Interview: Elle Clay

Photos: Anthony Blasko

The “Fearless Ones” celebrates a new generation of defiant, talented individuals. Click here for more stories about the cast.

While food is central to what Ghetto Gastro does, the Bronx-based collective prides itself on working across cultures (and around the world). Co-founder Jon Gray describes their work as part of a living, breathing entity, while the group defines their work as “social sculpture.”

In sports terms, Ghetto Gastro is a veritable ‘92 Dream Team in the kitchen, a who’s-who cast assembled at the peak of their powers. The four core members are Jon Gray, Lester Walker, Malcolm Livingston II and Pierre Serrao. Each of them have their own personal style (signature durags included) and AKAs (Ice Lord, The Dishwasher, etc.), and they’ve collectively worked at Le Cirque, Per Se, WD-50 and Noma, among others.

Ghetto Gastro’s well-known creative output includes intricate menus for special events and collaborations with culinary heavyweights like Martha Stewart. Their menus remix American dishes and comfort foods with modernist flair — think watermelon granitas, boozy coquitos and a menu dedicated to the inclusive December holiday, Christmahanakwanzaa.

As with hip-hop, everything eventually comes back to the Bronx, and Ghetto Gastro is no different. The group just moved into a multidisciplinary studio, dubbed “The Idea Kitchen,” in the borough. They’re also currently working to build a refettorio, a design-forward soup kitchen and community center, in Harlem.

Timed to the release of their Jordan I Low React Fearless collaboration, we spoke to Ghetto Gastro about their career and the new shoe.

So tell me about the origins of Ghetto Gastro. Where were you all individually in your lives and careers?

Jon Gray: I was on the tail end of a mildly successful fashion career. Les and I grew up on the same block. He had won Chopped about a year before, so we discussed the idea. We had always vibed about the idea of putting something together using our talents and skills.

Then, I was dating a girl who was super picky, so I went to the webpage of the restaurant to see the menu. I saw they had a brother, Malcolm, running the pastry kitchen. I tried the dessert, and he did it crazy — an evaporating root beer ice cream. It blew my mind. I told him about the vision, he jumped on and we refined it together. Then later, we linked up with P.

Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro

Malcolm, what did you think when Jon approached you?

Malcolm Livingston: At first, I was surprised by what Jon would call his “force hustle tactic.” He had this way of saying, “We’re going to connect,” but it wasn’t aggressive; it was more curious. He just kept texting like, “What’s good? I’m pulling up with this person.” He was bringing mad influential people to the restaurant. I was like, “Who is this guy?” I met Lester later, but we already knew a lot of the same people, and it just felt like family. And my O.G. is also Jon’s first cousin.

Up until that point, had you guys connected with any other black men in food?

Malcolm Livingston: For me, no.

Pierre Serrao: Yeah, me neither.

Malcolm Livingston: And that was the thing. I was pretty young, running this pastry kitchen, and I didn’t see anyone of color, except for this one chef, Paul Carmichael, from Barbados.

Jon Gray: I grew up knowing a lot of chefs, but suddenly it was like, “Oh, there are brothers really doing this on a high level.”

Ghetto Gastro moves in unison. Like a team that’s spent many hours together in the gym, they effortlessly complement each other’s movements. During the group shot, when Les shifted to a side profile with prayer hands, Jon, Malcolm and Pierre followed with new poses of their own. It felt more like an album cover shoot than an editorial. The group has a beautiful energy around them that’s hard to explain, which in some ways, seems to be the point.

What was the initial reaction here at home?

Pierre Serrao: They were loving it. The model is more for the people than anything else. It’s always been about giving back. Initially, we were just pulling up with free food and vibes or doing intimate house parties. Once we touched overseas, we already had credibility being from New York and people thinking we were dope for making it over there. From there, it’s been all uphill.

What do you guys attribute the defiance of Ghetto Gastro to — whether present in the model you have, your inspirations or otherwise?

Jon Gray: I attribute the foundations of what we do to black women, women of color. They were always our captive audience. We invited them to kick it and try food. Word started to spread from that small group.

My grandmother was in the movement. Imagine growing up in the hood, but then you’re cooking for the 0.1%, and you see that side of things. There’s something to be said about walking in both sides. I could be on a yacht in Croatia, but I still live in the hood in the Bronx, and the area between the two isn’t that big. For us it’s really about showing the possibilities and our value.

You guys are a team. What’s everybody’s position?

Jon Gray: I call myself “the dishwasher.” If you break it down, my skill set is brand architecture, creative direction and just getting the bags.

