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‘Chef’s Table’ Recap: Mashama Bailey Tells a Fresh Story About the South

Netflix’s hit documentary series heads to Georgia to trace the career of a culinary iconoclast

Netflix/Chef’s Table

The Mashama Bailey episode of Chef’s Table looks at how one of America’s most talented young chefs created a style all her own at the Grey in Savannah, Georgia. Directed by Abigail Fuller, this installment feels more intimate than many other recent Chef’s Table chapters, thanks, in part, to Bailey’s especially frank narration and the commentary from her parents, Cathrine and Dave. This episode also features lush cinematography courtesy of director of photography Chloe Weaver, and a gorgeous soundtrack from composers Duncan Thum and Sebastian Örnemark.

What was Mashama Bailey’s journey through the culinary world like?

Mashama Bailey grew up with her mom in a two-bedroom house in a black neighborhood of Savannah, Georgia. “As a child in Savannah, there was just a sense of freedom here,” she says. “There were kids on stoops and doors were open and everyone would just run to each other’s houses and you played old maid on the porch with your friends.” Mashama has fond memories of buying little frozen popsicles called “thrills” and returning home to have dinner with her grandma, an avid cook. Bailey describes this as “a very poetic time” in her life.

When Mashama was 11 years old, her mom decided to relocate the family to New York City, where there were more job opportunities. “When they weren’t working, they were going to school,” Bailey says about her parents. “All they wanted was that American dream. Every move that they made and all of their sacrifices were so that they could live a little bit better.” Food became less important in their family life after the move. “I felt like there was a piece of me that was missing,” she says.

At the behest of her parents, Mashama went to college and eventually got a job doing social work, but it didn’t last long. Inspired by a friend’s move to culinary school, Bailey decided to pursue a culinary education of her own. She joined an externship program that took her to France, where Bailey ended up working with chef Anne Willan at a chateau in the countryside. As a budding young chef, Mashama loved “living in this environment where you’re completely connected to the ingredients.”

Netflix/Chef’s Table

After returning to New York, Bailey got a job working as a private chef for a family out in the Hamptons, much to her parents’ chagrin. “They just didn’t understand,” she says. “They just saw a black woman working in a house for white folks.“ The experience made her want to take her cooking more seriously. Bailey got various jobs in fine dining restaurants, and eventually landed a position working at Gabrielle Hamilton’s acclaimed Manhattan bistro Prune. “The type of food that Gabrielle was cooking was so simple, taking a few ingredients and having them really sing, and I really thought that’s what food is all about,” she says.

Three years into her tenure at Prune, Hamilton put Bailey in touch with an acquaintance named Johno Morisano who was looking to open a restaurant in Savannah. They immediately hit it off, and Bailey decided to check out the restaurant space, which had been a segregated Greyhound bus station in a former lifetime. Mashama felt a kinship with the city and a strange draw toward the space. “My ancestors were here, and so many struggles have happened in this building,” she says. “I felt a connection. I just let that take me with it. I knew that I was on the right path.”

What was her “aha” moment?

Although she had a fondness for Savannah, Bailey says she “did not know this city at all through adult eyes.” She had no friends, and to make matters worse, Bailey had sent a sample menu for the Grey to Gabrielle Hamilton and was told by her mentor that her food was “all over the place.”

The chef had an epiphany, of sorts, at a local restaurant called the Mayflower, where she ordered deviled crabs garnished with a dressing she remembered from her youth. “I take one taste of it, and I’m back in my grandmother’s kitchen,” Bailey explains. “And I have this aha moment that I’ve been eating this way all my life, and that I wasn’t aware that there was actually restaurants built around the food that I grew up on.”

Bailey then began reading old cookbooks and introducing herself to local farmers and purveyors. “Learning about history in this area was so empowering,” she says. ”I started to see where I wanted to go with the food. That confidence started to reawaken. I became the chef that was looking backwards in order to look forward.” Morisano noticed a renewed sense of confidence in Bailey, as well. “She would come to me with a dish and she would say, ‘taste this’ and she would walk away,” he remarks. “There was no doubt anymore.”

Bailey eventually created a menu at the Grey that highlights local seafood and vegetables, with a few nods to her time in New York. Meals also typically end with a grown-up version of the thrills she enjoyed as a child. This highly personal style of cooking, with deep ties to its surroundings, helped the Grey earn numerous accolades, including being named Eater’s Restaurant of the Year in 2017.

“When I’m in this building, I can’t help but understand the historical impact that it holds,” Bailey says. “My family members would not have been able to walk freely in this space, and now to be the executive chef here, to be a partner in this restaurant, you understand that change is willing to happen in a place like Savannah. And at the same time, there’s so much to do, I’m just getting warmed up.”

What are some of Bailey’s most memorable quotes from this episode?

On returning to the city where she grew up: “When I left Georgia, there was a piece of me that was missing. Maybe it was the sun, maybe it was the marsh, maybe it was the smell of cut grass. Something was calling me. And then to come back to the golden coast and connect with the people and the land, there’s something starting to fill my soul. I think that there’s a sense of pride and a sense of peace that happens when you decide to come back home.”

On paying respect to the city of Savannah: “When you come to Savannah, you’re in this city that’s steeped in Southern tradition. They love the past. There are trolly tours [and] people dressed up in Colonial attire. People come down and they want to see that. They want the black chef at the Grey restaurant to be frying chicken. I just find that to be a slap in the face. That’s not the best that Savannah has to offer.

“African-American history in this area is so rich. These traditions and food, it’s about the storytelling and preserving heritage. Whenever you get a bunch of people at a table, you learn about the people at that table. The young folks learn about their elders, they learn about their culture, and listen to stories about the past. I feel this responsibility to educate people through my cooking. That’s the part of Savannah that I want to share.”

On the history of Georgia’s golden coast: “These border islands along the coast, this was an area [where] no one wanted to live. It’s humid and buggy and hot. Right after slavery, a lot of African Americans lived on these islands, and they learned how to cultivate the land. They were fishing, and crabbing, and oyster farming. I didn’t know black people ate oysters, and not only do they eat oysters, they made a living off of oysters. Years and years later, throughout all these hardships, the people who have been working the waters for generations are keeping these traditions alive. You can’t help [but] be humbled by that kind of history.”

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