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How Mashama Bailey Became the Hottest Chef in Savannah

What it takes to survive the "honeymoon phase" of a hit restaurant opening

Leslie Ryann McKellar/Eater

"On opening night, I felt like it was all possible," says chef Mashama Bailey of the December 2014 evening when she debuted the hit Savannah restaurant the GreyArmed with a multimillion-dollar space that would eventually be named the most beautiful restaurant of 2015, Bailey offered dishes like her take on Steak Diane, which Eater restaurant editor Bill Addison cited as an example of how her menu "gambols between audacious and accessible." Seven months after opening, the Grey earned a coveted position on Addison's 21 Best New Restaurant listBut with success comes experience, and experience has a way of changing how a chef thinks. "Now I'm like, 'No,'" Bailey says of even seemingly standard decisions like expanding service hours. "I have to think about it a little bit more and be more patient."

For the chef who worked her way up through the New York City restaurant circuit, culminating in a multi-year stint at Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune where she transitioned from cook to sous chef, the Grey was in no way the fulfillment of Bailey's long-term plan or vision. But when New York native John O. Morisano — more commonly referred to by his nickname Johno — approached Bailey with his plans of renovating a Greyhound bus station in Savannah, she remembers a meeting of like minds. The wheels were set in motion.

"Im working very hard at not being a flash in the pan."

A few months after the restaurant's first anniversary, Bailey is at Charleston Wine + Food, cooking at a dinner where tickets sold for $750 a pop. Bailey now describes a new kind of challenge: transitioning from being a first-time executive chef to being a chef that impacts Savannah's restaurant culture. "I'm working very hard at not being a flash in the pan," she says measuredly. "I want to be a part of this community. I'm invested; I'm proud of my restaurant community."

And those original plans she had for the Grey have refocused, along with her outlook. "I'm looking forward to growing into a person that's respected in this industry, and that's all," she says. Here now, a look back at how the Grey became Savannah's hottest restaurant, and how Bailey has approached the difficult decisions that have gotten her where she is today:

Congratulations on a year at the Grey!
Thank you! I think people in the business recognize it, but the first year is really hard. You learn a lot about yourself, your management style, your kitchen. You have to make painful decisions, too. You have to decide if the people that you're with are going to take you to the next level, and that's kind of where we're at right now.

The first year is the grind, and you have line cooks doing everything. I'm sweeping the floor, mopping, prepping, cooking, and expediting. People don't necessarily know that's what they're signing up for. They think they're there just to cook, but it's like, "Hey, guess what? We gotta wash the windows today." It can turn into a "Jack of all trades" kind of thing. It can start to get to people: Certain people rise above it and welcome it, and certain people just start to shut down.

the grey savannah interior photos

Photo: Quentin Bacon, courtesy of the Grey

Does it feel like it's been a year?
Yes and no. Right when we turned a year old — around late November, early December of 2015 — I remember pulling up in front of my apartment and sitting in my car. And I was just like, "That was rough." It didn't feel like a year until right at the year mark, and I just looked back and thought, "That was something." We're still sort of in that honeymoon phase, but our expectations for ourselves are really high. My business partner [Morisano] wants a beautiful restaurant, a beautiful home, and I do, too... Going into the second year, we're trying to figure out how not to make the same mistakes, or as many mistakes as we did in the first year. We're going to make mistakes. We try not to make the same ones too many times.

What about Johno's proposal made moving to Savannah exciting?
The opportunity to be a partner in a restaurant. I'm a line cook, I'm a sous chef, and that's what I was at the time. He was offering me this real investment in a building, in a restaurant, in a culture that no one was offering me. As we talked, we understood each other, and we realized that we liked the same things. We had very similar goals. I thought, "What the hell?"... Savannah is small. It's not what I'm used to, but the people are great. They love food in Savannah, and they're very particular. I like the fact that they're very particular, because they're a tough crowd.

"Theyre out there ready to crucify me if its not good."

