“We want to be neck and neck with the Bible and the Koran, all the sacred texts, and the Joy of Cooking,” says Jon Gray, one-third of the Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro. That’s a big goal for a cookbook — of course, the intention of Ghetto Gastro Presents Black Power Kitchen, due from Artisan in October, is to be unlike any other cookbook.
Flip past the ode to the health food store to find an essay on redlining and the tensions between American Chinese restaurants and their Black patrons. Studio shots of green juice and plant-based chopped cheese give way to portraits of the streetside heladeros and restaurant counter workers who form the backbone of the Bronx food economy. Recipes — for saltfish takoyaki, cauliflower rice, and red drink — are interspersed with a poem, paintings, and interviews (rapper A$AP Ferg, museum director and curator Thelma Golden). Black Power Kitchen is as much a cooking manual as it is a manifesto of Ghetto Gastro’s decade-long mission: Seeing eating as simultaneously a form of survival and a source of luxury, Black Power Kitchen frames food as a form of love, but also a weapon — one that has long been wielded against communities like Ghetto Gastro’s in the Bronx.
For the 10 years Ghetto Gastro has existed, the collective has been hard to pinpoint. “We’ve existed in this abstract,” Gray admits. An early focus on event planning and catering led to parties in the 2010s that initially enmeshed the collective in the fashion world. In recent years, Ghetto Gastro’s name has started to pop up in broader spheres: alongside air fryers, waffle makers, and cookware in a CruxGG retail line available at Target and Williams-Sonoma; in their line of syrup and waffle mixes advertised on Instagram; and in collaborations with brands like Nike, Timberland, and Fly by Jing. One of the collective’s biggest moments yet came at the 2022 Oscars, when it worked with Wolfgang Puck on food for the official post-ceremony celebration. “Is it an art collective? Is it just entrepreneurship? Is it mutual aid?” Gray says. “It’s multitudes; it’s all of those things.”
With Black Power Kitchen, Ghetto Gastro is making its most defined — and maybe its most accessible — introduction, codifying the collective’s ideology into something that’s ready to be built upon by others. Ghetto Gastro is a philosophy: to bring the Bronx to the world and the world to the Bronx, with food as the portal. It is also a partnership: between Gray, an entrepreneur who once ran a denim company, and chefs Pierre Serrao and Lester Walker, whose backgrounds are in the private chef and fine dining worlds. In Black Power Kitchen, Gray, Serrao, and Walker’s shared vision comes together in a single voice, through the aid of writer Osayi Endolyn. And all of those projects Ghetto Gastro has done so far? It’s only the beginning of what the collective sees as a marathon effort to change the food world.
“Our existence is a deviation from the norm,” says Gray. He and Walker grew up in Section Five of Co-Op City, a housing development in the Bronx that holds the title for the single largest residential development in the United States. Gray’s grandmother taught Walker’s brother in the fourth grade; that’s how far back their families go (Walker and Gray are now 41 and 36, respectively). They grew up loving the diversity of the Bronx’s food — the amalgamation of roti shops and cannoli shops and pizza shops — but they also understood the scarcity surrounding them and the effects of food apartheid.
Unlike the term “food desert,” which frames inaccessibility to food as a natural occurrence, food apartheid identifies the lack of grocery stores and the proliferation of fast food joints in certain areas as a result of inequality within social and political systems. According to 2016 numbers from the city health department, some parts of the Bronx have between 20 to 25 bodegas for every supermarket. “It’s a huge demographic of people out here that have to work with what they have,” says Walker.
“When we say ‘ghetto,’ we are saying to our people ‘we see you’ while simultaneously indicting the systems of neglect and apathy that created the conditions we’ve been forced to reckon with,” Ghetto Gastro writes in Black Power Kitchen. Though “the ghetto” is often used to write off these areas and the people who live in them, Ghetto Gastro sees the term as something to both reclaim and identify with. “We took lemons and we made a fire lemonade,” says Walker, whose training in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program led him to work at Eleven Madison Park and under Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “We took lemons and we made nutcrackers.”
Gray met Serrao, who grew up in Connecticut and got his culinary education in Italy before cooking for celebrity clients, at a gym in Long Island City. “I overheard him talking about Morimoto tuna tartare — that’s not common gym conversation, especially coming from brothers that look like us,” says Gray. Having all “dabbled in the streets,” as the book puts it, food provided a shared path for Gray, Serrao, and Walker that allowed them to also play with their interests in music, art, design, and fashion.
