This is an audio transcript of the FT Weekend podcast episode: Chef Mashama Bailey on reclaiming African-American food

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Johno Morisano
This white and blue glass is called Metrolite. Uh. . . (inaudible)

Lilah Raptopoulos
It’s March, and I’m in Savannah, Georgia, outside of the famed restaurant The Grey. The managing partner, Johno Morisano, is showing me around.

Johno Morisano
First thing we wanted to do was put the facade back to what it was, except that no one makes better light anymore because (inaudible)

Lilah Raptopoulos
Johno is white. He’s got a handlebar moustache and glasses and tattoos. He looks like a hipster from New York, which he is.

Johno Morisano
(inaudible) glass made in Hungary.

Lilah Raptopoulos
From the street, the building looks like a vintage diner with shiny, curved windows.

Johno Morisano
Uh, and this was a segregated lunch counter called the Union News Cafe, uh, which (inaudible)

Lilah Raptopoulos
We walked through the doors and passed the kitchen on the right. Then the restaurant opens into a beautiful, high-ceilinged art deco dining room. Its centrepiece is a sunken, curved eat-at bar. It feels grand.

Johno Morisano
The bus terminal was the first fully air-conditioned bus terminal in the south. (inaudible)

Lilah Raptopoulos
We keep going across the dining room into the back. The back is small and cramped and has low ceilings. The server station is back here and the bathrooms. If you didn’t know the history of the space, you probably wouldn’t remember it.

Johno Morisano
And then we walk through and we come to sort of the darkest part of the history of the space, which is the coloured waiting room and the coloured, that was the coloured women’s room and the coloured men’s room. Never (inaudible)

Lilah Raptopoulos
The building was once a segregated Greyhound bus station from 1938 to 1964. It’s a building with a lot of history, and Johno knows it well. He bought it nine years ago and he spent years restoring it. But today, it’s home to one of America’s most important black chefs, one of its most important chefs, period. . .

[Soft inaudible shouting, laughter]

Lilah Raptopoulos
. . . Her name is Mashama Bailey. She and Johno have been business partners since 2014.

Johno Morisano
Walking here today was like an (inaudible). We can’t spend all the money on air conditioning.

Mashama Bailey
I don’t spend any money. (Laughter) All I do is make money, baby!

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
A month ago, Mashama was named Outstanding Chef by the prestigious James Beard Awards. That makes her this year the best chef in America. It’s like winning best director at the Oscars. Mashama is the first black woman chef to hold the title and one of two black women to have won a James Beard Award ever. And Mashama isn’t just a black chef. She’s a chef who’s devoted herself to unearthing the history of African-American cooking, both through research and through creative guesswork. Because throughout American history, black people have played a massive role in defining American food. But most of their contributions haven’t been acknowledged or documented. From the slave trade on. Today, we spend some time at The Grey to learn about Mashama and her passion for finding Black cuisine’s untold history and building on it.

Mashama Bailey
There’s some food that’s indigenous to this country, and I think that the people who cooked this food really weren’t given the opportunity to actually express how they use the ingredients that were grown here from here.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mashama says that Americana food has been defined by colonial settlers and wealthy Americans versus Native Americans who knew the land and African-Americans who cooked much of the food.

Mashama Bailey
There is a correlation between Africa and American food, uh, and also, you know, a correlation with Native American foods that I think that people of colour and people who are poor in this country understand and can relate to. And I think that that is what American food really is.

Lilah Raptopoulos
We also talk to Stephen Satterfield. He’s the host of the Netflix docu series High on the Hog. Stephen has been integral to documenting the larger movement of reclaiming the history of African-American food.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
This is FT Weekend. I’m Lila Raptopoulos.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
The story of how Mashama Bailey became America’s hottest chef starts with that segregated bus station that’s now her restaurant. In the years before, Mashama was working at the New York restaurant Prune, led by chef Gabrielle Hamilton. And Hamilton thought she was ready for more. So she put Mashama in touch with Johno. Jonno had just bought that building, and he needed a chef.

