Savannah Historic District
For The Grey chef-owner Mashama Bailey and her partner and co-founder, John O. Morisano, a restaurant should function like a conversation. Whether you dine in one or happen to work in one, there should be a dialogue between you and the owners.
This concept is especially poignant at a time when it seems like the era of the imperial chef is coming to an end. And when thousands of restaurants across the country are closing because of the pandemic.
At The Grey in Savannah, Ga., there is no top-down brigade system; it’s an exchange of ideas.
“I think in the pandemic, we’re a lot more sensitive to how this menu affects the staff, how the hours affect the staff, how the building is affecting the staff,” Bailey says. “We’re just way more sensitive to people’s needs because we’re way more sensitive to our own, and also people are being more vocal about what they need. So we’re able to kind of pivot and adjust, and adjust and listen in a way that we just weren’t available to do because we were just kind of running this machine, which was the restaurant. Now we’re taking a little bit of that power back, a little bit of that control back.”
Everything has become more of a dialogue, in some way.
Even the menus. Prior to the pandemic, there’d only ever been one major change to The Grey’s menu: a shift from small plates to a menu more focused highlighting their local purveyors. But when the critically acclaimed restaurant reopened for dine-in and takeout service in July after being closed for four months, three new set menus debuted.
The reason? The new menus and the new style of service are the byproduct of multiple conversations Bailey and Morisano have had with their staff. The menus reflect the team’s concerns about their own working hours and conditions. They address their worries about keeping the business as lean as possible, about making sure they will have jobs to return to. They showcase their pride in their work.
“There are no choices,” Bailey explains. “We just take you on a ride.”
With these new set menus, The Grey is inviting customers to trust them, and to join in that conversation as well, even at the risk of alienating some guests. To some, giving diners the choice of ordering a fixed three-course dinner for $65, a five-course one for $85, or a $135 seven-course chef’s tasting menu might not, at first, seem like a bold move. But it is for a restaurant that’s built a loyal following of regulars for the past six years.
“Whenever you do something like that it’s kind of nerve-wracking,” Morsiano says. “Because you have regular guests who come in and they expect a certain type of experience and we basically just kind of pulled the rug out from under them.”
Bailey adds, “I wasn’t even sure people would be willing to come into the restaurant quite frankly. We didn’t know what the climate was going to be.”
One month in, feedback on the new menus has generally been positive. Guests say they’re enjoying the more “curated” experience and sparking conversations with the staff about their meals.
Bailey is still finding ways to reinterpret classic dishes in new ways that resonate with Savannah, and with Southern cooking. She’s done a rendition of watermelon gazpacho with peanuts and canary melons (“mind-bending,” says Morisano). She’s refashioned the classic Southern perloo of rice and seafood with smoked guajillo peppers, rice grits, okra, and tomatoes. The restaurant is also now open for Sunday brunch, where her biscuits and gravy have reimagined traditional eggs benedict with a hollandaise laced with coffee, inspired by red-eye gravy.
And the conversations with their staff are continuing, too.
“We were with our team last night,” Morisano says, “and we had a little alcohol-fueled, scrappy conversation with everybody because everyone’s emotions are really really charged right now.” The topic of conversation, he says, centered on survival.
“I mean, everybody feels kind of f—— up right now. It comes out when we’re sitting around talking. That’s a lot. It’s a lot for all of us.”
George Floyd’s death in Minnesota and the subsequent calls for racial equity and social justice have also had an impact, personally and professionally for both. Less than a week after speaking with Bailey and Morisano, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin followed.
“I’m happy there’s awareness and a cultural understanding,” Bailey says. “I’m hoping that moving forward that there’s a real sort of change, of equity and equality and all those things.”
At The Grey, she says, “We distilled those things from the beginning. We learned from our staff. We learned how to be fair and equal and we are open and we listened. For us, just kind of being aware and educated and continuing to educate ourselves is part of how we’re going to grow through this.”
Morisano adds that for restaurant workers, especially, the pandemic has forced them to re-examine whether they still want to work in this industry going forward. “We lost a lot of the team. People moved back home or decided to go to grad school. People are asking themselves hard questions.”
Both Morisano and Bailey said the pandemic showed them, as well as the entire restaurant industry, just how fragile the business they love is. They wish restaurants could stop “cannibalizing” themselves, and to stop forcing themselves to compete on price and portion sizes. There is no easy fix, though.
“Our purveyors have to make a fair living,” Morisano says. “Our porters have to make a fair living. Healthcare costs money. Our food costs money. Fighting that battle, educating the guest and doing it in a way that they get is going to be a really long-term fix to some of the things that are wrong with the economic model of the restaurant business.”
“There are so many reasons not to do it,” he adds, about working in restaurants.
And yet, he and Bailey have no plans to abandon it. And they have no plans of slowing down, either.
They’re shipping food, from pickles and jams to spices and chicken country captains, from the restaurant and from The Grey Market, their two-year-old provisions store, on Goldbelly nationwide. It’s a long-term strategy they’ve employed even before the pandemic struck. And next year, they plan to open “a couple of spaces in Texas,” including a second Grey Market in Austin, says Morisano.
“I know it’s scary and hard and all the things,” Bailey says. Being back in the kitchen and working the line has only made that clearer. “I really don’t want to do anything else. I just want to get back in there and get my knives really sharp, and get my intuition really sharp. It kind of reinvigorated my love for it, more than I expected it to, I guess. During the pandemic, I was exhausted — mentally and physically and emotionally exhausted — and I was shut down a little bit. So to come back into the kitchen, I just love it. This confirms it.”