One of The South’s Best Restaurant Duos on Expansion, The Pandemic, and Writing

Mashama Bailey is blowing up. The James Beard Award-winning chef behind Savannah, Georgia‘s The Grey is now also a co-author and overseeing two forthcoming restaurants set to open this fall in Austin, Texas with John Morisano.

It did not happen overnight, of course. Nothing often does in the highly competitive restaurant realm. But it did happen in a fairly unique way, perhaps one the industry can really learn from. It’s the result of tireless work, sure, but also the power that comes from a genuine partnership and the therapy that can come from writing.

For context, the duo’s original Georgia restaurant, named after the former Greyhound bus station it occupies, opened in 2014. A two-year buildout prior paved the way for the doors to open. It has since been praised by all kinds of foodie media outlets for its southern-inspired fare. In 2017, The Grey was named restaurant of the year by Eater. Two years later, Bailey was the recipient of the best chef James Beard award for the southeast region. Somewhere in there, Bailey and Morisano managed to pen a book together, titled Black, White, and The Grey.

Now, the two are wrapping up a satellite spot for The Grey in the Lone Star State, set to open this October. It’s set to be one of [the] relatively few success stories amid a global health crisis that has hit the culinary world especially hard.

On the Book

Fortunately, the book came just before the pandemic. Bailey and Morisano admit that it simply couldn’t have come together amid the isolation and Zoom-ification of 2020. “It began as this idea of record-keeping and then it turned into writing a book,” Morisano says. He believes he and Mashama have a special relationship, which is hard to argue given their collective success so far.

“It was hard. I’m not used to sitting still, I’m sure to moving around and working with my hands,” Bailey says of putting the book together. “The task of writing a book taught me that I don’t have a ton of patience. I kinda want things to be fast and quick, almost reactionary.”

Bailey appreciates the visionary side of Morisano and writing a book together allowed him to get some stuff off his chest and printed on paper. “It’s almost like watching someone go through therapy,” Bailey says. “It was painful, it was scary, but it was helpful.”

Morisano says he doesn’t have much structure when it comes to releasing valves outside of exercise and the book offered him one. “It’s very introspective and can get dark at times,” he says. “The process is challenging. I learned that if you’re going to co-write a book with somebody, you kinda need to be in the same room together.”

Which is exactly what they did, going fifty-fifty on a book David Chang says blew him away. Perhaps it strengthened their business partnership further. Perhaps it set them up to weather a pandemic while many friends and colleagues dropped like flies in restaurant land. Either way, co-writing the story tightened the bond.

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Pandemic Plusses

As devastating as the pandemic has been, especially to the restaurant realm, there have been silver linings. Bailey brings up French food culture and the small and seasonal aspects of it. “It’s such a nourishing thing,” she says.

“In Europe, nobody cares if there are just two entrees on the menu where in America you have to explain that,” she says.

Bailey says The Grey has always had a small menu but now it’s even smaller. When they re-opened about a year ago they shifted to fewer courses and a more prix fixe menu style. “It gives us an opportunity to keep our food costs down, stay focused, and do more with less ingredients.” Perhaps more importantly, it allows for more of that tight-knit community aspect she admires that seems to occur naturally in places like Europe.

“From a business standpoint, it really sort of smoked out the people who weren’t in love with this industry,” Morisano says. “And so it strengthened the bond because we’re in the foxhole together with folks who want to be here and want this industry to be their career.”

“The industry is suffering from a staffing point of view right now but from our vantage point, it looks like the people we are left with are the cream of the crop,” he adds.

Morisano and Bailey believe their Grey crew is the best it’s ever been, with renewed camaraderie and loyalty. Bailey is blown away by the enthusiasm she sees on the floor and the quality of resumes that come in for potential positions. Morisano believes the pandemic advanced relationships

New Eateries

This fall, Bailey and Morisano will debut two outposts in Austin. They will open as part of the new and decidedly stylish Thompson Hotel. Morisano says they were drawn to the culture, energy, youth, and potential of the Texas capital. Plus, the hotel team was a good fit, allowing the duo to fully do its thing. “They’re our restaurants, not the hotel’s restaurants,” he says.

It’s a different project for the duo and the first time they’ve collaborated with a hotel. Being in a new state, the offerings will change some to be more reflective of the surroundings. Bailey says the journey she’s currently on is creating a menu that’s both representatives of the new region and also set up with some of the classics people expect from The Grey. The restaurant’s original location became a favorite among locals in Savannah and the duo hopes to do the same in Austin. That, they admit, is both how you build a brand and something that just takes time.

It’s one of many things the two have learned during many years on the restaurant rollercoaster together. What wisdom do they have for like-minded chefs and entrepreneurs looking to enter the scene?

“You gotta love it because it’s not always gonna love you back,” Bailey says. “You have to remember that this is a business about people. You’re serving people, working with people. The food, the drinks, the wine — it will only take you so far. Ultimately, it’s about relationships with people. It’s about being kind and generous but also drawing the line and standing up for what you believe in,” she adds.

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