Mashama Bailey
I did not think I was going to do this project. Now, I sat in Johno’s office and we talked, and we got along, and we, we really genuinely connected right away. And he showed me the plans, like the blueprints for the building, and it was like 250 seats. And I was just like, “I can’t cook for this many people”. I was like, “This is crazy”. But then he started talking about the building and he was like, “But then this is the, wait, main waiting room and a colour waiting room is like here”. And I was like, “What”? The coloured waiting room because yeah, this is where the coloured waiting room was for the bus station. It was built in 1938. And I said, “Is it still intact”? And he goes, “Yeah, it’s still the way it was”. And I was like, “Oh, well, I got to go see that”.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mashama had actually lived in Savannah for a few years as a kid. Her mom is from Georgia. Her grandmother lived there all her life. She had happy memories there. So when Mashama went down to Savannah, she immediately felt plugged into something.

Mashama Bailey
So I didn’t even get on that plane thinking like, “Alright, yeah, I’m going to get this gig and I’m going to be this business partner”. I went just to see a piece of history in the South. And as soon as I walked to space, I was like, “Oh, okay. Alright”.

Lilah Raptopoulos
That was it.

Mashama Bailey
It just felt like it was my space. It just felt like it belonged to me. I was just like, this is, I belong here, and I’m supposed to do this.

Lilah Raptopoulos
I spent several days in Savannah to write a profile of Mashama for the FT Weekend magazine. I knew she was doing something important, and I wanted to pinpoint what was so unique about The Grey. I knew she did things like combining grits with foie gras, elevating what we think of as Southern food. And I knew her ingredients came from the region. She’ll make a Cumberland sauce with hibiscus instead of port wine because it grows like crazy in Georgia. But what I started to realise when I was there is that it’s the way that Mashama combines inventive cooking with a sense of history that makes it so singular. Those parts of Black history that have been lost. She’s feeling her way back to them by going back to the Georgia Lowcountry and getting to know the physical land, its agriculture and what it’s capable of producing. That afternoon at The Grey, I met Trevor Elliott, Mashama’s chef de cuisine. Here he is, preparing the staff for service. Everyone is gathered together in the main dining room and Mashama and Johno are looking on.

Trevor Elliott
Happy Wednesday, everybody!

The Grey workers
Happy Wednesday!

Trevor Elliott
We have a few changes throughout the menu tonight. Uh, our first course on water is tuna crudo. We’re certain now (inaudible)

Lilah Raptopoulos
Trevor is Mashama’s second in command. They come up with ideas together and he translates her ideas into daily menus. I found him in the kitchen because I wanted to ask him how they explore historic dishes from the region if so much of it isn’t documented.

Trevor Ellott
Well, it’s almost super (inaudible) old cookbooks. I think that’s, that’s one place where (inaudible) get it off. Got really exciting, going through recipes from, you know, the 1870s.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Trevor Elliott
When you walk to the city and there’s all these names like the (inaudible), like these old generals, revolutionary war figures. Uh, and back then, there were no restaurants, like the lives of these rich and powerful men would entertain. And they had these great books in the house. A lot of them were anonymous, you know, African-American books. . .

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Trevor Elliott
. . .Uh, that was really, really like there were these great scientific minds behind cooking and read these old books. I can only imagine there’s no pictures in them. So you just read something like jellied handful or something. It sounds so weird. It really gets the gears going.

Lilah Raptopoulos
That night I ate at The Grey and I knew I would remember it. The restaurant was buzzing. I had this catfish dip that looked like a familiar blobby potato salad, but the flavour was layered and exciting. It turns out the catfish had been cooking in their smoker all day. At one point I looked up and saw two original bus station clocks hanging on the opposing walls. They were running, but they were telling the entirely wrong time. Johno told me later that they couldn’t get them to sync, but it felt right to me because when you’re in there it feels like time is an illusion, like you’re somehow in the past and in the future all at once. The next day, I sat down with Mashama. We found a quiet spot in the private dining room, which used to be the white women’s powder room.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Okay, well, first of all, the meal last night was like, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was like everything that I hoped it would be.

