In The Food World, Black Excellence is Ghetto
Deconstructing the success of Ghetto Gastro.
January 19, 2019 ● 6 min read
By Ashtin Berry | Original photo by Jose D. Cota, courtesy of Ghetto Gastro/Art by Cassandra Landry
Ghetto is the cultural gold rush that seems to never run dry. It plays out in our music, fashion, even our language patterns. Were it not for the ingenuity of the ghetto, we wouldn’t have bae. Lit. Okurrr. Ghetto, in the words of the great Issa Rae, is nothing but creativity that hasn’t been stolen yet.
In the food and beverage world, we see ghetto play out in white-washed trendy bars serving ethnic street food at absorbent prices. It’s Wu-Tang playing in the background, too-curated spray-painted bathroom walls, 40s of hipster wine, and $12 chopped cheese. This cherry-picked ghetto pastiche all at once praises the gifts of Black and Brown people yet rarely acknowledges they exist. It’s an insidious, carefully-packaged and marketed artificial environment with a fine print: Negroes not included.
But what happens when the people who grew up in the ghetto reclaim the term with pride? When they give it a price tag that rivals some of the most decorated restaurants, and have the technique to back it up? You get Ghetto Gastro, the Bronx food collective and alternative culinary firm from John Gray, Lester Walker, Malcolm Livingston II, and Pierre Serrao. The group brings a swag as yet unmatched in the food world—one du-rag, gold chain, and dinner series at a time. With Microsoft, Marvel, Martell, Nike, and Serpentine Gallery London topping their client list, it’s clear this is just the beginning.
The group was started in 2012 by Gray, a fashion and artistic designer (and the only member of the group who is not a chef), and Walker, both Bronx natives. Over the course of the next couple of years, the group would add Livingston, another Bronx local, and Serrao (pictured above). Affectionately known as Chef P among the Ghetto Gastro crew and his close friends, Serrao is a self-proclaimed “Bajan Yankee” with roots in Barbados and Connecticut. Before joining Ghetto Gastro, he was a well-known personal chef in New York City, cooking for the likes of Jay-Z and Bey, Diddy, and the Beckhams. He trained at the International School of Italian Cuisine in Asti before doing stints at Ristorante Cracco and The Grand Hotel of Milano. His love for cooking is an extension of his heritage and the communities that have helped groom him.
Gregory Harris, Vogue, May 2018 | Courtesy Ghetto Gastro
Together, the crew reinterprets food and the dining experience, foregoing traditional cooking spaces for museums, designer retail stores, and in-the-know private spaces. Their dinners sell out quicker than ribs before Juneteenth, and like a synchronized flock, the group manages to flex their culinary skill while keeping exactly how they do it relatively close to the chest. A quick glance at their Instagram looks closer to a lifestyle page than one belonging to a chef collective—and that’s the point. Ghetto Gastro isn’t selling just food.
Ghetto Gastro is revolutionary because it challenges our cliched ideas about Black food and black chefs. More importantly, it challenges the notion that black food comes with a fiscal glass ceiling. Serrao and his circle have bucked all of that to present something truly honest, and unique—while consistently blurring the lines between luxury and Bronx originality through their ingredients, clientele, and partnerships.
“Ghetto Gastro isn’t for everyone,” Serrao says. “Some people are put off by the name, because they only know the word in [a negative] context, especially when you talk about black people from America.” It’s not meant to exclude people; it confirms that Serrao understands that curating culinary experiences from the context of black identities (those not interested in assimilating to colonized ideas of food, but very much interested in capital gain) is how Ghetto Gastro colors outside the lines.
“Ghetto” has a long history, ranging from WWII Nazi camps to lower-income neighborhoods to eventually referencing the people, fashion, and vernacular born of those same neighborhoods. It’s predominantly been a negative term, most often linked to black and brown people. Like its more controversial cousin the “N-word,” the word ghetto has been reclaimed by the same people it was once used to disempower. It’s one more example of how the respectability politics of the past melt away to reveal a generation of experts who set up their own value systems. Look past the block-by-block check cashing centers and discarded brown paper bags from fifths of Henny, and the ghetto becomes a landscape for persistence and joy.
