Ghetto Gastro is ready to cook. It’s an early autumn morning in New York City, and a batch of orgeat almond syrup simmers on the stove top as the sweet smell of chai perfumes the air. The aroma of freshly smoked cannabis wafts in from the patio, adding a funky bass note. Together it all smells positively culinary.
We’re in the Hash House, the nickname of the Long Island City apartment that serves as makeshift headquarters for a group of guys who are adding a solid dose of hip-hop to haute cuisine.
The three-man crew sits on a leather couch, the sole piece of furniture in an otherwise spartan apartment filled with chafing dishes, hotel pans and other catering gear. There’s Jon Gray, self-described chief dishwasher, former Fashion Institute of Technology student and erstwhile apparel entrepreneur. There’s Lester Walker, thickly muscled and generously tattooed. He calls himself “the cooker,” which is an understatement for a guy who has worked as sous-chef at Michelin-starred restaurants Eleven Madison Park and Jean-Georges. Rounding out GG, as they call themselves, is Malcolm Livingston II, baby-faced, soft-spoken, the pastry chef at modernist cuisine temple WD-50 and winner of multiple honors in the industry. Today is Ghetto Gastro’s day off. Five pounds of vacuum-packed flat iron steak is in the fridge, waiting to be cooked, and tonight they’re throwing a party.
“Typically whenever we have leftover meat or produce from an event, we don’t waste it,” says Gray. “We Robin Hood it, invite friends over and cook it up.” Gray texts friends and gets the word out on Instagram. Walker lays out the rough plan: “We’re going to go to the Union Square farmers market for produce, hit Pino’s in the Village for some meat, then the Lobster Place for some ill crab. But mostly we’re just going to go with the flow.”
In the inadequate language of marketing, you could describe Ghetto Gastro as a creative consultancy that produces culinary pop-up events for brands. In person GG looks more like a rap crew—which it’s sometimes mistaken for—than a group of guys schooled in the finer points of modern cuisine and brand development. The men are dressed in black, wearing matching T-shirts printed with their logo in the same reverse-type block letters as the parental-advisory stamp.
In its year and a half of existence, Ghetto Gastro has been busy. The crew has designed and executed parties for a Timberland boot release, catered a promotional dinner for an e-cigarette brand at South by Southwest and flown to Cannes to create “the South Bronx in the South of France,” a Microsoft-sponsored dinner. In a villa in the hills above the Riviera, they draped sneakers over wires, repurposed 40-ounce malt-liquor bottles as water carafes and served a multicourse menu that featured loup de mer cured in that bodega staple, Lipton iced tea. “We create full experiences for you to immerse yourself in, sort of like theater,” is how Gray describes their mission. “When you come into our world, we want you to eat this food and remember this shit for the rest of your life.”
A strategic cluster of Post-its listing objectives and steps covers a wall of the Hash House and outlines the master plan: an animated web series called The Food Gangs of New York; a new headquarters and culinary-education center in the Bronx; an ice cream line called 36 Brix, inspired by the technical term for the sugar level in ice cream and the Wu-Tang Clan album 36 Chambers. It’s an ambitious set of objectives for the next year, but more than a few people think if anyone can hit these marks it’s these guys.
It would be easy to say Ghetto Gastro stands out because it’s a rare thing in the most privileged and foodiest elevations of the food world—an all-black operation that doesn’t hide the ghetto in its cooking. But the chefs also have the skills, the charm and that elusive and ineffable cool factor that diners and brands salivate for as much as they do GG’s Kaffir lime churros. Or as one new fan tweeted after meeting them, “Still not sure exactly what they do, but they’re cool as fuck.”
When Joe McCann, former chief technology officer of the influential global advertising agency Mother, heard about Ghetto Gastro he instantly saw the possibilities it could bring to the South of France Microsoft event. “They taught the attendees how to play Cee-lo, a dice game popular in the hoods of New York,” McCann says. “Jon also introduced the party to an original uptown drink, the nutcracker, that had the crowd properly tipsy by the end of the night. All this took place in a mansion so grandiose that Scarface would be jealous.” McCann says Ghetto Gastro is “providing popular culture with something it has been deprived of for so long—originality.” Matthew Orlando, the chef-owner of Amass in Copenhagen (latest stop on the global culinary world tour), worked with Livingston at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. He acknowledges GG’s raw talent and sheer originality. No stranger to the fickle trends of food, he says, “To me being different is the way forward.” And he points out a crucial part of the crew’s backstory: “Besides being supercool guys, they know where they come from, and they celebrate that.”
Where they come from and what they celebrate is the Bronx. That’s where Gray was kicked out of Catholic and then public school before getting a GED. He was busted for drug possession, then enrolled in classes at FIT and worked internships as part of a deal to have the charges dropped. The plan worked, and two years later he was a partner in two fashion lines selling at high-end department stores and streetwear shops. But his enthusiasm for fashion quickly cooled. “I wouldn’t buy a Lanvin sweater and think I really needed it,” Gray says. “But I would go to Eleven Madison Park and cash out without even thinking about it. I asked myself, How can I travel and eat and make that my life’s work? That’s how Ghetto Gastro was born.” He hooked up with Lester Walker, an old friend from the Bronx who was the first person in his family to go to college, as a culinary student at Johnson & Wales University. Malcolm Livingston II played in the same basketball league as Gray.
