Earlier this summer, at the Parisian cafe L’Esperance, a taste of the American South started to trickle out of the small kitchen. It was known for generations as a casual spot in the 7th arrondissement where locals enjoyed morning coffee, brasserie fare for lunch, and wine in the early evening. But suddenly, without fanfare, dishes like red rice balls, chicken country captain, and smoked fish dip were served alongside croque monsieurs, steak tartare, and salades vertes. The introductions are reflective of the cafe’s change in ownership: American restaurateurs Mashama Bailey and Johno Morisano of the Grey are set to launch their take on Parisian dining in the L’Esperance space, slated for early 2024.
Their expansion comes after the Austin, Texas, openings of their eatery the Diner Bar and restaurant-shop the Grey Market. The Paris restaurant’s new name and rebrand will be announced closer to opening, following renovations currently in progress. The concept merges Bailey’s and Morisano’s reverence for Southern, port-city cuisine, which defines the menu at their acclaimed Savannah, Georgia, headquarters, with their affinity for Parisian food culture. The food will be French focused with nods to techniques and preparation straight from the American South canon. The interior of the restaurant seats 50, with an outdoor terrace adding additional seating. They plan to use the wine cellar below the main dining room for private dining.
While Bailey and Morisano have both nurtured respective relationships to France going back decades, the idea to expand their business imprint to Paris emerged while completing revisions on their book, Black, White, and the Grey, in 2019. The duo holed up in Paris for inspiration and focus away from day-to-day restaurant duties. “We were eating out every single night,” Bailey recalls, in an interview with Morisano near Gramercy Park, New York City. “You start to get immersed in the food and drink lifestyle. I think we fell in love with the culture of [their] restaurants, their culture of food.” Bailey, an alumna of American culinary school curriculum, which is rooted in French cooking traditions, was no stranger to Parisian standards and had lived and worked at Château du Feÿ in Burgundy. Morisano backpacked through France in the early 1990s and fostered a relationship with Paris by returning regularly with his wife over the years. L’Esperance is in the same neighborhood where he and his wife stay when visiting and where he and Bailey stayed while finishing the book. “Paris is the place I go to,” says Morisano, who had become familiar with L’Esperance and the previous owners as a patron. “I’ve always thought that there’s a place for us in Paris — not just our food, but for our style of service. We have a warm hospitality as a model, which is also shifting in Paris right now.”
The timing couldn’t be better, according to Moko Hirayama, co-owner with her husband, Omar Koreitem, of Paris restaurant Mokonuts. Hirayama was born in Japan and raised in the U.S., and Koreitem was born in Lebanon and raised in Paris. Their popular eatery combines American, Japanese, Middle Eastern, and French techniques and ingredients. “French diners are [increasingly] open to new ideas and new approaches to food,” Hirayama says. “They’ve become more knowledgeable about restaurants elsewhere. What we serve is not fusion in any way, but food well-prepared with seasonal ingredients.”
News of Bailey and Morisano’s expansion into Paris follows the successful opening of acclaimed France-born, San Francisco-based chef Dominique Crenn’s Parisian debut, Golden Poppy. Local food writer Alexander Lobrano describes it as “the most talked about new opening in Paris” and notes that its cross-cultural menu of small plates “may help to see off the entrenched French conviction that Americans mostly subsist on unhealthy junk food.”
In 2019, Bailey, a New York native who spent her childhood in Georgia, won the James Beard Award for best chef: Southeast, and she followed it in 2022 with the foundation’s highest honor, outstanding chef, for her work at the Grey. With Bailey’s own Southern cooking curriculum on MasterClass, a partnership with Delta’s first-class service, and the duo’s appearances on platforms like American Express, Hirayama adds, “With their notoriety, Mashama and Johno can find their place in the French dining scene.”
Continuing a Global Legacy
For students of culinary history, the news of the Grey’s expansion to Europe marks an exciting and historic moment in cross-continental dining culture, particularly as it relates to Black chefs and the authorship of Southern cuisine. “Up until the last decade, American chefs were trying to prove how well they could cook French food,” says Lolis Eric Elie, the celebrated co-author of Rodney Scott’s World of Barbecue: Every Day Is a Good Day and writer on television series Treme, Bosch, and The Chi. Elie also serves as commentator (alongside this writer) on Bailey’s biographical episode of Chef’s Table.
