Mashama Bailey’s Big Year
Executive chef at one of TIME’s Greatest Places 2018, the ICE alum filmed a “Chef’s Table” episode and opened a new concept in Savannah, Georgia, this year.
Mashama Bailey (Culinary, ’01) has come a long way from being fired from a homeless shelter. Now the executive chef at The Grey, she found cooking was a source of immediate satisfaction that was missing in her social work career nearly 20 years ago.
"I was surrounded by people who cooked at home multiple times a week with family and I realized I didn’t really have that," Chef Mashama says. “I started reading cookbooks and getting really interested in cooking food and that’s what sparked it. I was doing post-graduate major work in social work and I wanted to work with my hands and with people in a different way."
She was let go from her position leading an after-school program at a family shelter on Christmas Eve and enrolled in Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education) by the New Year in 2000. Chef Mashama recalls discovering all kinds of olives, cuts of meats, cheeses and herbs that she had never before experienced. “The program gave me a little bit of a jump-start familiarizing myself with different ingredients and all these types of things that I wasn’t familiar with,” Chef Mashama says. She also worked at a café in Williamsburg while taking classes. “I kind of hit the ground running when it came to school. I thought I needed to make up for time. The first day I ever got sick, I didn’t want to call out from work because I felt like I was a part of the team, so I was hooked ever since.”
Chef Mashama went on to work under Jeremy Marshall at Aqua Grill for her externship and says she experienced a family business, an aggressive chef and a great environment. “I started in the pastry department plating desserts, which I think is really beneficial,” she adds. “With cooking, you can be a little bit more spontaneous, but with pastry plating, you have to do everything the same way. It really instilled a certain amount of discipline in me that I think I still carry on today and try to instill in my cooks.”
The turning point in her career came around 2007, when she spent five months in France. She admired the emphasis on time off at restaurants in Europe, from weekend or summer closures to mid-day breaks to maternity leave, as well as the community approach to food. “You could grow things down the street and people would bring you animals that you would butcher yourself in the restaurant,” she says. “I thought that was an awesome way to be a chef and the only place that I could do that would be in the South.”
Her parents reestablished themselves in Georgia around the same time and Chef Mashama envisioned bringing European fundamentals there. With a goal in mind, she returned to New York where she’d previously focused on personal chef work and changed direction to train as a restaurant chef.
“I immediately thrust myself into fine dining,” she says. “You work under one chef and another chef, and it wasn’t until I worked under Gabrielle [Hamilton of Prune] at about the two-year mark, that I started to feel like I was ready to be a chef. Around the three-year mark, she introduced me to my business partner who was opening a restaurant in Savannah.”
Chef Mashama joined forces with John O. Morisano to open a restaurant in a restored bus station in 2014. “John and his wife had started investing in the community in Savannah and they refurbished this bus station almost to its original glory,” Chef Mashama says. “They found someone like me who really wanted to be in the South and really wanted to cook low and slow in a way that is very Southern or indicative to the region. I think we ended up becoming a good pairing.”
Within months, The Washington Post called The Grey “a hit new restaurant;” Eater called it one of “three Savannah restaurants chang[ing] the game” and one of the 21 Best New Restaurants in America; and Food & Wine included it in the 2015 Restaurants of the Year. By 2017, The Grey was named Eater’s Restaurant of the Year, Southern Living’s best restaurant in Georgia, and one of Business Insider’s 100 hottest restaurants in America. This year, TIME featured The Grey in its World’s Greatest Places 2018.
Food Republic calls Chef Mashama one “of the South’s best chefs;” Restaurant Hospitality names her one of “12 chefs and restaurateurs who are ready to break out;” and Southern Living says she’s one of “30 incredible women moving Southern food forward.”
Chef Mashama says the secret to The Grey’s success is her partnership with Morisano, their involvement in the community and the energy of the landmark building. “I’d never been an executive chef before this and he’d never owned a restaurant before this, so the learning curve for both of us was really steep,” she admits. “I think Savannah was the right place to do it because it was really welcoming and the food waves are being reborn. It’s cool to be around like-minded people in a city that’s growing.”
The restaurant undoubtedly reinvigorated Savannah, which Chef Mashama says, “has a restaurant culture that’s very historic, but also there’s this newer wave that’s coming in and everyone’s ready to sort of explode.” The Grey has been featured as a prime travel destination in the city in The New York Times, CNN Travel, Conde Nast Traveler, Thrillist, Eater and USA TODAY.
“Now the food is a little bit more related to time and place – it really represents the region around me,” says Chef Mashama. “Before it was a little more about my life experience and now the menu is a little bit more about my experience in Savannah. I’m starting to become really honed in to when crops are ripe and fresh. I’m developing relationships not only with farmers and fishermen, but with chefs in the area. We’re starting to communicate about what’s growing, what’s new, who’s using what.”
And The Grey is facilitating the food wave with its new market, which Chef Mashama describes as a more casual extension of the restaurant. The Grey Market offers quick, grab-and-go fare for convenience from a chef who wants to grow and an owner who wants to grow his business in the community.
“We really saw a need for a New-York-City-meets-Southern-lunch-counter experience that we long for,” says Chef Mashama. “We both miss the conveniences that a place like New York City has to offer and there are those types of places down here, but not really from our perspective.”
This year, Netflix spent what Chef Mashama says was every minute of 12 days capturing her perspective for a "Chef's Table" season 6 episode, airing in 2019.
“One of the things that was really rewarding: it really opened up my eyes to the fact that people actually care about my story, care about the story of The Grey and are interested in what we’re doing here,” Chef Mashama reflects. “After four years of having my head down and being focused on what’s in front of me, 'Chef’s Table' extended my lens a little bit and let me know that I’m just one story in this huge pot of stories of people who are cooking good food and are focused on representing where they’re cooking good food from. It was really humbling.”
One of many female chefs making headlines this year, Chef Mashama’s advice for culinary students echoes sentiments across the industry. “I see a lot of women in the classes but I don’t see a lot of women in the kitchen,” she says. “There’s a breakdown. Maybe it’s sexual harassment, maybe it’s lack of childcare, maybe it’s lack of support. My advice for young chefs, especially young women who are becoming chefs: find that support. Figure out who those people are and keep them close because they’re going to be the ones that are going to help you be successful in this business.”
After all, Chef Mashama’s education began with life-changing advice from her first chef-instructor at ICE — a phrase she says more than anything else to this day: If you don’t love it, then don’t do it.
“If I would not have gone to ICE, I wouldn’t have really understood what that phrase meant because it was a little baffling to hear when you’re paying tuition, you’re in this class, you’re committed and they really make you dig a little bit deeper,” she says. “I think that was the good thing about going to ICE, it made me dig a little bit deeper.”
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