A Southern restaurant’s story reveals truth about race in America

Todd A. Price
The American South
John O. Morisano and chef Mashama Bailey own The Grey in Savannah. Their new book, "Black, White and The Grey," details the at-times difficult journey of the celebrated restaurant. (Courtesy Lorena Jones Books)

“Black, White, and The Grey” (Lorena Jones) is the story of a restaurant. Savannah’s The Grey, housed in an art deco former Greyhound bus station, has been recognized nationally for its contemporary take on Southern cooking. The book is also the story of The Grey’s owners: John O. Morisano, a former entrepreneur from New York, and chef Mashama Bailey, who won the 2019 James Beard Award for best chef in the southeast. Morisano is white. Bailey is Black. The book details, through a back-and-forth dialog, how race can make it hard for two people to work together.

Bailey and Morisano spoke to The American South about writing the book and the future they see for the South. The pair recently announced two new projects, The Grey Diner Bar and The Grey Market, that will open this summer in Austin, Texas. The Grey is also the restaurant-in-residence at Intersect by Lexus in New York through mid-April.

The American South: In the book, Mashama, you say The Grey is “celebrating the good aspects of American culture while exposing and shedding light on the bad aspects.” Is that asking too much of a restaurant?

Mashama Bailey: Being in that bus station is a constant but gentle reminder that we're in the South and this was once a segregated space. I think it's the building that brings that conversation forth.

"Black, White, and They Grey" by Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano

TAS: Much of the book is about you two navigating the issue of race. You both approach it with the best intentions, you have this shared business and you know each other well. Yet it's still difficult for you to deal with race. How can people without those connections manage it?

John O. Morisano: I hope people take away from this book that if you have the conversation, if you build trust with whomever, and you want to explore these things, then it's going to pay dividends. If we didn't write this book, which forced these hard conversations, we'd be sitting in the same place as we were three years ago.

MB: I think it would have come out in different ways. Being able to approach each other and air out some of those grievances was the first step in coming closer in our relationship. Because if we didn't have a relationship, we couldn't have written this book. And we couldn't have been vulnerable. We're in this building. And we're both in it for the right reasons. But we're not any closer as people because of it. We're just working alongside each other.

JM: Sounds like my answer is everyone can do it, and Mashama's answer is maybe not.

MB: I don't think everyone can do it. There has to be a willingness brought to the table from both parties in order for us to move forward.

Austin:Mashama Bailey opening Grey Diner Bar and Grey Market at new Thompson Hotel

TAS: John, you’re from New York. Mashama, you grew up partially in the South and then came back after living in New York. What do you still not understand about the region?

JM: Everything. The South is so layered and complicated. Savannah is one of the easier places, because it is very welcoming. It took me five years to figure out why everybody talks about the South as being closed off. It's because they have this really dark past that they don't like to talk about.

MB: I don't understand why there aren't more people investing in the towns and cities of the South. There are all these people with so much potential, and they don't have anywhere to have it fostered or nurtured in a city like Macon or Savannah.

JM: You hear about the New South. I don't know that this South is new. I think it wants to be dynamic, but there's also that institutional group that doesn’t like change. They like the power structure. They like the way it is. In a place like New York City or Los Angeles, you don't have a choice. You get dragged along with change.

MB: In the South, the towns are run by families, they're run by old institutions. That's who brings in the information and takes out the information. In bigger cities there are other ways to receive information. In those cities, there's more ways to dream.

The Grey in Savannah is located inside a once-segregated Greyhound bus station. (Courtesy The Grey)

TAS: Is that changing?

JM: I have hope. And I'll tell you why, because the migratory patterns are changing. And the pandemic has really blown up the world as we knew it. You're already seeing more New Yorkers, more Chicagoans, more folks from Dallas and L.A. moving to cities like Savannah, Austin or Atlanta. I do have hope that real change will take root. It'll be gradual. It's not going to be a revolution, that's for sure.

MB: It will be slower, but I'm hopeful.

Note: The interview was edited for clarity and length.

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