The food they grew up eating in the Bronx informs their cooking, which can incorporate Caribbean spices, French techniques and Olde English malt liquor in a single menu. “We celebrate the cultures we grew up with: Ghanaian, Trinidadian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Jamaican, Puerto Rican,” says Gray. “We try to fuck heads up and take food that’s not approachable and make it more democratic.” When they served KFC-inspired snack boxes at an event, guests found delicate biscuits and foie gras torchon inside. Walker adds, “It’s a combination of high ingredients and low interpretations.” If artisanal and farm to table are the catchphrases and ambitions of the food world, for GG turnt and steez are the goals. Turnt, as in “turned up” or “off the hook,” is how Livingston describes their food events. “Just pure controlled anarchy.” Gray says a crucial ingredient is steez—style with ease.
While Livingston has cooked in some of the best restaurants in New York City, he sees a market for diners who appreciate food and experiences but don’t want them restricted to the confines of a proper sit-down meal. A Ghetto Gastro event is ideally a cultural equalizer. “I don’t like to dress up, and I feel like when you go to a nice restaurant you have to,” he says. “But at Ghetto Gastro events you can just come as you are. The food is going to be on a high level, but you can still have fun and think, I’m around people who look like me and dress like me.”
If 10 years ago chefs were the new rock stars, today they’re the new rap stars, with Roy Choi, the Korean taco truck mogul turned restaurateur, and New York’s Eddie Huang, Baohaus chef and sitcom inspiration, referencing Wu-Tang as much as Alice Waters. But that doesn’t mean GG leaves the “farm to table” of it all behind. In Manhattan, at the Union Square farmers market, GG slows down and shops for the party. The men pick out carrots still caked with mud, bright rainbow chard and dusky black kale. They sample heirloom tomatoes, pondering the comparative virtues of Black Velvets and Brandywines. Gray points out that access to fresh produce is sadly limited in a city where the outer boroughs remain food deserts. “Most of the food in New York comes through the Bronx,” says Gray. “While rainbow radishes are going straight to Eleven Madison Park, it’s still hard to get a fresh apple in the bodega.” At Pino’s, an old-school Italian meat shop in the West Village, we pick up 30 pounds of duck fat, chicken wings and ground beef. As we’re walking out, one of the counter guys asks, “Are those guys rappers?”
The guys say this is a common flash assumption. In Europe, says Walker, most people immediately assume they’re rappers or ballplayers. “Within the first 30 seconds that stereotype is thrown out the door,” says Orlando. “These guys are real, and if you don’t see that when you talk with them, then you don’t deserve to hang with them.”
Back at the Hash House, the crew is joined by WD-50 line cooks, and Jan Warren, a bartender friend, makes a batch of Bronx-influenced mixology. “This was inspired by a drink Ellie, a roughneck Puerto Rican kid I went to high school with, used to make,” says Warren. “He’d take a 40, drink about a fifth of it, pour in a small can of Coco López coconut cream, put the cap back on and gently mix it together. In a teenage brain, the explosion of sugar and high alcohol content was the best semi-legal high you could get.”
Everyone hunkers down, and the unmistakable near-silent intensity of a pro kitchen staff at work settles on the room. Helping them prep is Pierre Serrao, a personal trainer and chef who has cooked in restaurants and as a private chef for Jay Z. “In the food game this is the crew I look to for inspiration,” says Serrao. “So many guys take the same road. I love how they’re all about word of mouth and collaboration.” His reaction to Ghetto Gastro’s collective approach to work is a common one. You don’t want to be them so much as join them. And then the quiet of the kitchen is shattered as Livingston boots up the Sonos and Wiz Khalifa thunders from the speakers: “We dem boyz, hol up, hol up, hol up, we makin noise.”
Come nightfall, two cheap Chinese paper lanterns illuminate the patio, sous vide chicken wings are finished on the grill, and duck-fat-fried potato salad and melon, kale and quinoa salads are put out. Models, entrepreneurs and the collected friends and family of GG arrive. The malt-liquor-infused cocktails start to flow, and the apartment is transformed into a classic New York house party. Walker, loose and relaxed after a day of cooking, looks over the patio at people dancing and eating, the Empire State Building glowing across the river, and rhymes, “There’s no shortage, Ghetto Gastro representing from Denmark to Shoreditch.”
And the timing couldn’t be better. With Vice producing a series with rapper Action Bronson visiting Michelin-starred New York restaurants, and the network sitcom Fresh Off the Boat centering on a hip-hop-obsessed Taiwanese American wannabe chef, the mash-up of hip-hop and food is trending big. Orlando from Amass has high hopes. “In the food world these guys are way outside the box,” he says, “and that’s why people are going to start to notice them. It might not be tomorrow, but I can assure you it will be very soon, and you are going to wonder why it took so long.”