Let’s first deal with what usually needs to be dealt with. Our name — Ghetto Gastro — makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s not our intent to polarize for the sake of ceremony. In fact, we were all young boys when we learned that our existence itself could be polarizing to folks who didn’t know us.
“Ghetto” is used as a derogatory term to dismiss and separate cultures from their mainstream counterparts. Ghetto is used as a way to cue discomfort, to cue the Other. When that unknowable thing is over there, you don’t have to deal with it, you don’t have to be with it. That’s what ghetto is supposed to do — dehumanize.
You recognize this unsettling feeling because you might not be sure if it’s polite to say the words Ghetto Gastro. (You can and we hope you do. Watch out, though; say it three times fast and we just might run down on you. Ya dig.)
You feel this discomfort because you might have worked tirelessly to get out of the ghetto, surviving difficult circumstances to create a more sustainable life. Or you might wonder why someone would be proud to claim an identifier that could sound off-putting to outsiders. You might already have a sense of what we’re up to but might question our credibility. We get it. It’s wise to be suspicious.
Ghetto has been whitewashed and commodified, used for gimmicks and a particularly Americanized performance of Blackness. (You can look to projects like Thug Kitchen, authored by a white duo with zero appreciation for the criticism they received at the time, for a pulse on what we do not cosign or respect. After brother George Floyd was murdered by police in the streets of Minneapolis, the brand changed their name.)
It’s simple. For us, ghetto means home. It’s a way to locate our people, not just in the Bronx of New York City, where we as a group formed (more on that in a moment). It’s a way for us to connect with our folks in the Global South, whether their ghettos are called the hood, the slums, the projects or the inner city. When we say “ghetto,” we are saying to our people “We see you,” while simultaneously indicting the systems of neglect and apathy that created the conditions we’ve been forced to reckon with.
In the ghetto, food is a denominator of class and a reminder of what you can and can’t have. Food is weaponized against people in the ghetto when they have easier access to soda and chips than fresh produce. When subsidized commodities like sugar, wheat and soy make buying oranges and greens unaffordable, something is deeply wrong. Food weaponized against people is watching generation after generation fall to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These are our people. And for decades they’ve been given an unfair shake.
Ghetto isn’t just about struggle and disenfranchisement, though. Ghetto is the flower blooming in the sidewalk cracks. Ghetto is our love language, a patois so specific and rooted in place that if you know, you can hear when someone is from the Bronx or Brooklyn or Harlem. Ghetto is our aura, our style, our stease. It’s our music, our beats, built on the backbones of jazz, rhythm and blues, and dancehall. There’s a reason why Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and Rick James all sang songs about the ghetto.
Ghetto isn’t about excluding people. It’s about telling the rest of the world that we are here, we’ve been here. We’re going to serve what we feel like dishing out, especially when many fail to acknowledge our existence. Ghetto is so you don’t forget who you’re talking to. Ghetto is so we center where we’re from and why we do what we do.
Ghetto Gastro is often described as a culinary collective, which is a little vague, we know. But we are a difficult crew to contain within boundaries. We take a multidisciplinary approach to our work that draws from the visual arts, music, fashion and social activism to curate experiences as diverse and inspirational as the people and cultures who created them. We use food as our medium to connect cultures and conceptually open borders.
We started in 2012, throwing parties in New York City. Jon has his roots in fashion and art. Pierre and Lester are formally trained chefs. Jon and Lester are originally from the Bronx and grew up as neighbors. Pierre has Bajan roots by way of Connecticut. We’ve all dabbled in the streets, you know. Fortunately, we found other interests and opportunities that were more fulfilling.
We discovered that we had friends across creative industries who loved to dine, who loved beautiful, interesting, thoughtful food but couldn’t find experiences that spoke to them. We launched with a late-night series called Waffles and Models, and it was exactly what it sounds like: loud, delicious and beautiful. As our popularity grew, so did our mission. We didn’t just want to be cooking up good eats and sending folks home. Some of us are parents now. We wanted to make a lasting impact on families and our people. We wanted to surprise and delight but also challenge and innovate.
We found that we can be thoughtful about where we cook, what ingredients we select, how we describe a dish. We’ve learned about the elements that enhance the dining experience, from live music to art installations. We’ve worked with some of the biggest brands in fashion and design. We’ve brought big Bronx energy to the Place Vendôme in Paris, to the TED stage in Vancouver, to the harbor of Hong Kong.
