The Grey opened in Savannah, Georgia, in 2015. It was promptly named one of Esquire's Best New Restaurants. Five years later, we called it one of the most influential restaurants of the 2010s. Then, in the midst of the pandemic, we named it one of 100 restaurants America cannot afford to lose. Why this fandom for the Grey? In part, the food, which is incredible. And in part because a Black chef and a White restauranteur who didn't know each other all too well took over an old Greyhound bus terminal on Savannah's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard that had once segregated its travelers, and made what Esquire Food & Drinks Editor Jeff Gordinier argued could be called "the most important restaurant in America." So, how did they do it?
In the forward to "Black, White, and The Grey," Mashama Bailey and John Morisano
explain how their book, published this week, evolved from a straightforward answer to that question into an intricate and personal back-and-forth between the two that challenged them both on issues of race, partnership, and more. The first chapter opens with a tragedy for the Grey that builds into a tense moment with a police officer and a reflection on the racial divides persisting in Savannah. By the chapter's end, the reader will have an understanding of Bailey and Morisano's complicated working relationship, which is the primary focus of this book. (There are some recipes, too.) The beginning of the chapter is excerpted here, with Bailey's sections in bold. —Sarah Rense
I had nowhere else to turn. Moments before, I was content, with my friends and colleagues from The Grey. Laughing. And in a split second that was taken away.
A phone was ringing in the background. I was in that in-between state that allowed the sounds from my surroundings to intertwine with my unconscious. It took a moment or two for me to discern whether I was hearing my real phone or a conjured phone in my sleepy goings-on. Another ring and then the sound of the vibrating device on a hard surface, and it became clear.
It was most certainly my cell phone, which was across the bedroom on the desk.
I looked at my watch as I threw the covers off my lanky, six-foot-one body, my pale white skin almost glowing in the dark room. It was 12:20 a.m. on July 5, 2017. My wife, Carol, and I had spent a relatively quiet Fourth of July earlier that day, recovering from a staff party we hosted the day before in the garden of our Savannah home for the team who worked at the downtown restaurant that I co-owned, The Grey.
As I navigated the tangle of sheets, two large Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and Carol, my adrenaline began to push the grogginess from my head. The Grey was closed that Tuesday for the Independence Day holiday. I could think of no reason anyone would be calling me after midnight on a Tuesday unless it was an emergency. Having grown up in a Roman Catholic Italian household in New York City with a fireman as a father, I had become conditioned to the idea that the late-night phone call was never good news. I expected the worst.
I made it to the desk and lurched into consciousness when I saw the name “Mashama Bailey”—my business partner and the executive chef of The Grey. My worry spiked. Mashama would never call me at this time of night unless something was wrong.
Three years into our partnership and I only called Johno when I had to. This man I didn’t know when we started, would check in with me constantly to see if I was getting my footing, but I rarely reached out in return. The work was hard at The Grey, and especially the building of a partnership—all of which I expected, but moving to and living in Savannah alone was harder. I felt like a fraud because I was in over my head. I was making too many mistakes at work and I was still uncomfortable talking to my “business partner,” who in many ways still felt like my boss. But this night was different. Something terrible had just happened. I had few choices. I knew that Johno would come if I called—he had been trying to be that type of friend to me for three years. I was never so vulnerable before; I never had to ask him to come to help me. But on this night, I needed to trust that choice. I had to trust him. So, I reached out for help.
Hopefully, she just forgot her keys and locked herself out of her apartment.
“Hey,” I said, the roughness of my voice indicating that I was not completely successful in shaking off the sleep, “what’s up?”
Mashama, who is almost always bright and full of energy, was anything but. As she began to speak, her voice was filled with anguish.
“Johnoooooo,” she wailed, using the nickname my parents had given me. “There’s been a terrible accident!” she screamed, hyperventilating into the line. And then, stuttering between breaths, she said, “I don’t think Scott is alive. I haven’t seen him.”
Wait, what? I thought.
“What? Our Scott?” I asked, hoping that she was not talking about him, adding, “What happened?”
“I don’t know. It all happened so fast. There was a car. It came out of nowhere. It hit Scott. I saw him go up onto the hood, but it was going so fast and it hit him so hard that . . . I don’t know.” She took another shallow breath. “Then it crashed into a pole and I think he was still on it. It was bad, Johno. It was really bad.”
I knew he was dead. My entire body felt the impact. I remained frozen in the middle of Bay Street, hoping he would walk out of the wreckage. I expected to see him, hear him, hug him, but that didn’t happen. I stood there in the middle of the intersection with a ringing in my ears that I will never forget. Shaken, I placed one foot in front of the other and walked forward. The moment I reached the curb, I cried out before I collapsed.
My own vision began to tunnel as I tried to process what Mashama was saying to me. Scott Waldrup was our general manager at the restaurant. He had been with us from the day we opened The Grey. He started as a bartender, but over the couple of years we had been in business, he had become our general manager and ran our wine program, two functions that reported directly to me. Other than Mashama, he was the person I spent the most time with in (and sometimes out of) the restaurant. If Mashama and I were the so-called brains of the operation, Scott was its heartbeat. He loved his job and The Grey, and brought a perspective to it that was so far from my own, more conventional view of life. Scott was our moral conscience for the underrepresented—he rooted for only the underdog and the downtrodden, and he was activated in doing so. Every place needs a voice like his, and Scott was that for all of us at The Grey. He was a ginger-haired ball of energy and everyone on the team loved him. I loved him.