Pierre Serrao: I’m a player coach. I’m working with people, I’m teaching people how to do stuff and I’m in the shits, as well. It could be anywhere. I do everything that needs to be done.

Malcolm Livingston: Everyone kind of knows their roles, though we all pick up where we have to. We balance each other out in so many ways. But if I want to be specific, I’m the pastry guy.

Jon Gray: P is super organized. His hustle and work ethic are extreme. Mac is the same but with his knowledge and technical ability; he knows food science and has traveled the world soaking up that game. Les is a wizard when it comes to improvisation, like freestyles and layering flavors on the fly.

Malcolm Livingston II of Ghetto Gastro

We haven’t heard much from you, Les…

Lester Walker: Yeah man, they talk too much. [Laughs]

Like any group, each person in Ghetto Gastro has identifying characteristics that people pick up on pretty quickly. Jon is the brains behind the operation. Les is as gifted with words as he is with food. Pierre is focused; he can handle expediting things or jumping on the line to help dig out of the weeds. Malcolm has a quiet demeanor, but he’s no less a contributor and is very much a wizard with the pastries.

How has the cooking evolved since you first started? On your show, Chopped Steez, you made a  vegan chopped cheese, for example.

Lester Walker: It’s evolved quite a bit, mainly because of our travels and becoming more adaptive to different places, how people dine there and ingredients. Using real ingredients like fresh oregano from Italy or fresh saffron. We’ve been learning how to do things differently from each other, too. All of us combined have really good palates. Steel sharpens steel.

Jon Gray: We were in Dakar eating a mafé with the shiek.

When you’re not doing extravagant food experiences, you guys are doing work in the Bronx and with other communities. What motivates that work?

Jon Gray: Personally, I would love to do more of that work and also have the bandwidth. Whenever we do something, we always try to make sure that people come to the Bronx and f**k with it. If we’re doing something in New York, it’s going to be in the Bronx. It’s difficult to imagine what you could be if you don’t see it. We do the T-shirt collabs and drops that benefit different organizations in the community, too.

Lester Walker: I also feel like we’re reversing the stigma of the Bronx being a food desert. Meanwhile, you go to Hunts Point in the Bronx, and we’re the biggest distributor of food in New York City. We want you to come through and check it out. Take the train.

Jon Gray: And also feel a little uncomfortable and challenge your ideas.

Pierre Serrao of Ghetto Gastro

Pierre Serrao: It’s important even when we travel. When we say we’re from the Bronx, people think of baseball and hip-hop. They already have a preconceived notion about what’s there, but a lot of them have never been. A lot of people who live in New York or are expats have never been.

Lester Walker: If they do come, they come to see one thing, and then they dip. They’re not going in the crevices. They’re not going down these back blocks. We’re on a back block, basically.

Ghetto Gastro is ready for this moment, because they know where they come from. It’s not happening in a calculated way, but in a “know how to use the platform” way. Each member speaks with passion about community and food. It’s obvious that their love for their home is pure. Just outside the shoot, a group of young guys observe what’s happening with curiosity and adoration.

What are some of your first memories with Air Jordans?

Lester Walker: Oh, I’ll tell you. I was a kid, man, when the Air Jordan I came out. I wanted the Is, and they didn’t have my size. I was a baby. I caught a tantrum in the store, and when I got home, my pops spanked me. I still got the sneakers, too, but just a couple days later.

Malcolm Livingston: It was 1990. I had the Air Jordan Vs, the fire red joints. I remember when I went to the store, my mom was like, “Nah,” but my grandmother was like, “Let him get him a pair.” I left my old kicks in the store. Just the feeling of putting on the shoe almost made me feel like I had super powers. When I went to school, people were like, “Yoooo.” I wore them into the ground.

Jon Gray: My first Air Jordan memory was literally just south from here. I was living on Featherbed Lane and University, and I remember I got the AJ8s. I think I was in second grade. And I remember scuffing them on the marble steps, because we had a stone step. You know when one of the parts of the step is chipped? I remember running up the steps the first day I had them, and just doing a mean scratch on the leather, because I had the white leather joints. I was like, “Damn.”

Pierre Serrao: I wanted Js, but my parents wouldn’t buy them for me, because they couldn’t afford them. I had four siblings. In our house, there wasn’t a chance. I didn’t play basketball; I played soccer growing up. But I wanted the “Space Jam” XIs.

Do y’all feel any differently about the Air Jordan I and the relationship between New York City and Uptowns?