We route funds back to our community in the form of mutual aid. We’ve partnered to sell limited runs of specialty items and big pushes of cookware appliances. We’re building a retail food brand, Gastronomical, using plant-based ingredients that originate from Africa, Asia and the Americas, the ancestral roots of the cultures that enrich us. We’re not just trying to sell people stuff. We are intentional with what we do, when we do it and who we do it with.
We don’t have a brick-and-mortar restaurant (and we don’t plan on one), so we can be nimble. We can think about big concepts autonomously instead of pointing folks to a location where the rent is too damn high. Not having a restaurant has aggravated gatekeepers in food media who seem mystified that a food-centered mission can exist beyond a permanent dining space. Chefs cook outside of restaurants, ya dig? Ideas about food can translate to other genres. We’re of the mindset that you don’t necessarily have to offer a tasting menu to be provocative. And like many of the homegrown organizations and institutions who partner with us, we’ve learned that if we don’t look out for our folks, no one else will. We’re doing our best and learning along the way.
While we know that not everyone can access our products, we want the people from our community and from communities like ours to know that they deserve fun things just like anyone else. And we also understand that luxury, while nice, does not transform systemic injustice or resolve the internalized suffering that comes from navigating poverty and police abuse. It’s a balancing act and one we constantly navigate.
Money itself is not our aspiration. But until we can count on a social fabric that empathizes with and cares for all human beings equitably, we know that money is a tool that can effect real change. We know this because we’ve written some of the checks. We see the difference it makes. In our worldview, everybody eats.
If it’s beginning to feel as if this is not the makings of a typical cookbook, that effort, too, is intentional. Our approach, based on how we’ve learned to create and innovate in our own lives, is to take a non-traditional path. We’ve often been forced to the margins, like many of our Bronx siblings, and we have worked our way to the center by changing the conversation. It would be out of character to enter this space of food storytelling by attempting to connect with you in a way that doesn’t look, feel or sound like us. We make our own lane. We’ve had to.
Black Power Kitchen is reflective of our style and sensibility, offering recipes that emerge from long-standing traditions but with the Ghetto Gastro nod. Some of the recipes are approachable to those new to cooking, and others will excite and challenge advanced cooks. As Black people, so few of whom have had the opportunity to present their food story to you in this genre, we feel it’s our responsibility and privilege to show you our range.
We are dynamic, like the cultures that influence us. One of the ways that food (culture) is weaponized is when gatekeepers reduce stories to one thing. But there has always been a multiplicity of narratives around a dish and its preparation, around a historical event and the retelling of it.
We don’t speak for everyone in the Bronx. We don’t represent all Black people. We don’t define what ghetto might mean to others. But this right here is Ghetto Gastro. You’re in our realm now. Have a seat.
Makes 12 servings
Our cooking ethos is guided by a few important principles: It’s gotta be right and to the bite. Done with finesse, but make it look effortless. Our food is delicious and beautiful. Intentional and subversive. And always with that swag, as in the Triple Cs. This is quintessential Ghetto Gastro.
Native Americans, Africans and ancient Mesoamericans made cornmeal and its many iterations a core food. We can look to johnnycakes, corn pone, spoon bread and cornbread as the expression of Indigenous and enslaved peoples. Somehow, the cultures that put in the work and sacrifice, ultimately building global economies, are the ones that get exploited. Native American, Black and brown communities are among the most food insecure in the United States. Even still, our innumerable contributions are the foundation of global wealth.
When our political representatives take actions that divest resources from our communities, we’re told it’s like crabs in a barrel. The metaphor suggests that if we’re all going down, no one can get out. But that analogy is insufficient because crabs belong in and around water. And maybe the crab isn’t trying to block the other one’s freedom. Maybe they’re all trying to link up and help each other get out.
Caviar — black gold — is thought of as the pinnacle of European luxury. But caviar originates in the Middle East and Asia, an example of how incomplete histories can alter our view about who gets to enjoy what.
For the cornbread
3½ sticks unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
2 cups 00 flour or all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
5½ cups frozen corn kernels
1 cup unsweetened oat milk
3 large eggs
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup organic cane sugar
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1⅛ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
For the crab salad
1 pound cleaned peekytoe crabmeat
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives
3 Tbsp. crème fraîche
1 tsp. lemon zest
9 ounces beluga or osetra caviar
1. For the cornbread: Heat oven to 375°F. Grease two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans with butter and dust with flour, tapping out excess.
2. In a heavy-bottomed pot, melt butter over high heat. Add corn and cook until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer mixture to a blender, add oat milk and blend on high until smooth. Add eggs and blend again until smooth. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, stir together flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix well. Pour batter into prepared pans.
