The culinary collective disrupting the scene and building community

The culinary collective disrupting the scene and building community

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Bronx-born Ghetto Gastro talk about their new cookbook and the power of food to transform lives, create political discussion, and nourish communities.

They’ve spent the past decade disrupting New York’s culinary scene and Bronx-born culinary collective Ghetto Gastro have recently released their long-awaited debut cookbook. It’s been worth the wait. Black Power Kitchen is much more than a collection of recipes. It’s also an inspiring and powerful commentary on the power of food to transform lives, create political discussion and nourish communities.

It celebrates Black food and Black culture, and inspires larger conversations about race, history, food inequality, as well as how eating well can be a pathway to personal freedom and self-empowerment. Since 2012, Ghetto Gastro has gone from hosting underground parties to spearheading large-scale brand campaigns and events with leading fashion designers, artists, and entrepreneurs. During the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Ghetto Gastro prioritised Bronx grassroots initiatives and Mutual Aid. In recognition for feeding their community, the group was nominated for the Basque Culinary World Prize.

We caught up with founders Lester Walker, Jon Gray and Pierre Serrao to discover their journey, why community builds immunity and learn why a hip-hop mentality is an essential way to approach food and conscious consumption.

For anyone who’s not familiar with what you do, can you tell them a little about how Ghetto Gastro started?
JON GRAY: The real catalyst for the movement was just seeing a void and knowing our culture. We wanted to create something that was really celebrating Black food as high art and bringing in some of the radical creative ideas from The Bronx. Taking things that don’t typically ‘belong’ together and creating a new vernacular. That’s what Ghetto Gastro is all about, it’s shape-shifting and breaking barriers in the food space.

Black Power Kitchen has been 10 years in the making. Is that because you guys have been phenomenally busy or are there other parts of the process that meant it took a decade to come together?

PIERRE SERRAO: Well, when everybody goes right, we tend to go left, especially when it comes to what people think you’re supposed to do or conceive. Also, it was about finding the time – we were on the road pretty much our whole career; running around Tokyo, London, Milan, Paris, Mexico... just activating and doing things. Making a book takes a very significant amount of stillness and focus and we were operating and doing new things all the time. So when 2020 came and the world stopped, we decided it was time to work on a book. It was very challenging to make a book with the pandemic and the lockdown because of the uncertainty and just the way mental health was affected during that time. But we had the privilege to sit still to really work and refine the ideas.

There’s a lot of plant-based food in the book, which might surprise a lot of people, can you speak more about that?

JG: Contrary to most people’s belief, plant- based food is huge in the Black community – we’ve been eating that way for years, decades, centuries! Especially in the Caribbean – think of the Rastafarians with the Ital cuisine. This isn’t like a new trend that just picked up when Hailey Bieber started putting sea moss in her smoothies at Erewhon Market in LA. For the Black community, we’ve been doing this forever and we’ve been preaching this same message at Ghetto Gastro for 10 years now. What we’re really all about doing is showing people that there are different ways to create all sorts of nostalgic mouthfeels and get the things that you’re looking for with plants.
We’re not demonising any sort of eating styles because we do have some twerk and jerk chicken in the book. We’re really just about promoting this high vibrational cuisine. This conscious way of eating. You know, it’s all

Another surprising thing is that you found some real success at New York Fashion week, not a typical home to food, what was the story there?
PS: We did this party called Waffles and Models in 2013, where we had the best party in New York Fashion Week. People started to notice us and wanted us to bring the vibe that we’d cultivated to support their initiative. So we began working with brands like Apple, Nike, and Cartier, who were looking for the Ghetto Gastro vibe but making sure that we did it our way. Our whole essence is Robin Hood. Yeah, we’re doing the fly luxury stuff, but at every point we wanna make sure we’re giving back or shedding light on issues that affect our community so we can keep pushing it forward. But for us, Ghetto Gastro has been a vehicle where we get to exercise and celebrate all of our interests, whether it’s in music, fashion, art, community, social activism, like really using it as a platform to express all of those things.

The passion in your words is evident even when it comes to something as humble as vegetables, does that play into the ideas you have about food and lifestyle as a holistic concept? How does nourishment and community tie together for you?

LW: We like to say community builds immunity. During the pandemic we were able to reroute our funds in the form of Mutual Aid by feeding tens of thousands of families in the New York City area that were in intentionally deprived neighbourhoods, like The Bronx. We just fed the people, man; feed the people, free the people! We really get a lot of our inspiration from the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers had started the free food programme in 1969, because they were tired of their kids going to school, not getting good grades, being pointed out by teachers because they were either falling asleep in class, not paying attention, not getting good grades, not catching on. So the Black Panthers started the free breakfast programme and it was discredited by J.Edgar Hoover, who was president at the time. They actually implemented their own free breakfast programme in the schools nationwide and just discredited the Black Panthers. So what we are doing is bringing that community aspect back in and feeding the people and not just feeding their stomach. We’re feeding their minds, bodies and their souls.

