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    in focus

    Photo: Jon Gray

jon gray: merging creative worlds through food

“Ghetto Gastro”, the name of Jon Gray’s culinary collective and cultural movement, came to him as the best ideas often do: In a dream... A dream about Senegalese fried chicken from a West African restaurant in Brooklyn, to be specific.

A fourth generation Bronx resident, me Convention alum Jon grew up in Section 5 of Co-Op city along with more than 40,000 other residents from places like Senegal, the Philippines, the Caribbean, and Vietnam. So from a young age, Jon experienced the diverse flavor combinations of his beloved borough. “That’s when I started being real curious about food,” Jon told Wired. But Jon didn’t set out to become a chef. At first, he got into fashion design.

creativity cannot be contained

‘’Ghetto’,” said Jon in a recent Vogue interview, “is nothing but creativity that hasn’t been stolen yet.” And that creativity cannot be contained within tidy vessels like ‘food’ or ‘fashion’: It’s unwieldy, multidisciplinary, and ambitious. It’s also collaborative: Jon gathered three seasoned chefs to help him build his dream, all from neighborhoods in and around the Bronx. There’s Lester Walker, Chopped Champion, esteemed executive chef, and dad; Malcolm Livingston, the former head pastry chef of Denmark’s Michelin-starred Noma; and Pierre Serrao, who previously served as a private chef for clients like Jay Z and Diddy. Not a bad crew to roll with… and then there’s Jon, the visionary.

Together, the men of Ghetto Gastro are rethinking the intersections of music, film, fashion, and visual art by using food as the crux of big conversations about inclusion and race. Take Pierre’s 2016 Black Lives Matter-inspired deconstructed apple tart, featuring a chalk outline to convey that violence against black men is as 'American as apple pie'. Or the group’s Black Panther movie-themed food event for New York Fashion Week. As Ghetto Gastro Co-Founder Lester told Travel + Leisure, “We want to bring the Bronx to the world and the world to the Bronx.”

Photo: Stocksy/Gary Parker

representation, inspiration, and conversation

The collective has no brick-and-mortar restaurant, no food truck, and they definitely don’t call themselves a catering company. Ghetto Gastro’s events are more like art installations, where they have a hand in every tiny detail: From food, to performers, to the design of the event space. And though their client list for these luxe affairs includes the likes of Martha Stewart, Rick Owens, Bank of America, and Microsoft; Ghetto Gastro ultimately seeks to provide culinary access and representation to the Bronx community. Although rich with culture and global flavor, the South Bronx is home to violence, poverty, and some of the highest rates of food-insecurity in the U.S.

To accomplish this, Ghetto Gastro plans to build an official Bronx headquarters: The Idea Kitchen. This kitchen won’t just cook up food, however: It will be a center for creativity. Think youth workshops, a garden, media studios, a fitness facility… The Idea Kitchen will be a place to grow. The space, said Co-Founder Pierre, should 'generate a new awakening among kids who only think you can rap, trap, or be an athlete to get up out of the hood.'

In other words, representation matters. When we see people who look like us or who hail from our neighborhood successfully merging artistic worlds, inventively nourishing communities in need, and making it all look ridiculously cool; there’s hope: Hope for kids in the Bronx, and hope for anyone who’s ever dreamed of fusing all of their interests into one culturally meaningful movement. Thanks to intentionally inclusive dreamers like Jon Gray and his Ghetto Gastro co-founders, we’re starting to envision a future with more seats at the table... and boundless creativity on the menu.

Head to Ghetto Gastro's website for more information about the collective, and subscribe to our newsletter for details and early bird rates on upcoming events.

Disclaimer: The views of me Convention speakers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of either Mercedes-Benz and/or SXSW.