraid of really expressing myself during the writing process. I found that it was probably the most liberating thing that I've ever done. I feel more of myself than I ever have. I think that has something to do with age, but that also has something to do with just confronting the things in my life that I didn't want to talk about. Putting them in the book makes them real and it also makes them relatable. Confronting this fear has really fostered growth in how I work with people and my relationships with them.

Are there any particularly memorable meals that you’ve shared together since completing the book?

Mashama: There were a lot. There was one that I really liked: It was Mokonuts. It was this woman who had lived in New York City; she was a lawyer and she moved to France, and she opened up this breakfast and lunch restaurant with her husband. Her story is kind of great because she basically is a mother and she built this business so she could take her children to school and pick them up after school. Her food was so delicious. It was small, and it was all the things, and I was just inspired by how she ran her business. I just think about her restaurant a lot. I don't know if it's the most memorable meal, but I felt like eating there was really important.

Johno: Yeah, I agree. That was a good one. Her name is Moko, and she’s the bomb.

I can talk about two or three different meals that we had and why they were memorable for different reasons. The one that always comes to mind is we were eating at one of Daniel Rose’s restaurants. Daniel’s food is just really delicious — the guy doesn't cook anything that doesn't taste good.

We were in Chez La Vieille and upstairs and we were on course 14 of this epic meal because we ordered everything. This piece of duck breast had come out and it was perfectly medium-rare. This is again was seared, crispy: rendered perfectly. That was it: It was just duck. Mashama was absolutely beside herself because she's like, ‘I want to serve this food in America, but if I served a piece of duck on a plate with no sauce or anything on a plate, people would literally crucify me.’ She's like, ‘How does this guy get away with this?’

For another meal, [the restaurant] was running late on our table at L’ami Jean, and they were just plying us with bubbles and charcuterie as we stood and waited, and they were just so genuinely nice. Then we sat down at a table in the back and the chef there, Stéphane Jégo, who's a well-known Parisian chef, looked out the kitchen and saw Mashama and recognized her, and we just had food thrown at us for like the next two hours.

The other one that always sticks out for me is another lunch [at] Le Baratin. [It’s from] a woman who has been cooking in Paris for like 20 years: Raquel Carena from Argentina. She’s got this small, local neighborhood restaurant. If you’re a chef or in the food business, you’re crazy for it. We just went for lunch, and you can see her in the back, standing over a pot with a cigarette ash sort of helping to season the food as it gets too long and falls off. It's just exactly like what you want for an afternoon lunch. It’s heartfelt and simple, but the people are nice. It's very French. It was just like, that was one of my favorite lunches as well.

What has the response been like from readers so far?

Johno: Mostly good. We get a lot of people reaching out to us directly via fan mail and email and Instagram and lots of direct messages and in various social media. I don’t know that we rise to the level of actually being qualified to receive hate mail, but we haven't really received any yet. So overall, I think that the industry has been responsive to it. Savannah for the most part has been responsive to it. My mother loves it.

Mashama: Mine too, actually: My mother too. After my mom read it, I was like, ‘OK, I'm good. Mom liked it? I'm good.’

You both talked about your hopes for the future of society. Are there aspects of culture in Savannah where you see growth or potential, particularly since the pandemic?

Johno: I would say slowly. I think that with places that have existed since 1733 like Savannah, change comes slowly. I think Savannah gets a lot of energy and ideas from people like Mashama and me. I mean, from the point of view of, we've transplanted from New York, and we're really engaged in the city. We have an influence on the city and the city has an influence on us, and I think we want things to happen and change quickly. I mean, I think that's why we do what we do, right? We're entrepreneurs, and we get out there and we build our business, and we try and be dynamic and responsive and adaptive — and that's not how cities work. That's not how government works and that's not how people work. So it’s not going as quickly as I would like to see it go. I have personally been involved in and hoping to stimulate some of that change, but it’s a rough go.

What do you hope to explore during your book tour that you perhaps didn’t explore in Black, White, and The Grey?

Mashama: I think it’s going to be nice to be with chefs and be in their hometown in their restaurants and hear their stories and see what we have in common and what we don't have in common: like going to see Ashley Christiansen and Nina Compton in New Orleans…. It's going to be really cool to get there and get that inside perspective. 

Johno: I’m interested in seeing Zacchaeus Golden in Jackson, Mississippi, who opened fine dining in Jackson, which I've got to assume that's a pretty bold move. How are locals responding to him, his take on that food, and his own historic and cultural influences?…. Things like that are really interesting to me.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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