"We’re feeding their minds, bodies and their souls."

Lester Walker

Is food itself political for you? If so then what about it feels that way for you?

JG: I don’t like to throw away the word political, but I think having a level of consciousness is essential for when you’re thinking about food. When you think about the human necessities for life on this planet, there’s food, clothing,
and shelter. I’ll put water in the same category as food. So, these are essentials to live. It’s easy to disconnect from the reality of food when you’re thinking about the environment, when you’re thinking about the people who are tilling and growing our food and how often we don’t consider or value these people. So I think it’s very important. It’s something that we all have to do to be able to use food as a vehicle for expression. Food is one of the first windows to culture. Even if you don’t have a passport, you can see the world through food. So hopefully it allows people to connect and understand each other more. One thing we all have in common, no matter what our differences are is that we all have to eat. So we think it’s one of the best, if not the best tools for expression.

Sustainability is a huge topic of discussion in the food community, what ways does that impact your work?

LW: For us that means to provide and give back as much as we can. A lot of times it’s not about financially giving back, it’s about just being there, being a pillar and being able to do things that are sustainable and contributing to the macro ecosystem. We really live that way, from the soil to the oil man. I plant my own fruits, plant my own vegetables, and I’m watering
the seeds. That’s not just in a figurative way. I’m actually watering the seeds, watering my community, being involved.

How do you view the future of food?

JG: For us, we’re creating food products like waffle mixes and syrups and other pre-packaged goods that we can get out to people so that they can understand where these ingredients came from, how we used to eat, and also what is it gonna look like going forward. So as always
it’s flavour first over here at Ghetto Gastro.

The pictures for your products and presentation for all of your food is beautiful, can you tell us more about that?

LW: A lot of times people think that food is just about taste, which is really important. But do we really eat food by just tasting it? No, we eat food by seeing it first, right? When we see it, the way it looks, it looks interesting, it looks tasty, it looks like art on a plate, you think, “I would like to try that.” We like to present things in a way that makes you think about what you’re eating and how beautiful it looks. We like to say we live that WOLF Life at Ghetto Gastro. Because We Only Layer Flavours. That’s the acronym that we came up with. We only love family. We only layer flavours. And that is why so many visuals in Black Power Kitchen are there. As people, we like to see things before we actually ingest them, which is either through our stomach or through our thought process. We like to make sure we get the visuals out there. That’s why we have dishes inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat – we have art in our book so we can highlight these social sculptors and artists. And we like to do that with our food as well.

You guys have a lot of catchphrases, is that how you organise your thoughts?

PS: It’s a love language for us. We speak to each other in rhyme, and we keep our minds sharp with clever, sharp punchlines. Also, it’s like everybody doesn’t absorb information in long form. So if you want to get a point across, we might have to give you like three to six words that will become grains in your brain.

One thing that immediately comes to mind is that hip-hop has always been about taking interesting parts of other worlds and then combining them to make something even more incredible. And it seems very much that that's tied to what you do with food. Would you agree with that?

PS: Yeah. It’s all about sample culture. You took the words outta my mouth. I usually say that it’s like when you think of a symbol and postmodern art, it’s taking things that aren’t designed to go together then making something new. So break beats, jazz drums, horns too, that’s where hip- hop comes from. We’re doing that with flavour, we’re doing that with culture. Like it’s really a continental collision. We’re looking at North America, South America, Africa, Asia, really wanting to create narratives that aren’t centred on Europe. We’ve taken what we have and made it look cool. What we need to do is make food, make proper living, make healthy living, and make wellness look good. And in order to do that, you know, we have to be with the times. We have to really be in depth and we have to be tapped in with our neighbourhoods, with our communities. This was never nothing new to us, it’s been true to us our whole life.

Finally what has been a highlight for you all?

LW: Getting our mothers in the Black Power Kitchen. Our mothers are strong Black women, they’re the ones that raised us and it was a great opportunity for us to highlight them in a chapter in the book that is titled ‘Dear Mama’. So that’s my major highlight of the year, having my mom in a book that we created. Seeing where women play that role and inspire everybody and create that chain of nourishment that comes through generationally as well.

What do you hope the next generation will take from Black Power Kitchen?

JG: For us the book is like a textbook. We created the work but now everybody else can transmute it, expand it how they wish. Ghetto Gastro is not just the three people in this interview or even the immediate circle within our company, it’s an idea for everybody to take on.

A version of this story was originally published in Sandwich Magazine Issue 6: The Leftovers Issue. You can buy the latest issue here or follow Sandwich on Instagram.