I’ve just finished Episode 1 of Volume 6 of Chef’s Table, the Netflix show, which was about trailblazing chef Mashama Bailey. She’s head chef at The Grey in Savannah, Georgia, which operates out of a Jim Crow era Greyhound bus station — that is to say, on ground that was segregated just about a half century ago.
Besides the tantalizing shots of food — like the foie and grits on the left, a take on traditional beef liver and grits, the cucumber gazpacho on the right featuring fresh Georgia tomatoes and cukes (beautiful) and the chicken (not pictured, but divinely crunchy looking) — the story is a poignant one. Born in Savannah, Mashama Bailey moved with her family to New York City when she was eleven so that her parents could pursue upward mobility and the American Dream. In the episode, though, she reports that part of her felt “missing.” Nonetheless, she successfully attended college and obtained a psychology degree.
But after a failed stint as a social worker, Mashama realized that she needed to find out what she wanted to do. A friend suggested culinary school — and off she went to France, where she worked and studied her way to a culinary degree. Upon returning to New York, she landed a job as the private chef for a white family in a wealthy part of Long Island. Her parents chafed, since this kind of work recalled the 1950s to them, when African Americans, with few opportunities to work, were often hired as “the help” for rich white families. Mashama, too, realized that she had bigger dreams, and that she could only explore them through the world of fine dining.
I, for one, truly admire the efforts of chefs who, by virtue of how the culinary industry works, have to work their way up from the bottom. Mashama did just that. Eventually, she rose to the level of sous chef at the restaurant Prune, under the direction of Gabrielle Hamilton. It’s a credit to the variety of culinary setups in New York City that Mashama was able to find the perfect mentor and a space where she felt that she was, at last, able to be herself.
Co-founder of The Grey John Morisano first approached Hamilton about his restaurant project, and she referred him to Mashama. I love the part of the episode where they talk about the first time they met — the meeting ran three hours over, and John said it was like talking with an old friend. The project intrigued Mashama for several reasons — the restaurant would be located in Savannah, for one, and it gave her the opportunity to create her own menu and style her own type of cuisine for the first time.
This endeavor didn’t come without difficulties, though. Mashama’s first menus were overwrought and confused. But eventually, after a visit to a local Southern eatery, she realized that she could serve the food she’d grown up with — dishes evoking her grandmother’s cooking and some of the deli offerings she’d enjoyed in New York, paired with her sophisticated background in French cooking technique. Thus dishes like foie and grits, cucumber gazpacho, and — best of all — the watermelon jalapeno “thrill,” pulled straight from Mashama’s childhood in an African American neighborhood of Savannah — were born.
In the episode, Mashama takes a moment to recognize that much of Southern food, with its African American roots, was born out of sorrow, out of the experiences of men and women who were brought to the United States in chains. She discusses how many African Americans left the South as soon as they had the chance, to make something more for themselves but also to escape the world where their ancestors had lived as slaves. Mashama has a different view of how African Americans can shape their future in America, and through her work as a chef, she’s opened eyes to the many possibilities — both for African Americans and Southern cuisine, and for the intersection between the two.
Enjoy this post? Continue reading this companion series with the guide to Vol. 6 Episode 2.