Mashama Bailey
Aww, that’s awesome!. Thank you!

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah. Uh, one thing that I was talking with Trevor about yesterday was, uh, he mentioned that when you have been collaborating together, that you were finding these old cookbooks from like the 1800s and, and reinventing those recipes a little bit. And I felt that with sort of like the foie gras terrine and the catfish dip. . .

Mashama Bailey
Yeah.

Lilah Raptopoulos
. . . served like they’re, like the ideal version of this kind of, like, Americana thing.

Mashama Bailey
Mm-hmm.

Lilah Raptopoulos
And, yeah, I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit about that.

Mashama Bailey
Um, I, yeah, I think the way I look at it is that I try to figure out, like, what were people eating in this region a hundred years ago, 200 years ago? Does it still exist? A lot of things don’t exist anymore. Like Parts of Palm was a very big thing in this region. I think they called it swamp cabbage. It’s uh, like sort of obsessed with trying to find a farmer who will take the time to grow it. But I think it’s one of those things where it was like it was here and then they just depleted the resources. So now they don’t grow it here anymore. Uh, but finding those types of dishes or finding those types of recipes, I think really helps us resonate with the elders in the community. And I think things like the smoked catfish dip is something that, uh, would resonate because it’s almost like it’s a step away from like a tuna fish salad, something so familiar, something that we all grew up with, something that’s been in the household almost on a weekly basis. It’s inexpensive. You can feed a lot of people with it, but it’s like this elevated way to use, you know, main parts of fish and also we can use scraps of fish.

Lilah Raptopoulos
You said last night or yesterday afternoon, one of the last things is we were talking about, uh, the food and how you, uh, are being recognised. You said I just don’t want to appropriate.

Mashama Bailey
Oh, yeah (laughter).

Lilah Raptopoulos
And I’m curious what you meant by that.

Mashama Bailey
Uh, I just don’t want to cook Mexican food, you know, or Italian food. I don’t want to be a Mexican chef or an Italian chef or a French chef. . .

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Mashama Bailey
. . .You know, I think I want to pull inspira--, I mean, I think I’m going to, I think I do pull inspiration from those, from the heritage of those beautiful cuisines. But I don’t want to be known for that. And I think for me, in my mind, that’s an appropriation . . .

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Mashama Bailey
. . .It won’t change the narrative. I don’t think if I did that. I think because when I first came, when I first was thinking about a menu, it was mostly Italian. And after a while, I was like “I’m not Italian”. (laughter).

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Mashama Bailey
Like I’m Black. So why, like, yeah. Can I put a pasta on the menu? Yeah. But how could I make a pasta that you would see in a Black home, you know, or you would see on a Black menu. So I’m very care--, I’m, I’m very sort of careful about that.

Lilah Raptopoulos
I’m stating the obvious here. But for generations, appropriation worked the other way in American kitchens, White chefs or even just White families took credit for Black chefs’ food. Martha Washington, for example, has a cookbook, and it’s assumed that most of the recipes came from her and George Washington’s enslaved chef, Ulysses. Another of the most influential chefs in America was named James Hemings. He was the enslaved cook of Thomas Jefferson, who trained in France and then, back at Monticello, he created and popularised some of the most American foods of all: ice cream, French fries and mac and cheese. Barbecue has Black roots from West Africa. The first American pitmasters were enslaved men. Rice was a crop that America’s economy was built on. But the people who knew how to harvest it were Africans displaced here in the slave trade. Tons of crops were harvested by African-Americans. If you want to know more, I’ve put links in the show notes. These histories have been meticulously reconstructed by cooks like Edna Lewis in the 1970s and scholars like Dr Jessica B Harris today. But there’s a lot we’ll never know. You just sort of have to grasp your way back, and sometimes you have to fill in the blanks. Like Mashama will go to Georgia’s border islands to learn from the Gullah Geechee historians, their descendants of enslaved people from West Africa who’ve been able to preserve a lot of their culture. Or she’ll go to a ricefield to see how heirloom rice grows, and she’ll take her team out with her so they really feel what farming was like hundreds of years ago. They did this a few years ago at a famous farm called Anson Mills.

