Chef Mashama Bailey and her business partner, Johno Morisano, wowed the food world in 2014 when they opened fine dining restaurant The Gray in a converted Greyhound Bus station in Savannah, Georgia.
The next few years would bring glowing reviews from national media and a James Beard Award for the best chef in the Southeast for Bailey.
With their two new ventures, the Diner Bar and Gray Market, which both opened earlier this month in the Thompson Austin hotel at 506 San Jacinto Blvd., the partners and former longtime New Yorkers step out of Savannah for the first time in eight years.
The Diner Bar serves as a collection of some of the greatest hits from The Gray, serving technical but fun cuisine like foie gras and grits; seafood boudin; shrimp and Carolina Gold rice; and a lamb crepinette.
The partners envision the more casual Gray Market as a culinary mashup of New York City bodegas and Southern lunch counters, serving a biscuit sandwich, a hamburger, a fried chicken sandwich and fish and grits
We talked to “Chef’s Table” star Bailey and Morisano over video chat about moving into a new market, translating Bailey’s “Southern port city cuisine” to Texas and what it means to enter a food scene in need of more Black culinary voices.
American-Statesman: Obviously, y’all didn’t choose Austin last week. When did the conversation start, and what led you to choose Austin as the first market that you went to outside of Savannah?
Johno morisano: We visited Austin and thought, “How does Savannah relate to Austin?” It’s not a dissimilar city. It’s not on the coast, but (it’s musical), and it’s art-oriented, and it’s a college town. It feels really similar. It was after eating around – I think that was really the thing, where we thought, “You know what? There’s a place for what we do in terms of style and technique of food and service for this place here.”
The food scene is blowing up, and there’s a lot of great restaurateurs and great chefs. But that simplicity that Mashama brings to the table, and the heritage and ancestral elements that she literally brings to the table, we thought there’s a spot for us here. … If we didn’t think we could contribute to the conversation, we wouldn’t have done it.
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I don’t know if you’ve been down here in the summer yet, chef, but we don’t really have what they call “seasons” in other places, which can be exciting. We’re obviously not a port town, though much of our seafood comes from the Gulf. So how will the farms here, the seasons here, sourcing here affect your menu and your approach to Southern cuisine?
Mashama Bailey: We’re going to bring in some things that we’ve done really well, and we’re definitely going to utilize the Gulf. We’re already using red fish, which we can’t use in Savannah. Mainly, my chef de cuisine here, Kristine Kittrell (of Weather Up and El Chile) has been living and cooking here for 24 years.
I think people deeply familiar with the food scene here know that she’s been living here for decades. How did you go about choosing her?
Bailey: She chose us. A friend of ours, Brian Chan, he helped us open The Gray. He moved to Austin during the pandemic. He met her, and he made the introduction.
We had a meeting with her and immediately knew that she was going to be a big part of this, because she has such a wealth of knowledge and is so connected in this city. She makes it really comfortable for us to have conversations about what the food is and where the food needs to go. Having her as a resource is my secret weapon on how I’m going to get the menus (from the two cities) to relate.
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The Gray is so distinct – the building, the design, the style, it really informs the experience there, and it seems so essential to the entire experience. Now that you’re translating the restaurant into a new space, with some new ingredients in a new state, how do you try and make it new but keep what you had in the past?
Morisano: A long time ago, Mashama and I decided we’re not going to be in the bus terminal business. It’s funny; once we started getting media attention, people would call me up. I got an email this morning from someone who’s got a bus terminal in Jackson, and he said you should come rescue this thing. The Gray is The Gray. It’s even hard to meet people’s expectations in that building, because people have formed their own ideas about what an experience is going to be like. We just try every day to live up to them. We knew when we stepped out of Savannah, it wasn’t gonna be with “The Gray.” It’s just too loaded. It’s too hard. I think we would fail if we opened a Gray somewhere else.
Bailey: We can sort of take our foundation and have these very additive people come with us and change everything.
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Chef, there’s kind of an embarrassing lack of Black chefs in Austin. Do you know that coming into the city, and is there a sense of pride in bringing traditional Southern food, port food, Black food to a town that has so little representation in that area?
Bailey: A whole lot of pride I take in that. I do think that representation does matter. I think we’ll start to see more young Black chefs who are in town gravitating toward what we’re doing or hopefully even wanting to work with us. I think Black food is American food, and I think it’s so intertwined and it’s so nuanced. I think I get a real opportunity to explore that in a very healthy, broad way, and I don’t think a lot of Black chefs get to do that.
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You can probably count on one hand, or one finger, the number of out-of-town chefs who have come into Austin and had great success, not because the streets are littered with failures, but because a lot of people don’t attempt it.
Morisano: Thanks, Matthew. OK, gotta go.
Are you aware of what the scene looks like? Is there excitement, intimidation?
Morisano: I go back to when we were decision-making. We came here, and we ate enthusiastically. We met chefs, and we met GMs, and almost (asked), “Do you think there’s a spot for us? Do you think we can add to the conversation?” The welcome was really warm. We’re not coming here to do anything other than be a part of the community, and the community of food.
Bailey: I’m not going to front: I was intimidated when I came to Austin. It’s a small big city, and there’s a lot of great food here. The first visit it was like, “Do we belong here? Do we fit in here?” And I think to what Johno’s saying, you start to think about what you bring to the table. It’s not to be better than, it’s just to really fully express ourselves.
I think we can do that here in a really fun way, and we offer things that are very true to who we are. That’s all we’ve come here to do: be true to who we are, serve delicious food and try to feed some people and have a good time while we do it.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained references to Natalie Gazaui as executive pastry chef of Gray Market and Diner Bar. Shortly after publication, a representative for the restaurants said that Gazaui will no longer be working in that role due to personal reasons.