4. Bake 40 minutes, until cornbread turns golden and top begins to crack. Remove from oven and set pans on trivets or a wire rack to cool completely.
5. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Turn cooled cornbread loaves out of pans and set right-side up on a cutting board or flat surface. Using a serrated knife, cut into ½-inch-thick slices.
6. Working in batches, place cornbread slices into heated dry skillet, leaving space between slices. Sear until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes per side, then set aside on a rack.
7. For the crab salad: In a large bowl, combine crabmeat, chives, crème fraîche and lemon zest. Stir gently to combine. Use immediately, or cover and chill up to 2 days.
8. To plate your Triple Cs, divide crab salad among cornbread slices and spread evenly over surface. Top with a dollop of caviar and enjoy immediately.
Makes 2 servings
We’re going out with that red, black and green — the colors of the Pan-African flag are symbolic of Black liberation. This is an easy dish to make with kids, and children are ever-present in the Ghetto Gastro orbit. As sons, dads and god-papis, we’ve experienced that some of the best connections with our young people occur when food is being communally prepared. Give them that good game when they’re coming up and you won’t have to correct them later, ya heard.
4 cups fresh watermelon juice
⅓ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cup agave syrup
pinch flaky sea salt
lime zest, for garnish
1. In a bowl or pitcher, stir together watermelon juice, lime juice, agave syrup and salt. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer.
2. Divide into shallow containers or pour into a rimmed sheet pan and freeze until solid, about 8 hours. Once frozen, scrape surface of ice with a fork to form granita. This takes a little elbow grease, but you can do it.
3. Transfer frozen scraped crystals to a freezer-safe container and cover until ready to serve, up to 1 month. Serve granita in a chilled bowl, garnished with lime zest.
Black Power Waffle
Makes 4 to 6 servings
This velvety waffle is named for the rallying cry “Black Power,” coined by the militant leader Stokely Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Ture (a reference to Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré, the first presidents of Ghana and Guinea, respectively).
The native Trinidadian came to the South Bronx as a teen. He would eventually become the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), formed from the sit-in protests that fought to desegregate dining spaces in the South. He then became prime minister of the Black Panther Party, but he had used the term “Black Power” before then. We pay homage to the Black Panther Party’s groundbreaking community-based free breakfast program, which inspired the federally run version launched in the 1970s and still in place today.
Ture eventually separated from the Black American groups he had helped form and became a Pan-Africanist. He lived in Guinea for the last three decades of his life, convinced that the United States was incapable of structurally creating equity for Black people, but his thinking shaped the modern era of political organizing and civil rights and has been a model for antiracist activists of myriad cultural backgrounds.
In our efforts to explore dairy-free ingredients in a base, we love how the mix of cocoa powder and coconut creates a slightly nutty, mild flavor. It’s not too rich or sweet and makes a moist waffle.
2 cups pastry flour or all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened black cocoa powder
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
¼ cup cane sugar
¾ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. baking soda
1 14-oz. can coconut milk
½ cup coconut oil
2¼ tsp. active dry yeast
2 large eggs
½ cup chocolate syrup or sauce
½ to 1 tsp. black food gel (optional)
plant-based butter, sorghum syrup, sliced banana, or vanilla or coconut ice cream, for serving
1. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, coconut, sugar, salt and baking soda. Make a well in center. Set aside.
2. In a medium saucepan, warm coconut milk and oil over low heat, until oil is melted and temperature reaches 110°F. Remove from heat and whisk in yeast. Allow yeast to bloom for 10 minutes. The mixture should be bubbling on surface.
3. Add in eggs, chocolate syrup and black food gel and whisk thoroughly for 30 seconds, until thickened slightly.
4. Pour coconut milk mixture into well in flour mixture. Whisk together to make a smooth batter, switching to a rubber spatula as mixture thickens, if needed. Add ½ cup warm water and mix in.
5. Allow mixture to sit at room temperature 15 to 30 minutes. (The longer batter rests, the fluffier waffles will be.)
6. Prep a waffle iron and make waffles according to iron’s specifications. As you make them, stack waffles on a plate and cover with a dishtowel to keep warm. Serve with your preferred butter, sorghum syrup, banana, or vanilla or coconut ice cream (or any combination that rocks your world).
Excerpted from Ghetto Gastro Presents Black Power Kitchen by Jon Gray, Pierre Serrao and Lester Walker, with Osayi Endolyn (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2022