25 April 2019

Food innovation from the Bronx

How Ghetto Gastro is rewriting the rules of running a food business.

 

Ghetto Gastro’s new headquarters – three sprawling rooms in a warehouse just north of New York City’s Harlem River – is self-confidently named Labyrinth 1.1.

Mixed-media, abstract artworks hang from exposed brick walls. A moon-shaped sofa with a base made from sand and crushed glass stands in one corner; opposite, kitchen workbenches that can be folded away to make room for a performance space. And hanging in red neon lights: ‘Welcome to the Bronx’.

‘Think MTV Unplugged meets NPR,’ says Jon Gray, the group’s 33-year-old founder. ‘It’s the first time we’ve had our own space where we can jam ideas and bring the community together. We want our vibes and products to better the world, and at scale.’

It’s hard to fault him for a lack of ambition. Ghetto Gastro, a globe-trotting culinary collective, is equal parts activism, urbanism and food. Unconventionally for a group of chefs, they work across art, fashion and music, using food to spotlight wider debates around race and economic empowerment. Without a bricks-and-mortar restaurant or even a food truck to its name, it’s easy to understand why Ghetto Gastro has been credited with bringing a ‘micro-revolution’ to the way modern-day food businesses operate.

The group makes money by hosting events for private clients, brands and big corporations ranging from Virgil Abloh and Rick Owens to Microsoft and Bank of America. They cook the food, sort the music and design the event space. One time, for an Airbnb party, they got their friend Cardi B to perform on the same day her new album dropped, with Brian Chesky and Trevor Noah in attendance. (‘Pure mayhem,’ Gray recalls fondly.) They put on dinners for tight-knit crews and opulent food markets for hundreds of people. They’re easy, really, so long as clients meet two main rules: Ghetto Gastro’s base rate is $60,000 (£46,000), and the group marches to the beat of its own drum. ‘We don’t cater to nobody,’ says Gray. ‘The client has to keep it real. They cater to us.’

Out of the kitchen

Ghetto Gastro does plenty more than just events. There’s the YouTube cooking show Stease the Day and the web series they made with Spotify called The Cook Up, in which they raid the kitchens of various musicians and cook them a dish. For Flying Lotus, they made steak and crab fried rice.

Soon they’ll launch a line of spice blends and sauces called Steasoning, closely followed by lines of merch and cookware. Later will come a Caribbean- style patty chain and vegan ice-cream shops. New projects seem to come and go almost by the day. ‘I was born a hustler. I’m not driven by money anymore but in the next five years we want to see a $1bn valuation for some of our verticals,’ says Gray, whose conversation, never less than engaging, sometimes verges on hyperbole.

The project that is held above all the others is the transformation of Labyrinth 1.1 into a kind of community hub, where locals can drop in for cooking workshops and events. While the group travels hundreds of thousands of miles each year – most frequently to Paris, Milan and Tokyo – they also want to turn the Bronx into a culinary destination.

‘It’s about showing cats you don’t have to be a rapper or a gangster or an athlete to make it in the Bronx,’ says Gray. ‘Food can give you a path, too. We want the Bronx to be the next area to blow up.’

The group formed in 2012 after Gray, whose family goes back at least four generations in the Bronx, had a revelation: he was fed up with working in fashion. Although he had achieved success as a partner in two fashion lines selling to high-end department stores and streetwear shops across New York, his heart was never in it.

He only started out in fashion doing internships as part of a deal to have drug possession charges against him dropped. ‘I was grossing maybe $50,000 a week – not all profit but still, impressive scale for a teenager,’ he says. ‘But that’s not where I wanted to be for rest of my life.’ Such positivity and drive informed the foundation of Ghetto Gastro, a journey he says is only just starting to really take off.

Growing up, his family frequently ate out. Chinese, Vietnamese, Senegalese, Hispanic, Caribbean – the Bronx has it all. He cooked a lot at home, too. ‘Food’s always been my thing,’ he says, before explaining that the name ‘Ghetto Gastro’ came to him in a dream. The following morning it struck him that, ‘I had friends who were dope chefs and innovators. And we all had something to say – about the food game but also about what it’s like being a young man of colour in America today.’

Breaking down barriers

The food world is changing – fast. In the past few years, outsider chefs have used social media platforms to build new approaches to developing business. There are now many more pathways into food, without having to acquire a restaurant and the often prohibitively expensive overheads that come with it. For example, cooking food from his council estate in south-east London and posting pictures of it to Instagram, underground chefs such as Prince ‘Shakka’ Owusu of Trap Kitchen have bypassed the traditional gatekeepers. Meanwhile, influential chefs like Momofuku founder David Chang have championed regional identities in cooking, paving the way for less traditional chefs and collectives to stamp their own mark.

Ghetto Gastro has benefitted from this movement. But, although the business model is far from typical in the food industry, its members can’t really be considered outsiders. Aside from Gray, the rest of the collective is made of Malcolm Livingston II, Lester Walker and Pierre Serrao. Between them, they’ve worked in some of the world’s best restaurants. Livingston II, for example, was head pastry chef at Noma, the highly innovative two-Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen founded by René Redzepi.

There, he says, he had ‘total creativity. But service was brutal. The brigade works at 1,000mph. When customers take that bite, the flavour has to hit. Every time.’

After nearly three years at Noma, he had a baby with his wife – and burned out. ‘My family and René’s family are still really close. He’s been so supportive throughout everything I’ve ever done. He said to me, “Go and search for happiness. If you want to get Ghetto Gastro off the ground, you need to go for it 110%”. So off I went.’

The collective make some of the most original and innovative food out there. At Art Basel, they served lines of freeze-dried coconut powder atop plexiglass plates, to see how guests reacted to the idea of black men serving them cocaine. For an event at an art gallery in New York, they created an apple-pie inspired by Black Lives Matter because, Livingston II explains, ‘the killing of black men is just as traditional in America as apple pie is’.

‘But not all our food is political,’ adds Livingston II, ‘and food doesn’t always need to be fancy. We want to make memories and knock shit out the park. We want all our food to taste just like the food your favourite aunt makes you.’ His top Ghetto Gastro dish is called Triple C: ‘Made from cornbread, caviar and crab, it’s very powerful,’ he says.

Ultimately, he says, everything Ghetto Gastro does circles back to empowering the Bronx from within. When, for example, René Redzepi comes to visit Labyrinth 1.1, ‘It won’t even be about him tasting the food. Our biggest goal is creating a super strong community through food, just like he has done so successfully. I want him to see the environment we’re building.’

He pauses, before adding: ‘Of course, Ghetto Gastro is a vibe. There are the lights and the cameras. It’s a dope place to roll through. We want to be in every space we can and have some fun along the way. Food is just the medium.’

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