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Ghetto Gastro's Jon Gray on Living at the Nexus of Food, Culture, and Politics

By Liam Satre Meloy
We caught up with Jon about Ghetto Gastro’s new laboratory and retail space in the Bronx, his unorthodox approach to social activism, and plans to take the collective’s culinary innovations into outer space.

Jon Gray is the CEO and co-founder of Ghetto Gastro, a wildly creative and ambitious culinary collective from the South Bronx that’s part social movement, part test kitchen, and part live theater. Jon’s co-founders are a trio of successful chefs: Malcolm Livingston II, Pierre Serrao, and Lester Walker. Their collaborations include high-profile parties at art institutions, events for celebrities and corporate clients, and Hollywood movie extensions. Now, Ghetto Gastro is opening their newest brick-and-mortar space in the Bronx's Mott Haven neighborhood.

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Taste of Wakanda 2

Labyrinth 2.0... While Ghetto Gastro’s original space was “real clandestine,” the group’s new HQ will be on street level in Mott Haven and will include a retail component. Like its predecessor, Labyrinth 2.0 will be part art studio, laboratory, and community center with space to showcase Ghetto Gastro’s forthcoming “product innovations and collaborations.” It’ll be open to the public by appointment.

Creative lab... Labyrinth 2.0's test kitchen will double as a workshop for some of Ghetto Gastro's more experimental offerings, including a web series called “Stease the Day,” that features quick, easy, accessible recipes. Last year, they collaborated on a documentary series with Spotify called “The Cook Up” where Jon and his partners visited homes of musicians and made dishes using only the ingredients found in their kitchens. This fall, they're taking a long-form, travel-based show to market.

Stease The Day

Product innovations... A few of GG’s upcoming products will include a line of spice blends and sauces called “Steasonings by Ghetto Gastro," a kitchenware collection called “Triple Beam Dream,” and a knife line called “Ogun.”

The Black Panther party... Last year, GG co-hosted a culinary event with Marvel tied to the release of the film, called Taste of Wakanda. Inspired by the film's characters, the menu included T'Cabbage Tacos with lamb and coriander and a chocolate tart made from cricket flour. Check out the short doc film Marvel produced around the event.

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Building a CPG business... For the last year and a half, Jon has been working on “the branding, the visuals, flavor testing, getting the science right.” And now he’s working on finding the right distribution partners and hiring a team. “I love the creative bit and the hustle as well, but we need someone who’s really passionate who’ll knuckle down on the business aspect and who loves that kind of nitty-gritty work.”

The Ghetto Gastro ethos… “We have to become the wealthy people that the world needs.” That means not only building foundational wealth that can be reinvested back into the Bronx, but also "being present in our community, maintaining a certain language, attitude, style, and avoiding code-switching despite success." And being "boisterous" about important political and issues like "structural and designed oppression."

“Black Power Kitchen”… The collective’s unofficial name speaks to their natural activist posture. "A lot of the work we do is about bringing uncomfortable topics for certain people into certain rooms. We feel it's our duty to help people unlearn the lies we’ve been told about hierarchies and values and other types of mental oppression.”

GhettoGastro Tee Black Front If you want the tee, shop here.

A new collaboration... Always thinking big, Jon wants to expand Ghetto Gastro into the airline industry. “I’m really interested in innovating in that space. How do we get our food to more people in different conditions that might not be ideal, with design limitations? That's an interesting challenge to work on.”

In-flight culinary pro-tip… Delta Airlines is already innovating in the in-flight culinary space. Through a partnership with LA restauranteurs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (of Jon & Vinny’s), Delta offers “restaurant-style experiences” in their Delta One cabins on LA to NY flights. “They do a good job. Tasty meatballs and cookies. But it’s first-class only, unfortunately.”

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Pro-tip #2… Ironically, Jon doesn't eat while on airplanes because it helps him reduce jet lag. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, fasting during (and prior to) air travel helps your body reset its circadian rhythms to a new time zone. Recommended fasting timeframe is 12 to 16 hours before and during travel. If you're looking for fasting help, Jon recommends his buddy Kevin Rose's app Zero.

zero

Measuring success... Paraphrasing Rick Rubin, Jon says “you tend to find yourself feeling more depressed despite reaching your goals.” Even though he's achieved some so-called "material successes," he still feels "not completely whole – there’s still a void." So he's now on a quest to find the things that bring him purpose, meaning, and joy.

Making space to love more... “Growing up in the Bronx, we had these ideas about masculinity and machismo, these walls and barriers that are built up. So there’s a lot of un-learning and deconstructing that I’m working on doing to try to become my best self and to love more openly."

Future of Ghetto Gastro... Jon wants Ghetto Gastro to inspire global change, especially in so-called "ghettos or shanties,” to help them create culture and community and build wealth. “I’m sensitive to the fact that due to policy and government and real poverty, it may not be easy to do the bootstrap thing. But it would be really dope to see a revolution and a renaissance coming out of the hoods of the world.”

Vision for the Bronx… Jon wants his home to become a global destination for art, culture, and food. “Not in the way that gentrification spurs growth, but in a way that’s home-grown, where people in the borough get to benefit from these things...and not just developers and shit.”

Connect with Jon on Twitter @ghettogastro and IG @ghettogray.

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