The Bronx’s Flyest Chefs Are Combining Food And Activism
For hip-hop heads, the Bronx is first and foremost associated with the original formation of the culture, not world-class chefs in the kitchen. While the borough is immortalized as the birthplace of hip-hop culture, if the members of the food connoisseur collective Ghetto Gastro have their way, the Bronx will also be world-renowned for the creation of original dishes merging fashion, art, and politics. Conceptualized in 2012, the collective members (Jon Gray, Pierre Serrao, Lester Walker, and Malcolm Livingston II) formed together to create “altogether more arresting and political food experiences,” according to Dazed.
Jon Gray created Ghetto Gastro after experiencing a snag while working in the fashion industry. “After some soul searching I realized food is the one thing that I really enjoy and I spend all my money on, so I might as well find a way to make it my life’s work. Me and Lester, we grew up in the same neighborhood and we were always talking about doing things together. So I came up with the title Ghetto Gastro and was like: ‘Look, we’re both from the streets, let’s figure out how to have a narrative, or an autobiographical experience using food, and ways we can inject that into art, fashion, design.’ I already had a lot of relationships and a small understanding of these different worlds. I was like, let’s bring food and Bronx culture into it.”
Gray’s upbringing in the Bronx powerfully influences the work of Ghetto Gastro, as well as as his own individual sociopolitical outlook. “I had a lot of Puerto Rican and Dominican friends,” he recalls. “I would go and eat with their families, so I was exposed to different types of food and seasonal drinks like Coquitos. Then as I got older, (I started) tapping into West African, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Sierra Leonean, Trinidadian, there’s even a small Vietnamese population – it’s a lot of different vibes.”
While the Bronx is one of the most culturally diverse places in the nation, with a heavy influx of African, Caribbean, and Latinx immigrants, heavy poverty and systematic racism in housing. When discussing the importance of the borough, Gray retains his sense of pride in growing up there. “The Bronx in very important to us,” he continues. “Coming of age in the 90s and early 2000s it was a very unique time. And I’m sure it was the same no matter what block you grew up on, whether it was Brooklyn, Harlem or the Bronx…the Bronx has been a little bit under served. Of the five boroughs, it is the most impoverished. I think it’s important for us to celebrate different attributes and some of the positive things that come out forced creativity.”
Despite their success, the bourgeoning food collective insist they’re not in this for the fame, as many people in their neighborhood are without access to certain food experiences reserved for the upper-class. They’ve shown an interest in urban farming, wanting to provide agricultural jobs for an increasingly marginalized community. “It’s thinking about how we create. When I was a kid I was attracted to things that were cool, I wanted to spend my time doing what I wanted to do without thinking about what was the social good of it. For me, it’s about doing business in a new way where it intrinsically has some benefit for the community. Because, you know, you can’t just be screaming ‘The Bronx! The Bronx!’ and getting in magazines cause it sounds cool.”
In addition to pushing the boundaries between art and fashion with food, they apply a similar theory In a political environment that readily consumes the creativity of Black folks in art, social media, and music, preparing a dish for guests that symbolize consumption of the Black body is a bold statement. The group recently presented a desert entitled, “Black Bodies,” in which chalk outlined a body on the plate. “It’s fear of the black body. The black body is being abused and murdered on these streets for the world to see, so we did an outline of a body in chalk. And then Hank, he was like ‘let’s do something really American’ so we did a deconstructed apple pie, ” Gray explains. “We used different types of apples, and it was called ‘black bodies’.
“We’ve always been into making people feel uncomfortable, and we felt this plate might do that.”