A chef here in Charleston was saying that, too. If people don't like it, they tell you.
I'm not used to that in New York. New York has so many options, and people like what they like, and they may continue to go back. Here [in Savannah], there are so many things that are changing and the food is getting so much stronger: Where it was something that was in the homes, it's really starting to come into restaurants now. Because of that, people are a lot more critical of the food. My family, we didn't go out to eat, because it's like, "Well, why would I go out and have soul food when I can cook Sunday supper at home?" It's very judgmental about who makes good greens, who makes good chicken, or who has the best pork chops. It's very particular, it's very intimate.

Is that something you had gotten a sense of before you opened, or is that something you discovered?
I got a sense of it before I opened. I met a few people and we had a few tastings. The worst tasting we had before the restaurant opened, no one at the table ever had my cooking before, and it was bad. I bit off more than I can chew, I had a lot going on, everything was a la minute... I think people left a little lukewarm.

At that moment, I realized that I can't just throw something on the plate, or put a dish together and [have people] be amazed. I had to really research and pay attention to what people wanted to eat, what I wanted to eat, and have it come from somewhere, because they weren't having it. I wasn't going to be able to just throw something together and they'll be like, "This is great! Oh, thanks for coming from New York!" No, they're out there ready to crucify me if it's not good.

the grey savannah interior photos

Photo: Quentin Bacon, courtesy of The Grey

When you were in the opening process, where did you hope the Grey would fit in into the Savannah ecosystem? And now that it's been a year and a few months, where does it actually fit?
I was hoping that it would just fit in. I was hoping that local people would come. I didn't want it to turn into a tourist place. Locals are really the heart and soul of a restaurant. It [speaks to] the region, it relates to the culture of the city, and I really wanted the Grey to be a local place. Now, we're right in the middle. I think that we're a little bit on the upper scale: I don't think that we're more expensive than any restaurant in Savannah, but I definitely don't think that we're an inexpensive restaurant.

I was thinking it was going to be all locals when we first opened, because we didn't advertise on a level that attracted people who were flying into Savannah for a few nights. Now we're sort of right in the middle, local and travelers.

"If you do have good people, you hold on to them: benefits, pay, vacation. Take care of them, because they’re worth it."

Speaking more to staff, that seems like a pretty obvious difference between Savannah and NYC would be the amount of people working in the industry. How has staffing been?
The staffing is so different in Savannah. There aren't as many restaurants like the Grey. You don't have the same pool of people, and it's difficult to find people who understand what your goal is, and actually commit themselves to working hard and being able to take criticism. I know that there are people in Savannah willing to do that, but it's hard to find them. Staffing has been difficult.

The people that we have we're very, very grateful for, but it's been a process. There's been a lot of, "Yes, I will do the job, I'm so excited. I will do anything, I'm a hard worker, I'm a team player." Then you ask them to do something that's a team requirement, but not necessarily a part of their job, and there's push-back. I don't know why. I think anybody who's ever worked in a restaurant understands that you have to do everything. I don't understand why everybody doesn't have that same mindset. It's a little baffling to me, because there's a lot of restaurants in Savannah and people work there — and they work there for years — but it's very difficult to find the people that excel. It may sound a little disrespectful, but it's hard to find those people. If you do have them, you hold on to them: benefits, pay, vacation. Take care of them, because they're worth it.

the grey savannah interior photos

Photo: Quentin Bacon, courtesy of The Grey

A big part of the restaurant's story is the amazing transformation of the bus station, both physically and also symbolically, from a segregated space to one where there's an African-American, female chef running it. To what extent do those transformations impact the way you think about the restaurant, your goals for it, and how you actually run it?
I want it to be a little bit more diverse. When I was looking at the plans with Johno, he's like, "This is the entryway, and this was the 24-hour diner, and this is the lobby, and this was the colored waiting room," and I was like, "Wait, what?" He said, "It actually still exists, it's still there." I went through the space and I just was driven to go into the colored waiting room and see what it felt like. A lot of the bus station's claim to fame during that time was that it was fully air-conditioned, the whole building, and it was a big deal that the colored waiting room was in the air-conditioned part of the building. You can actually see the separation, and it's kind of sad.