As I listened to her sobbing on the other end of the phone, I considered that Scott was not even thirty-one and that he was much, much too alive to die. There was no way he could be dead. Mashama must be mistaken. It was just not possible.
As I tried to slow down my brain so I could process what Mashama was saying, Carol had gotten up and was standing next to me, holding on to my arm tightly and trying to listen in and figure out what was going on.
I needed to stop talking and just get down there. “Where are you?” I asked Mashama, adding, “Carol and I will be right there.”
“I’m on Barnard and Bay. The police have it all taped off. They won’t let me go anywhere, but nobody is talking to me. They won’t tell me what happened. Please come quick, Johno. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared.”
I wanted to cry out again! But I couldn’t. I wanted to scream! But I couldn’t. I wanted to fight and swing my arms wildly, hitting everything in my path. But I couldn’t move. I sat on the concrete for only a minute but it felt like hours. No one approached me. No one saw me. I was unnoticeable to all those around me. I felt invisible. I had been with my friend. He now was gone and I needed to find him. I needed to find Scott. I got up. I looked around and still no one approached me. I hugged myself, as if gathering a shield of armor or wrapping myself in a cloak until I was invisible. I began to walk toward the wreckage. I heard cries and people moaning. There was glass everywhere, along with mangled pieces of metal. I continued to slowly put one foot in front of the other as I took long, slow breaths in and out, trying to steady myself from my shaking. I continued on until I saw the white SUV flipped on its side, the hood dented right down the center. I was petrified as I inched closer, looking for Scott. The ringing in my ears became louder and I hugged my shoulders tighter. I grabbed for my cloak but it was no longer there. “Miss, you can’t go any farther,” I heard, faintly. I continued inching forward. “Miss, you’ll need to step back.”
A police officer was in front of me now, standing between me and the wreckage. He held his arms out in front of him and started to move slightly side to side, like he was posted up in front of the basket, defending the basket. To get to Scott I needed to back him down. I needed a power move. “Where’s my friend?” I cried. “Please!” I yelled in his face. “I need to see if he is okay.” “I’m sorry,” was all he said as he grabbed my arms and moved me a few feet back. I had no fight in me, so I let him. And then I just stood there, knowing.
I hung up the phone and I stood still for a second, struggling to compose myself. Carol looked at me and, because her nature was to begin to ask questions, I interjected as gently as I could before she could speak, “Please, don’t ask me any questions. Go and get dressed. Mashama was in an accident. Scott might be dead.”
The dogs, sensing something was wrong, were agitated, so we took a moment to get them back up onto the bed and settled as we pulled the bedroom door closed behind us. I had no idea what I was about to walk into, but the fear in Mashama’s voice, something I had never ever heard from her before, worried me. My overwhelming sense was that I was heading to someplace dangerous. I had come from a family in which two of my brothers were cops, and a dad and another brother were firemen, so I felt that I needed to go down there prepared. On the way out of the house I grabbed my briefcase and made sure that my pistol, which I had purchased and begun carrying when walking home from The Grey late at night, was inside my bag. I was nervous and disoriented and its presence in my briefcase gave me a sense of control. Frankly, it calmed me. We drove the less-than-one-mile distance to where Mashama was waiting for us and where I was hoping I was going to find out that she was mistaken about Scott’s fate.
The police officers held back a small crowd of people as they taped off the crime scene. They didn’t want anyone to see the wreckage up close. I never saw blood or anything like that. I chose not to see it. I wanted to get close but not that close. I stood within the barricade making phone calls, trying to sound normal while reaching out to a couple of people who Scott and I had just left in the bar. I watched bodies being hauled away on stretchers, underneath the flashing lights and blaring sirens. One ambulance remained quietly in the road.
We parked the car a few blocks away from the intersection that Mashama had identified as her location and we made our way down the sidewalks packed with holiday celebrants, something for which Savannah is famous but the type of event I have mostly avoided in my time living here. And this night seemed uneasy to me. I’m sure that Mashama’s phone call had so rattled me that I drove there jacked up and hyperaware, projecting tension onto the people walking by me—it was just so damned loud and disorganized. There were large groups of teens and young adults, self-segregated for the most part into Black and White, moving together as individual organisms. Everyone was dressed in reds, whites, and blues for the holiday, but a couple of those same colors, I thought to myself, could just as easily connote the gangs that operated in Savannah. I was as uncomfortable as I had ever been in Savannah in that moment because I did not know what lay ahead of us. The anxiety I absorbed from my phone call with Mashama was turning to fear with each step that I took.
I normally don’t find myself in the middle of parades or national holiday celebrations. Since moving to downtown Savannah, where all of these annual events are held, this is where I see the real Savannah. Before moving here, I had learned that Savannah is 53 percent Black. But if you’re living downtown you would never actually know that. It is during such events that Black Savannahians come out to celebrate alongside White Savannahians. It surprises me that Black and White people here are together so infrequently that most tourists have no sense of the true makeup of Savannah, about how diverse the different communities are. The downtown community is so insular and so separate from the rest of the city, and yet it alone represents the city that people see—residents, students, media, everyone. It’s days like this that we all get to see the true essence of the city, and I hate that it ended in violence.
Excerpted with permission from "Black, White, and The Grey" by Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano, published January 12, 2021.
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