Officially launched in 2012, the collective made a name for itself first by throwing house parties. Its breakthrough was the Waffles + Models series — at which Cardi B danced before she became known worldwide — and the “pop-up bodega party” Featherbed Lane; both raised the collective’s profile through local press in the Observer and Gothamist. By 2016, Ghetto Gastro was hosting Thanksgiving for Rick Owens and Michele Lamy, and Waffles + Models had made its way to Paris Fashion Week. That year, it ended up in the Wall Street Journal alongside Martha Stewart, with whom it had partnered for the New York City Wine & Food Festival. A 2018 Wired profile described their events — ranging from private client dinners to parties for major brands like Microsoft — as akin to art installations, with dishes that featured a “strong sense of narrative.” The events were in high demand and commanded a base rate of $60,000. Today, says Gray, “I’ve been telling people it costs a quarter million dollars to get Ghetto Gastro for your business.”
Throughout its existence, Ghetto Gastro has found itself constantly calibrating the balance between exclusivity and accessibility. Indeed, its meals aren’t available to most people, and buying a branded product — like its Sovereign Syrup, which is billed as “an abolitionist alternative to cane sugar” because of sugar’s early production by enslaved people — doesn’t guarantee a flow of its ideology. “How do we make what we do accessible to the people and really have these ideas become scalable?” Gray says.
In its collaborations with fashion designers, celebrities, and corporations, there’s an element of luxury and exclusivity to the spaces Ghetto Gastro positions itself within. In Black Power Kitchen, it writes, “We want the people from our community and from communities like ours to know that they deserve fun things just like anyone else.” Even the decision to create an appliance line was born out of similar logic, Gray told Cool Hunting in 2020; like the Telfar bag, which has directed its sense of affordable luxury to Black and brown people who have been overlooked by the fashion industry, Ghetto Gastro sees its products as offering a sense of consideration and representation of their community in the luxury space.
The dish in Black Power Kitchen that Ghetto Gastro frames as quintessential is its “Triple Cs.” Cornbread is a nod to corn as a staple food for Indigenous, Black, and brown communities. Caviar is for luxury, and whom it’s typically made available to. Crab is a reference to the crab mentality, the idea that one crab might be able to escape a bucket on its own, but the other crabs will drag it back down. To Ghetto Gastro, however, the crab might offer a more optimistic suggestion: that crabs, if they link together, might all have a chance to get out.
But not everyone can eat caviar, Ghetto Gastro is well aware. “At the end of the day, it’s about feeding the people around us,” says Serrao, who’s also volunteered at the Bruckner Mott Haven Garden since 2021. In 2020, as the pandemic raged and protests against police violence took over the streets, Ghetto Gastro’s community focus shifted to emergency response. The pandemic had exacerbated racial inequalities in food access: Black and Latinx communities — like those that make up the majority in the Bronx — experienced higher rates of food hardship in 2020 than white households. Inspired by the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program, Ghetto Gastro partnered with Rethink Food, a nonprofit that aims to bridge the gap between food waste and food insecurity by mobilizing restaurants to prepare free meals for communities in need.
The collective functioned, in part, as a facilitator for Rethink in the Bronx, helping the nonprofit build a program to connect small independent restaurants with community groups to provide food, explains Rethink’s chief network officer Nathan Ricke. “We’ve always structured the program to be as local as possible,” he says. “Working with people who knew their communities really well — who were kind of plugged into the food scene locally — was always really crucial to that, and the Ghetto Gastro team was really helpful there.” In 2020, that partnership served more than 30,000 free meals in the Bronx. Brand partnerships and activations from Ghetto Gastro also raised $250,000 that year to support Rethink’s work and programs. “For us, it’s really amplifying and trying to pivot resources to the people that eat, sleep, breathe this work on a daily basis,” says Gray. When the collective’s appliance line in collaboration with Crux launched, also in 2020, it earmarked 5 percent of the proceeds to nonprofits working to fight food insecurity nationwide.
Black Power Kitchen, which will put the collective’s ideas and recipes into people’s hands for $40, is meant to directly function to that end and, ideally, spur change beyond the collective’s own work. “Trying to figure out how we can create and engineer waves of equity, using [Ghetto Gastro] as a tool for that — that’s kind of what we’re doing now,” says Gray. While individual wealth and access to luxury can’t in itself change systemic injustice, Ghetto Gastro acknowledges in the book, money can affect change, or at the very least — returning to the idea of the crabs — uplift individuals and communities. “It’s always been about using our platform to make the next person successful — that’s my definition of success,” says Walker.
For Ghetto Gastro, the past two years haven’t changed the mission much; it cared about the Bronx, inequality, and food justice 10 years ago. It’s more that recent circumstances have amplified its message and the need for the ideas Ghetto Gastro is pushing. “It can be a blessing and a curse that hard times don’t feel new, especially when you’re Black and brown in America and trying to make it happen and growing up in the type of environments that we grew up in,” Gray says. “We feel like the world has come around to the pages that we’ve been on.”
With Black Power Kitchen, it’s time to catch up. Even 10 years in, “this is really an introduction,” Gray says. “It’s not going to be the last book we’ve done — but if it is, it’s enough.”
Christian Rodriguez is a New York City-based photographer interested in creating work that dives into his diasporic roots.
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