Mashama Bailey
And so we went out and we, we just harvested like this, like small corner of rice. And then, uh, we milled it and we did it the old-fashioned way, uh, which basically is like ripping the rice kernels off of the stalks and then sifting it and then grinding it and then sifting it again and grinding it and sifting it again until the rice, kind of, uh, the germ of the rice comes out. And then we also did it, uh, through a mill. So we were able to do it both ways, which is exhausting. It’s exhausting. And it’s almost like you kind of want to keep going, but you’re just like, I’m not built for this. (laughter) Like, I don’t think the last two generations have been built for this kind of work (laughter).

Lilah Raptopoulos
There’s this story Mashama told that to me really encapsulates the way that she connects the dots between place and history. It’s about pot liquor, which is the nutritious juice that’s leftover in the pot after you cook greens. The Grey now uses pot liquor as a stock for a lot of its dishes. The story starts with a visit from Mashama’s family.

Mashama Bailey
My mom and dad and my family came to visit me for Christmas, and my mom brought Christmas dinner, which was basically like collard greens and cornbread dressing and like oxtails, which, you know, and I was like. . . and then like we ate and then she packed up everything and left, and then she left like a bag of collard greens for me. And she put it in the freezer. I think my sister packed it up and I told them, I said, don’t, don’t leave anything. And then I think a week later I went into the freezer and there was like a bag of frozen collard greens. And I was so excited (laughter)! And so I was like, okay, great. It was cooked and everything and had like smoked turkey in it and everything like that.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mashama had actually been in Austin, getting a new restaurant ready for opening. It’s called the Diner Bar at the Thompson Hotel, and it opened this summer. So she had been approving business plans and hiring staff instead of her usual daily work at The Grey.

Mashama Bailey
So I’m feeling a little rusty and I’m feeling a little sorry for myself, so I wanted to make some food. So I didn’t have any groceries, but I had a pantry, so I had the greens in the pantry. I had some shrimp with on the shell, and some oil, and some granulated garlic (laughter), and I decided to make some food and some white beans. And I decided that I’d been wanting some lima beans. So I decided to like soak the beans, cook the beans, add the greens to the beans. I had a bunch of pot liquor from that and I decided to poach the shrimp in some, you know, in some fortified oil with shrimp shells and garlic and spices and some pot liquor.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mashama says they usually poach shrimp in a court bouillon with wine, lemon and herbs. She hadn’t thought to use the pot liquor before at all. But as she was cooking she realised people before her probably had. All this stuff is from Georgia. They’re ingredients that Black families have been using for generations. Greens, shrimp, beans. She said she could see someone on the Georgia coast eating this dish 200 years ago.

Mashama Bailey
And it just resonated with me that this is probably something that someone has made before, you know? But I’ve never seen it. I’ve never made it before. I’ve never eaten it in that combination before. So I think like those, like for me, like that’s how dishes come to be, you know. Like I think about a base ingredient, I think about a beet or I think about green, or I think about a lamb or shrimp or something. And then I start to think about what’s around it at that time. So this is a middle-of-the-winter dish. So I wanted something stewed. I wanted something that was going to cook slow. So it’s like the ingredients, I think, promote the thought of what’s creative.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
It can be easy to lose track of the larger meaning of Mashama’s work when you’re talking about greens and shrimp and rice. But she’s part of a movement that’s become important not just for reclaiming Black food, but for reclaiming Black history. Stephen Satterfield has become integral to this movement. He’s best known for High on the Hog, which is a Netflix docu series that explores the roots of African-American food in America. He made it with Dr Jessica Bea Harris, who’s one of the most respected scholars of black culinary history. And it’s based on her book of the same name. He also has an entire media company called Whetstone, which is dedicated to tracing food origins back to their pre-colonial roots. I really like Stephen’s work. So I called him. He describes this movement that he and Mashama are part of as a reclamation.