Becoming the chef here, I'm always looking to see if there are people of color in the building, because sometimes there's no one of color eating in the restaurant. Then I get in there sometimes and there are tables and tables of people of color, but it's not every night. I want to make sure that the servers are diverse, and it's a representation of me, my family, and the people I grew up with. I don't want it to be so segregated, because it could become that. It could become only black people in the back of the house and white people in the front of the house.

"Im always looking to see if theres people of color in the building, and I want to make sure that the servers are diverse."

Is that a phenomenon you've noticed?
That's a phenomenon I've noticed in the south. When we put out for applications for cooks, porters, and stuff like that, 90 percent of the people who show up are African-American. Then when we put out ads for people who are in front of the house, 70 percent of them are white Americans.

There's a lot to unpack there.
Yeah. I want to be very careful about how we staff. I want to hire the most qualified person for any position that we hire for, but I also want to make sure that we're paying attention to how it could look. If a black person comes in and sits down and eats dinner, they're looking around to see who's serving them. It's important to represent everyone. It's important to represent me and Johno in the front and back of the house, because I think that speaks of both of us.

You can only deal with what you're dealt, so there's a little bit of that, but also I think we have to figure out how to impact the community to let them know these are viable positions. You can make a lot of money being a server: You can make 50, 60 grand a year waiting tables. But people don't look at it as a career. One of our goals is to impact the community in a way where people understand that the service industry is a viable industry, a money-making industry that people can take seriously and raise a family [working in].

You don't hear people speak about hiring practices in restaurants frequently enough, so I'm very energized by what you were just saying, that you're actively thinking about it. You can't just let it roll.
If you let it roll, it's just going to go back into traditional roles. I think people's self-worth starts to diminish when you start to do that. You have to push people and their boundaries. Being in a segregated bus station, we have to push the boundary of how the chips may fall. You have to shake it up a little bit. You have to require more from people, even if they don't traditionally fit in that role, so they can step up and understand: "These are real skills that I can take and do anything with." That comes from bussing tables.

Bill Addison

Photo: Bill Addison/Eater

That's how I started. I was a server.
Exactly! It's something you can do for a couple of years or for a lifetime: It depends on what you want to do with it. It's a viable industry. I started out waiting tables, and I probably was like, "Well, I'm only going to do this through college." Then the next thing you know, I'm out of college and thinking, "I'm going to try the back of the house." You just don't know if it's going to bite you. It's a bug that bites you, and it bites you because it's a magical industry. You come in, you make people happy, they leave happy, they talk about you, they come back, and you get the pleasure of feeding them again. There's not a lot of places that you can actually see gratitude on people's faces unfold right in front of you.

Speaking to restaurants as a viable career, how have you been thinking about some of the issues surrounding tipping and living wages?
Before we opened we went around to a few restaurants and asked people if they pool tips, and a lot of them were like, "What is that?" So that's what we did, pool tips. We had to explain it to [the staff] in such a way where they got it, it made sense, and they didn't feel like they were missing out. Which is the best thing we could've done, because now we have this camaraderie between the front and back of the house.

It starts to put us all in the same boat. I would love for my cooks to make $20 an hour. We're trying to figure out how to do that, because I think they deserve it. Right now, we're getting them as close as we can to that, but it's hard to figure out those logistics when the culture isn't quite there just yet.

Beyond staffing, are there any major differences you've seen in the work of operating a restaurant in Savannah versus New York?
It's all so new to me I wouldn't know the difference between New York, Savannah, Japan. I'm like, "Am I going to cry today? No, it was a good day."

Do you see yourself opening a second restaurant?
I do see myself having a second restaurant, but not for a long time. The Grey is my baby. We spent so much time and we're investing so much, and I'm learning so much about myself doing this restaurant. I'm just excited to go to the Grey and make it better.

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