“The kind of food getting James Beard Awards wasn’t focused on American food at all; it’s as though American food was second-class. Now, we have a focus on American foods, which has meant a focus on foods of the South and on African American cooking,” he says. Such exchanges between French and American cuisines have been in place for centuries, and they are indelibly born of the Black culinary figures whose craftsmanship and innovation defined the best of American cooking.
James Hemings, an enslaved chef to Thomas Jefferson, lived and worked in France. Toni Tipton-Martin writes in Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking that the statesman “first enjoyed crisp batter cakes in France,” where he brought Hemings to study. Jefferson bought a waffle iron and upon his return to the States prompted Hemings to perfect the recipe. The layered relationship between American and French food cultures is further illustrated by black-eyed peas. An African ingredient and standard of Southern fare, black-eyed peas are believed to have been introduced to Louisiana (a former French colony) by French slave-owners in the 18th century, Adrian Miller writes in Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine. Miller cites the anthropologist Mark Wagner, who documented ship manifests logging food supplies from Africa (just one of countless records that contradict misinformed myths and memes that perpetuate the idea that African ingredients arrived in the Americas because enslaved Africans braided seeds into their hair before being taken along the Middle Passage).
France is historically heralded as a haven for Black Americans, particularly artists who fled state-sanctioned violence and Jim Crow — such as Augusta Savage, Claude McKay, James Baldwin, and Josephine Baker. In more recent years, creatives like Tina Turner decamped to Europe. She attributed her relocation to being able to express more freedom with her music than what American radio expected from a Black rock-and-roll singer. Less known to American audiences are the experiences of Francophone, African-descended people who have advocated for their equity against colonial policies across the globe, and today, activists are critical of policies throughout Europe that largely reflect a lack of human rights for Black and Arab citizens and migrants. But Black Americans of the 20th century, certainly those working in culinary roles, could find in places like France personal and cultural valorization.
In Soul Food, Miller writes about Kentucky native Leroy Haynes, who, like many Black GIs serving in World War II, voluntarily exiled himself to Europe rather than return to the United States. Haynes opened Chez Haynes in 1949 on 3 Rue Clauzel in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, and “his calling card was chitlins.”
Whereas chitterlings, as one example, could be dismissed as “slave foods” by artist-activists like Dick Gregory or political movements like the Nation of Islam, and even rejected by Black folks in northern and western communities in the States seeking to escape country stereotypes, across the Atlantic, such foods didn’t carry the debt of racialized identity. Intestines could simply be part of andouillettes, enjoyed as a testament to a chef’s ingenuity and resourcefulness. Tripe and bone marrow could be decadent and rich, rather than evidence of a household limited to so-called offcuts.
Haynes’s restaurant was known throughout Europe (Brigitte Bardot called the food “formidable”), and countless expats found their way there before it closed in 2009. These are just a sampling of the myriad ways Black American foodways collide with French dining.
More recently, Black French chefs in Paris are exploring their interpretation of soul food at spots like Le Maquis and Gumbo Yaya. To see today’s French chefs playing with celebratory soul-food meals like chicken and waffles, 200 years after Hemings brought waffles to the States from France, is a meaningful milestone in this ongoing cultural exchange. For Bailey to have an opportunity to showcase her Southern American cuisine’s attentiveness to high-quality, seasonal ingredients, just as luminaries like chef Edna Lewis once espoused (arguably factors of Southern cooking that American diners still overlook), is a full-circle moment.
“For Mashama to go to Paris,” Elie says, “arguably the greatest food city in the world, and serve them a Parisian interpretation of African American Southern food, is a hell of a statement about the cuisine that those of us who’ve known have always known is great.”
Bailey is still learning of the Black American chefs who preceded her in Paris restaurant entrepreneurship, but she has long understood the value of America’s signature cuisine. “I always saw a connection between Black folks and Southern food, and French food. The long braises, the fresh ingredients, the way dairy and flour is used,” she says. “Having a place in France makes sense to us, because what we’re doing is related to that sensibility of how people gather and eat around the table here.” She and Morisano intend for the restaurant to adapt to what the neighborhood tells them it needs and ideally attract folks who now head further up the street to the bustling Rue de Bac. “This restaurant is truly meant to be for the neighborhood,” Bailey says. “Having a place in Paris is a dream.”
Osayi Endolyn is an award-winning writer, producer, curator, and consultant, whose storytelling centers food and culture.