Stephen, what do you like about what Mashama Bailey is doing?

Stephen Satterfield
Mashama is, uh, I guess, a poster child for this reclamation cuisine. Growing up in Georgia, I have always appreciated her sensibilities on Southern food that move beyond tropes into a broader lexicon of Lowcountry and Coastal, uh, in her cooking. Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot you know (chuckle), there’s a lot to be (inaudible) for actual talent, which is obviously immense. But in terms of just her sensibilities, Mashama was someone who’s had this very formal training and made a very conscious choice to go back to her roots and explore her identity through food. And it was and continues to be really inspiring. And I think in a lot of ways she was really ahead of the curve on that.

Lilah Raptopoulos
One of the things that she and I were talking about was there were many things that she was obsessed with — pot liquor. She had made a stock out of pot liquor. And she was really interested and she was obsessed. She’s, in her words, she was obsessed with hearts of palm because it stopped growing in that region. So she’s trying to get a farmer to help her grow it again.

Stephen Satterfield
Love it. Yeah. Bringing it back and making what was lost central. Uh, that’s, that’s the reclamation. You know, that is what this work is about. And in the context of identity, it’s really hugely important, uh, especially because in the physical realm in our society, the members of society who are displaced are the most marginalised. From slavery to gentrification and every stop in between. There’s never been a moment in the history of this country where marginalised people, specifically Black people, weren’t being displaced from the place that they previously stood. It’s how we got here, that’s our origin story and it continues. And so when you have people who are involved in reclamation work, it’s work that corrects the historical record.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right.

Stephen Satterfield
. . . And it inserts people in the story who were there but were not heard from.

Lilah Raptopoulos
I asked Stephen why this reclamation movement is gaining traction now, specifically in the food world.

Stephen Satterfield
It was bound to happen this moment in a certain way. Uh, if you grew up over the last 30 years, uh, you’ve watched the rise of a food culture that was previously, I want to almost say, nonexistent or very, very, very subcultural. And we garnered a lot of our, uh, sensibilities in food, uh, from Europe, and from France in particular. And this is, this still shows up in every, almost every, like, fine dining restaurant you go to. But the entire way of talking about food, the vocabulary, the way that the kitchen is set up, words like chef de cuisine or stagiaire or sous chef, the brigade system. You know, these are all things that are derivative of a very specific worldview of what’s good. . .

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mm-hmm.

Stephen Satterfield
. . . And I think that it is sort of unsurprising through , uh, different iterations of social movements, social upheaval that people would begin to say, you know what, I actually am good on this. I actually don’t want to play by your rules anymore. I don’t want to hear your stories anymore. I didn’t grow up eating your food. I just assimilated. Or I was forced into assimilating to eat this food.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Stephen says he hopes this work will inspire people to ask questions of their industries, too. But that food is a particularly good lens for re-examining our history.

Stephen, I’m curious. Like your medium is food. Every medium can do something unique. What can food do?

Stephen Satterfield
I mean, what can’t it do is a much simpler question. It can do everything. It’s the cheat code. We all have to eat.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mm-hmm.