When speaking to Serrao, I was comforted by the ease with which we were able to converse and code-switch, using cultural slang one moment and industry technical terms the next. Code-switching often translates into Ghetto Gastro’s entire approach to experiences; just take a look at their online cooking show, “Food Skillz.” Code-switching, so often seen as just a linguistic notion, expands to our visual aesthetics as well—Black people have always used clothing, hairstyles, and adornment as a function of assimilation and/or achievement. Together, Ghetto Gastro excels at transferring those aesthetics to the plates and palates of their guests in a way that maintains authenticity, a hood bylaw.
The visual aesthetic of everything Ghetto Gastro does is crucial to their identity; it acts as a touchstone for their cult following, forever anchoring them to the Bronx and the Black diaspora. Called on to create a dining experience for the ground-breaking movie Black Panther, Ghetto Gastro brought forth A Taste of Wakanda, incorporating odes to the royal style, innovative textiles, and lush setting seen in the film, like their vegetarian version of Jamaican patties or lamb tacos that use greens rather than tortillas served in an ornately carved box.
Serrao recently developed a technique for a Belgian waffle made entirely from coconut products, with a perfect crunch and fluffy, almost custardy interior. The velvety black glistens with golden dust like a brown girl from the Bronx wearing thick, gold hoops—you know, the ones you get from the beauty supply store. Or Chinatown, if you fancy and got the coin. That waffle speaks to his personal roots in the Caribbean, but it hints at the legacies of black chefs as well. The most commercial being the revisionist history Jim Crow caricature of The Mammy, a southern black woman confined to domestic work and the kitchen, later eternalized as Aunt Jemima. The true culinary narrative of black chefs in America has largely been erased from our shared history, and the sparse historical examples we do find tend to be placed into these old tropes—which only makes Serrao’s waffle all the more powerful, beautiful, and transformative.
While the glaring lack of racial equity in the industry has maintained a place in the conversation into 2019, it’s rare that black people within hospitality get to decide how they navigate through physical and conceptual spaces, even after they rack up incredible resumes. Constricted to this “tradition” of soul food—a name only coined in the 20th century—and its monolith perceptions, black chefs across the country consistently grapple to rewrite their own narratives and discover what their food really looks like.
Casting off the assumption that black traditional food is unhealthy, that it’s limited to the expertise of BBQ, fried chicken, and mac and cheese (which yes, is sacred), reveals the ingenuity of our Caribbean, Indigenous, Central and Western African ancestors. Ghetto Gastro thrives off of that knowledge, turning to ancestral staples like yams and cricket flour to cement their idiosyncrasy. Ghetto Gastro pushes the deeply intimate narratives of each unique ghetto to the front, calling upon the familiarities of their own backyard and the inspiration of travel to remix classics like PB&J and make it approachable to both the most bourgeoisie client and your round-a-way girl.
While cooking across the globe has given them a platform to bring resources and prioritize food justice, they’ve managed to stay grounded in the Bronx, their home. “Most people don’t know the Bronx is home to the largest food-distribution center in the world, but it’s still a food desert,” Serrao says. The paradoxes of a food desert aren’t hard to understand if you’ve ever lived in a ghetto. Your block is laced with fast-food, bodegas, mom-and-pop shops—but the idea of a grocery store is somehow a treat like a trip downtown. Ghetto Gastro has plans to change that: by starting their own farm and brick-and-mortar space. Just like that, the layers behind their name peel back like lyrics in a Kendrick Lamar song and reveal something even more complex than food.
Mentorship is a powerful tool, one that many successful Black chefs speak to not having throughout their career. Ghetto Gastro understands that in order for their work to be sustainable, they must also create accessible pipelines, the groundwork for a much larger empire— one with Michelin-rated culinary spaces, farms, design studios. As Serrao puts it, “We use food as a vertical, as young black men out here getting these checks and getting paid. We can flip that to show others how to do it.”
The Bronx is magical. It’s given us Hip-Hop, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, Swizz Beatz, JLO, Cardi B, and the youngest woman elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It seems only right that the legacy of the Bronx would finally reach the food world courtesy of some “ghetto boyz” who embody it, deadass.