During the first weekend of May, Mashama Bailey, my business partner in The Grey and our Executive Chef, and I went to Chicago to attend the James Beard Foundation Awards (“JBFA”). Mashama was a finalist in the category of Best Chef – Southeast Region. For those of you who are not familiar with these awards, think of them as the Academy Awards for the restaurant business. In accordance with the JBFA rules, it was the first year in which Mashama was eligible so for her to receive a nomination so soon was quite an honor. And, given that a Savannah chef had not received a nomination in nearly twenty-five years, it was an equally good thing for the profile of our City and its expanding food scene.
Chef Mashama Bailey with Biz Partner Johno Morisano at 2018 JBFA’s
So, with my wife Carol and Mashama’s parents, Dave and Catherine, we all headed to the Windy City to celebrate Mashama. After all, she was the very first female, African-American chef to ever be nominated in a “Best Chef” category. Let me repeat that – she was the very first female, African-American chef ever to be nominated and it stands to reason that a barrier forever broken is something to be celebrated.
And celebrate we did.
We ate, drank and partied (a little bit like rock stars). To be amongst our peers who were in attendance, all of whom strive to function at the highest levels possible, was beyond memorable. These folks bestowed upon us, and us upon them, unconditional support. We spent time with young chefs and industry professionals as well as some of the giants of American and Southern cooking. The words of wisdom, caring and encouragement that we received from everyone there, for what we are doing in Savannah, fed our minds and our souls.
But it was not just the attendees in Chicago who were supportive of us. So many friends, family members, chefs and restaurateurs, from Savannah and beyond, were also quick to show us some love. Our phones blew up for weeks. Cotton & Rye, Collins Quarter, 1540 Room, The Andaz, The Atlantic, Pinkies, Alley Cat, Tybee Social, Circa 1875, Certified Burgers and Southern Soul BBQ in Saint Simons Island, Miller Union in Atlanta, Compere Lapin in NoLa, Houseman and Prune in New York City and the list goes on and on… and on. That support, especially from our friends in the local restaurant community, means the absolute world to us. Suffice it to say, ‘we’ve got your backs.’
We have always sought to do more at The Grey than serve our guests good food. From the day we opened, we wanted to be a part of something – the Savannah community, the Southern community and the burgeoning restaurant renaissance that was beginning to take shape locally. As an early entrant into the chef-driven genre of local restaurants, we strived to be an example for others to follow. Our first allegiance has always been to each other at The Grey, a team second to none. From there we commit ourselves each day to excellence, hard work, integrity and, most importantly, to our community. And now, after three and a half years we look around and we realize that we are indeed part of something much larger than ourselves; something special. We are honored to be in the company of such fine restaurants, people and friends.
Back to the JBFA’s…
The category in which Mashama was nominated was won by a gentleman named Rodney Scott who is the chef and proprietor of Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston. Some of you may know Rodney’s artistry or remember him (and his BBQ) from the evening he cooked at The Grey this past fall at our annual Edna Lewis Foundation dinner. I can say with certainty that there was no person more deserving in the Southeast Region, including our very own Mashama Bailey, of winning the James Beard this year than Rodney Scott. The selection committee absolutely made the correct choice and the South, Southern food and humanity are all a little better off today because of their decision.
But all good things must come to an end and upon our return to Savannah, I was pointed in the direction of a very brief article by one of our local food writers – Jesse Blanco. His post-JBFA headline read – “The Grey’s Mashama Bailey Comes Up Short in Chicago.”
He went on to say that, of course, Mashama would be the first to tell you that it was an honor just to be nominated but we all know, wink-wink, that winning is better.
I mean, I guess that is a true statement.
But I think it completely misses the point of what is taking place in Southern food right now and what Mashama’s nomination actually signified.
Mashama did not lose.
Rodney Scott, a third-generation barbecue guy who has been sweating his ass off in barbecue pits his entire life, won and that was an absolute game-changer on a number of levels.
Chefs of color and women killed it at the JBFA’s this year. Killed it! Southern food tore it up.
But in a two-dimensional, zero sum game world, winning is better.
We live, however, in a dynamic, complicated and nuanced world.
Consider that Mashama, a black woman cooking in the South, now has a seat at the table.
Consider that Mashama’s nomination cracked the glass and barbed wired ceiling.
Those are wins.
We all should celebrate the fact that, for a brief moment in time, inclusion outpaced exclusion in this fucked up world in which we are reduced to using hashtags in order to keep women safe in the workplace and we argue over which lives matter most.
Instead of people using their keyboards to, not so discretely, diminish an accomplishment by distilling it down to ‘coming up short,’ why would members of our own, very young, and fragile community not be coopting Mashama’s accomplishment as our collective accomplishment toward progress?
A constant refrain we hear from chefs and restaurateurs around town, and I often read it in articles by the small cadre of food writers who cover Savannah, refers to the “elevated food scene.” I agree, things are elevating. In the last three and half years there has been a steady stream of restaurants owned and run by people who are trying really hard; working their tails off, even. Shouldn’t the people who are covering it and, in theory supporting it, be keeping pace? Elevating their game? Mr. Blanco has not visited our restaurant in any real way since we opened. Yet in those three plus years much has changed. Mashama’s menu has evolved, we have matured, our internal culture hase become ingrained. The national food media now considers us an important destination in Southern and American food. Where is the curiosity about all of this growth from the people writing about it? All of this growth and not a single visit from a local writer who then, in a quippy line, dismisses Mashama’s forty months of hard work without even bothering to elaborate on any of the accomplishments or the things that got her a seat at the table in the first place. This just seems, well, wrong to me.
Mashama did not come up short. Mashama’s passion and talent contributes to the advancement of Savannah, the South and Southern food more than some people grasp or, maybe, would care to admit. Think about it. Prior to Mashama’s entrance onto the local culinary scene, Savannah’s food was identified nationally only with Paula Deen.
Indeed, much has changed in three and a half years.
So, with that said, I respectfully submit three alternative headlines, that do not miss the point:
- “Local Chef, Mashama Bailey, Puts Savannah Food Back on the JBFA Radar Screen After Near Twenty-five Year Hiatus”
- “BBQ Master Rodney Scott Changes the Game by Winning ‘Best Chef – Southeast’ at This Year’s JBFA’s”
- “Inclusion Was the Winner at This Year’s JBFA’s”