Stephen Satterfield
Right? It’s the only thing that we all have to do. And so to me, that right there is, like, a place to really, really, uh, begin thinking about the ways that we are related and dependent upon one another. We’re not talking about something that is not tangible, that’s, that can’t be touched. We’re not talking about an idea. We’re talking about something substantive and soulful that, in the right context and with the right people, is the foundation for the most powerful connections that we have with other humans in life. And those connections are formed around the table, and those memories are formed around the table.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
In June, Mashama accepted this year’s James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. I watched the ceremony broadcast online and the who’s who of the food world was there all dressed up. It really was like the Oscars. Hers was the last award of the night. Mashama hugged Johno for a really long time, and then she walked on stage.

[Excerpt from the James Beard Awards ceremonies]

Mashama Bailey
From my ancestors to my parents, to my mentors, to my business partner, uh, to my chefs. Thank you for supporting me and, and thank you for betting on Black. Black and Brown folks, immigrants, mom-and-pop shops have been bubbling underneath the surface of this industry, working hard for a long time, establishing our place in American food. And today, a little Black girl or a little Black boy, they can see themselves in a space that they have never seen before and do what they cannot think is possible. And until just a few minutes ago, that was me. So thank you (applause).

Lilah Raptopoulos
Watching the ceremony reminded me of something Mashama said when I was in Savannah. We discussed her influences, her creative process, the everyday challenges of running The Grey. And I wanted to know what she wanted out of her legacy.

You know, what big picture, what do you want to have done?

Mashama Bailey
I definitely have this imposter syndrome. And I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or because I’m an imposter, or because, (laughter) like, I feel like I’ve got like this all have, this all has happened so fast. And I think that I’m, I’m just now like owning that and stepping into the fact that I have done my own work to be where I’m at, you know. I’m, you know, like I wasn’t a restaurant rat. I did not come from a privileged family. Uh, I did not eat out a lot. So, like, all of this comes from just my family, you know. It all comes from just oral dialogue. And so I’m just, you know, and experience, too, in good food, in the home and all that stuff. But your journey can be whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be the same as someone else’s in order to get, to be successful, you know. And I just, I think talking about that, I think, is important. . .

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Mashama Bailey
. . and owning that is important.

Lilah Raptopoulos
(Inaudible) was out the window. What would you say?

Mashama Bailey
I mean, I deserve it.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Mashama Bailey
I deserve everything I’ve worked for. And I’m, and I’m going to keep thriving and striving to be better and better.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s the show this week. Thank you for listening to FT Weekend, the podcast from the Financial Times. I’ve links to my profile of Mashama in the show notes and more reading if you’re interested. She and Johno wrote a memoir together called Black, White and The Grey, which I really recommend. And Stephen’s media company, Whetstone, has a beautiful magazine and a suite of podcasts. I’ve linked to those, too. Next week we talk about Ukraine’s digital war front. Gillian Tett comes on and she tells us about how Ukrainian IT professionals are using their connections and know-how to fight an open-sourced war. Then we talk professional chess. It turns out it has changed a lot in the past 20 years.

If you’d like to get in touch, we would love to hear what you think of the show. You can email us at ftweekendpodcast@ft.com. You can find the show on Twitter at FTWeekendPod or find me on Instagram or Twitter @lilahrap. And if you really want to help the show, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. That is super helpful and helping people find us. Also in the show notes is a link to the best offers available on a subscription to the FT, including 50% off a digital subscription. Those offers are at ft.com/weekendpodcast. Make sure to use that link to get the discounts. Also a reminder that the FT Weekend Festival in London is coming up Saturday, September 3rd at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath. You can buy a ticket at ft.com/ftwf. That link and a discount code for £20 off is in the show notes. I am Lilah Raptopoulos, and here’s my incredible team. Katya Kumkova is our senior producer. Lulu Smith is our producer. Big shout-out this week to Neve Ro, our former intern who helped a lot with this episode. Our sound engineers are Breen Turner and Sam Giovinco with original music by Metaphor Music. Topher Forhecz is our executive producer and special thanks go as always to Cheryl Brumley and Renee Kaplan. Have a wonderful weekend and we’ll find each other again next week.

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