Malcolm Livingston: Nah, it’s two different things.

Jon Gray: It’s a different genre.

Malcolm Livingston: You rock the white Ups’. You want to keep those clean. But then you want to keep your Js clean and fresh, too.

Lester Walker: The Uptown and the One…those are like two different feelings.

Jon Gray: The Uptown is some summertime shit.

Lester Walker: With the One, it’s like you can do no wrong. And it’s more rare.

Jon Gray: It’s all-purpose.

You guys have a very strong aesthetic. How did you approach this collaboration?

Jon Gray: Our shit is a mixture of the AJI, a black Uptown, an SB Dunk and Tom Sachs’ shoe. And on some black power shit. We had to come extra.

The collaboration started organically. We’ve been friends of the brand for a long time, and we’ve always respected each other. We went through a couple rounds, and we wanted to do something that truly represents who we are. Something that we would rock. Something super functional. And cozy. It was a real collaborative effort to get to a place like, “All right. We’ve got one.”

Pierre Serrao: We were very specific, because when it comes to shoes, our styles are different. At the end of the day, we basically rock similar shit. It’s because of the lifestyle and how we move. It was important for us to wear the shoe in various spaces, because we move in so many different spaces — from a plane to an art museum, the kitchen, a fine dining restaurant and the streets.

Lester Walker: We look at them as art pieces, too.

Lester Walker of Ghetto Gastro

Jon Gray: We wanted to make it so that you don’t slip on the drip. You’ve got to have your cleats glued to the concrete.

Again, we’re shooting a holiday collection on a blacktop court, in the Bronx, in September! The Ghetto Gastro guys remained cool, calm and collected. Even when we moved to the trailer for the interview. With the A/C cut, they answered all questions thoughtfully and thoroughly.

How would you encourage people to get involved in the food aspect of helping their communities?

Lester Walker: I would say to get in tune with us, because we’re not only nurturing with food, but we’re also educating people about sustainability, plant-based diets and things of that nature.

Jon Gray: Yeah, we’re just four dudes, and we have a team, but we can only do so much and be in so many places. The Bronx could  represent a favela in Rio, a shanty town in Mumbai or Nairobi or a slum in Jo-burg. I’m not saying that the opportunity is equal to help in the way we’ve been able to. It’s really just planting the seed that you are enough, and your culture is valuable.

Our name is Ghetto Gastro, but it’s the top luxury houses who are cutting checks. We’re not doing this in a performative way. It’s like, “You’re going to feel this blackness and this power, but understand that this is luxury, too.”

Lester Walker: It’s unapologetic.

Malcolm Livingston: But it’s never forced.

“Put your head together with your homies and make it pop. Start from the ground up. ”

Pierre Serrao: To answer your question, just get out and do it. Don’t ask any questions. Be unapologetic. Don’t ask for permission. Get a group of people together. There are 24 hours in a day. If you spend an hour a day with your homies, building on an idea, then after a year, you’ve spent 365 hours working on the betterment of your community. Put your brains together and see what you can achieve. The possibilities are infinite and endless. For anybody trying to get into something around food, everything is in your hands. Nobody else is going to do it for you. Put your head together with your homies and make it pop. Start from the ground up.

Malcolm Livingston: As Jon mentioned earlier, when we first started, we were trying to be so finesse-driven and high, fine dining. It would be more interesting if people got away from that and gave you a restaurant where you just eat with your hands, like being at your parents’ house when you were a kid. A lot of people have stigmas towards restaurants and how things are done. After the first dinner we did, we just wanted to create our own language of the dining scene.

Pierre Serrao: Even how we serve, too…

Malcolm Livingston: People are like, “What is the tasting menu?” It’s like, no, these are progressive portions — family style.

Jon Gray: Food is one of the tools that we use for Ghetto Gastro, but it’s not just about food. It’s about freedom. That’s ultimately the ethos of Ghetto Gastro. As people of color, thinking about our history with the soil, and how our ancestors brought watermelon seeds and benne seeds braided into their hair. Our relationship with the soil in this country is based on generational oppression. When you think about the industrialized food systems, we’ve been so disconnected from our food, at least in urban cities and urban centers. I think it’s really about channeling the ancestors and taking ownership. One of these politicians said, “You control the food, you control the people.” At the end of the day, it’s about nourishment for your body, mind and soul. At the end of the day, it’s about trying to fill your cup in every possible way.

The Jordan I Low React Fearless Ghetto Gastro is available starting November 14 on and at select retailers.