Mashama Bailey is hungover. The chef and co-owner of The Grey in Savannah, Ga., spent the previous night like she does every Sunday: eating chicken wings and drinking beers with her staff at an Irish pub downtown. You would never suspect that humble Bailey, who left New York City’s Prune to open a Southern restaurant in Georgia, is one of the most lauded new talents in the country.
The Grey opened in an old Greyhound bus station in December, and ever since, Bailey’s modern takes on Southern staples—such as clams and dumplings and catfish tagine—have drawn massive national attention to her small corner of Georgia. We talked with Bailey about her meteoric rise to fame, what a woman from New York can bring to Southern cuisine and how women chefs and chefs of color can get more recognition for their work. (We’re pleased to report that her hangover was much better by the end of our conversation. “I think I just needed to talk to someone,” she says, laughing.)
The Grey is getting a ton of attention right now. What are you doing so right?
I donʼt know! We are in this beautiful time where it’s all coming together really really nicely: [My business partner] Johno [Morisano]’s vision, my food, the service, the cocktails. Weʼre being very honest and weʼre putting a lot of thought into everything weʼre doing. But we still have a few years before we can really pull our heads out of it and step back and see what we’ve done. Right now we’re just trying to survive.
Your family is from the South, but you grew up in the northeast. Does having some roots down there give you more cred to open a restaurant in Georgia?
Not more cred to open a restaurant, but it definitely gives me street cred to talk to people who are growing things and to meet people in this town. I learned early on that I shouldn’t be afraid to say my mom’s from Waynesboro, because this information can be useful. I met the mayor a few months ago and as soon as I told her my mother was from Waynesboro, she completely lightened up.
What can you, a New Yorker, bring to Southern cuisine?
My style of cooking is heavily European influenced. All of my training has been European; my school was French. I love cooking and eating Italian food and drinking Italian wine. But I’m trying to celebrate the Southern ingredients I’m surround with because they’re so yummy. My mother and both of my grandmothers are from the South, so I grew up with Southern food. But it was very home cooked, slow cooked. So I have a love for that type of food, that type of preparation.
How do you see the Southern food landscape evolving?
Southern food, by definition, is American food. The South supported a lot of this country’s growth. A lot of the foodways for this country are through the Southern belt and that had a ton to do with how and what we ate, what was grown here. Being in this part of the world, you start to learn that a lot of those foodways were lost. But there’s a real small-batch revitalization that’s going on down here.
In a city like Savannah, you drive 20 miles west and you start to see farmland. You’re completely surrounded by all these different possibilities and ideas and all of these different cultures. People are growing so many different things down here that it starts to peak your interest. A huge benefit to me is that Iʼm new to the area, Iʼm curious by nature and I cook for a living. Thereʼs a lot of interesting rabbit holes that I can get lost in down here, which definitely translates into my food. And I trained under someone (Gabrielle Hamilton) who is very honest and researched and I adopted her philosophy for cooking in a lot of ways. The way she thinks about food has really broadened my perspective and given me an opportunity to explore certain parts about my roots, my heritage, where I’ve traveled, and really try to express that through the dishes that we prepare at The Grey.
Do you think people in the rest of the country are going to tire of the Southern food trend?
Food flows like fashion. Things are hot and then they go away and then theyʼre hot again. So from a national perspective, I think people may sort of tire of it or they’ll start paying attention to another type of food. But Southern food doesn’t go out of style in the South. There are all different types of Southern food. There’s the very traditional fried green tomatoes, fried chicken and shrimp and grits. There’s also very innovative types of food that bring in all those other cultures that settled here years ago. Savannahʼs a town with a huge Jewish population. It has a big Irish background, an African-American background, Haitian, Spanish…There’s a lot of influences here and when you are surrounded by those possibilities, you don’t have an opportunity to tire of it. I can relate because I came from a city (New York) that has those influences, too, so I can’t get it out of my system. I do chicken-liver mousse on my front bar menu, which is a very Jewish delicatessen thing.
Where are your favorite places to eat in Savannah outside of The Grey?
I really like The Florence and Mrs. Wilkes. There’s a bursting restaurant scene here that is very, very interesting, but I donʼt go out as much as I want to.
What is spurring the restaurant boom in Savannah?
Savannahʼs always been a food city. People come here to eat. But there’s an opportunity here. There’s such a diverse culture with S.C.A.D. (Savannah College of Art and Design) and the Gulf Stream, and when people visit they see that and they want to invest in the community here. We’re right down the road from Charleston, which historically, we’ve been sort of rivals, but it’s friendly competition. We’re far enough away that we’re still very different. Savannahʼs smaller and a little bit more mysterious. We’re located right off the river and we have these Spanish oaks and ghost tours. It’s very Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
When youʼre not in Savannah, what is your favorite city to eat in?
New Orleans. My parents used to drive us down to Waynesboro in the summer and then they would go to New Orleans and come back and pick us up. So I was always interested in it. I like all of Donald Link’s restaurants there. I love the Creole and Cajun food and going off Bourbon Street and getting beignets and Bloody Marys. But I couldnʼt live there I donʼt think, because I would probably just be a raging alcoholic.
How can women chefs and chefs of color get more attention for their work?
You have to surround yourself with good people who support you. People who want to see you succeed. My business partner is literally helping break me out of my shell everyday. If it were up to me, I would still have my head down. But he pushes me. Get people around you who are going to help you stay confident and also grounded. Once you have that formula, male, female, black, white, you will get what you deserve.
Alyson Sheppard is the token Southerner at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep