Hip hop records as placemats. A sneaker chandelier, reminiscent of shoes hanging on telephone lines. A bouillabaisse overflowing with seafood from the south of France. That was the scene at one of the high-end events put on by Ghetto Gastro, a Bronx-based culinary collective. Jon Gray, Lester Walker, and Pierre Serrao formed Ghetto Gastro a decade ago, with a mission to present Bronx culture as high culture. Their first cookbook, Black Power Kitchen, co-written with Osayi Endolyn, is “part cookbook, part manifesto. Created with big Bronx energy.” Dan takes a tour of the Bronx with Ghetto Gastro’s founders, hitting up some of the spots that make the borough so special: Kingston Tropical Bakery, Feroza’s Roti Shop, and Green Garden Juice Bar and Health Food Store.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Johanna Mayer, Nora Ritchie, and Jared O'Connell.
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Can You Dig It" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Sidewalk Chalk" by Hayley Briasco
- "Come At Me (Instrumental)" by Hayley Briasco
- "Legend (Instrumental)" by Afrokeys
- "Hot Night (Instrumental)" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Twenty 99" by Erick Anderson
- "Lowtown" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Lucky Strike" by Erick Anderson
- "Rooftop (Instrumental)" by Erick Anderson
- "Brute Force" by Lance Conrad
Photo courtesy of Joshua Woods
Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language.
Jon Gray: You remember those Sunkist jelly candies? They like green, orange… big gummy.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. With like the sugar coating?
Jon Gray: Yeah, yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jon Gray: I love that. So that was like my petite four …
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Jon Gray: And I always knew I was destined for great things, cuz I always had a very expensive taste in candy.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people.
Dan Pashman: Today, I’m talking with Lester Walker, Pierre Serrao, and Jon Gray, who you just heard. They’re the guys behind Ghetto Gastro, a Bronx based culinary collective. They’ve been a unit for about a decade — and they keep busy. They do high end food events all over the world, from the Grammys to the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. They’ve got a line of products, from waffle mixes to air fryers. And last fall, Ghetto Gastro released their first cookbook, Black Power Kitchen. The book includes recipes of course, but also art, fashion, and politics. The guys describe Black Power Kitchen as “Part cookbook, part manifesto. Created with big Bronx energy.”
Dan Pashman: Now if you’re thinking it sounds like Ghetto Gastro has a wide range of projects going on, you’re right. These guys are creatives who follow their passions. As Jon says, sometimes that means their work doesn’t have a neat and tidy elevator pitch.
Jon Gray: I think early on, [LAUGHS] I told myself, when this becomes easy to explain, that's probably when I get bored with it. It's multitudes. It's a lot of different things, but still trying to figure out that one-liner is. And let's hope when we do, I won't be bored with it.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: If Ghetto Gastro does have one unifying theme, it is The Bronx, a borough of New York City that’s often ignored by major media outlets, even though it’s long been an epicenter of culture — after all, this is where hip hop was born.
Dan Pashman: Ghetto Gastro presents Bronx culture as high culture. One of their first big events was for Microsoft, in Nice, in 2014. They called it “The South Bronx in the South of France”.
Jon Gray: We got the approval. Then we had to figure out how to do it, right? Never been to the south of France and we are not responsible for just the food. We're responsible for the whole damn thing.
Dan Pashman: The decor ...
Jon Gray: The decor, the DJ, the speakers, the fucking scenic. Went to the Salvation Army to forage for records like hip hop records because we used the records as the place mats. Got a whole bunch of old sneakers in Salvation Army too, cuz we did like a sneaker chandelier. Like if you go to the hood you'll see sneakers hanging off of telephone wires. So we recreated that and did strung it over the pool, but we shipped all of that — Nutcracker bottles ...
Dan Pashman: What was on the menu at that event?
Jon Gray: Damn, we did pizza. We did fish.
Lester Walker: We did a fly bouillabaisse out there with all these different seafood, crustaceans that we got out there in Nice.
Jon Gray: And the way we had to do — we didn't have a commercial kitchen. We had to get three small Airbnbs and use all three kitchens.
Dan Pashman: Oh my god.
Jon Gray: And if you ever been to Europe, you know the size of those stoves and those fridges. And it was ... it was mission impossible. But once we did that, it was like, oh, we could literally do ...
Lester Walker: Anything.
Dan Pashman: Am I right that, that in French, le Broz is sort of like ...
Jon Gray: It's a fucked up kind of — it's like describing something as ...
Lester Walker: In disarray, right?
Jon Gray: In disarray or like a mess or whatever, like an old phrase. But, yeah. So we showed them what it's really about and how we really giving it up.
Dan Pashman: Jon’s from the Bronx. Today, he lives in a high rise across the street from the building he grew up in. That's where I met up with the three guys. For Jon, food was an early passion. As a 7-year-old he was in charge of ordering for the whole family when they went out to eat. By age 10, he was reading cookbooks in bed.
Jon Gray: Yeah, I used to read The Joy of Cooking as a kid. I actually have a copy in the back that my friend Susanne gave me for a birthday gift like 13 years ago. And then I went back and revisited and I'm like, wow, this is like a dense bit of reading. Like I'll be reading rotisserie chicken recipe for three days.
Jon Gray: You know, it's like a lot of words.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Dan Pashman: As a teenager and young adult, Jon went through a lot, including a time when he sold drugs. But even then, food was a priority.
Jon Gray: Even when I was hustling, I would hustle. I would driving around with the Zagat guide and pick my meals based on where I was doing runs during the day, like in the Manhattan or whatever. So if it was a lunch spot, like I discovered and found a lot of spots like that. So I was always about this, this food life. Food was always my kind of respite from that life.
Dan Pashman: Jon doesn’t want to go back to those days, but he is quick to tell me how good he was at the business end of the trade. It seems he’s a born entrepreneur. In the mid 2000s he went deep into the world of fashion, ran a successful denim company — his jeans were in Bergdorf Goodman. Then the recession hit, and the company folded in 2009. Around this time, he reconnected with one of his childhood friends from the neighborhood.
Lester Walker: I'm Chef Lester Walker. I'm the vibe facilitator, storyteller, chef.
Dan Pashman: While Jon’s a businessman at heart, Lester is more of a philosopher and artist. When he and Jon reconnected, Lester had become a trained chef. He’d ended up in culinary school after winning an omelet making competition in high school …
Lester Walker: I was practicing making omelets for like two weeks every day after school. And I think I came in like third place and they gave me $10,000 to go to culinary school. That’s one thing that I realized gave me confidence and made me feel like I can accomplish things and bring something to the table. You know? Because you if you not at the table, you on the menu.
Dan Pashman: After culinary school, Lester cooked at high end places like Eleven Madison Park, and worked with famous chefs like Jean-Georges. One day, some producers from Chopped happened to visit the restaurant where he was working.
Lester Walker: And I made a special soup that day. It was a lemongrass, ginger, like shrimp, coconut based, you know, type of sauce, type of soup. You know, I learned how to get intricate with layering different flavors and adding fish sauce at the end, you know, for umami, learn how to get busy like that.
Dan Pashman: One of the producers came back to the kitchen and asked him, 'Would you like to audition for Chopped?” He responded, “'What's Chopped?'" The producers cast him in an episode …
CLIP (LESTER CHOPPED): I didn't wanna overcook the fish. By the time the judges get the fish, it'll be perfect. My pride and glory's at stake right now. But if I can actually win this competition, then sky's the limit really now.
Dan Pashman: Lester won. Around the same time, he and Jon started hanging out more, going downtown for dinners, bonding over their interest in art. But there would be one more person who would enter the mix …
Pierre Serrao: What's up? I'm Pierre Serrao, Chef P.
Jon Gray: Chef P and I met in the gym.
Dan Pashman: Here’s Jon again.
Jon Gray: And I overheard P talking with our boy Tone about some tartare at Morimoto. And that's an unusual gym conversation and especially, you don't necessarily hear a lot of brothers talking about tartare and Morimoto cuz when you go to these restaurants, you don't see us in them often.
Dan Pashman: Jon learned that Pierre wasn’t from the Bronx. He grew up between Barbados, where his dad’s from, and Hartford, Connecticut, where his mom’s from. A lot of the people in his family went to culinary school and cook professionally, in the U.S. and Barbados.
Dan Pashman: So when he was 19, Chef P followed in their footsteps and went to culinary school in Piedmont, in northern Italy.
Pierre Serrao: That was really my first introduction into any other part of the world. Learned the language, learned how to make pasta and breads and rices and stuff like that. And how to freak some of the European techniques and stuff like that, which have influenced a lot of the food that we — that I make now. Except I take a lot of those European influences and connect them with some of the traditions that our ancestors have taught us.
Dan Pashman: After Italy, Chef P moved back to Barbados, where he quickly developed a reputation because of his experience cooking in Europe. He ended up cooking for Jay Z and Beyonce, among others.
Pierre Serrao: When celebrities would come into the island be it whoever it is, the Beckhams, Hove, and Bey, I would be one of the chefs that they would tap for to cook for those people. And I fucking hated that job. So I didn't — that didn't last very long.
Dan Pashman: Why?
Pierre Serrao: Because I don't — I like to be of service for people, but I don't want to be like the help. And when you are working in spaces like that, it's a lot of entourage. It's a lot of other people with requests and this and that.
Dan Pashman: P wasn’t interested in being ordered around by all those other people …
Pierre Serrao: Yeah. That didn't last that long.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: P headed to New York, where he met Jon that day at the gym, and soon connected with Lester. The three of them hit it off, and in 2014 Ghetto Gastro was complete. They called it a culinary collective.
Dan Pashman: In the beginning, they did small scale events — mostly house parties. Lester and Chef P would cook, and Jon would run the event and handle the business side of things, earning the nickname "The Dishwasher".
Jon Gray: Yeah, we started doing house parties at my crib. So one of the reasons I got to name "The Dishwasher", cuz when Les and the other homies would cook, they just leave mad dishes in my sink.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Jon Gray: But I also clean them dishes when it comes to busting down spread. And last but not least reasons, because you could be definitely bet on me to be the one that rinse your pockets when it comes to securing a bag.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Jon Gray: I mean, I need it all.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Jon Gray: You know what I'm saying? I leave you with some toll money to leave, but ...
Lester Walker: [LAUGHS] That's it.
Jon Gray: Everything you came with?
Lester Walker: Run the pockets.
Jon Gray: Run it. Reparations.
Dan Pashman: These early events already had the ideas that Ghetto Gastro would build upon — reimagining and repackaging Bronx culture.
Jon Gray: But imagine like a 4-foot Home Depot table. Newspaper as a tablecloth. And not enough plates. Like just ...
Lester Walker: Forties.
Jon Gray: Forties. Yeah, yeah. We using forties as the water carafes.
Lester Walker: We were doing just doing forties in shorties cooking down ribeyes in, in malt liquor and shit like that. But, uh, we also had foie gras, torchons. We also had the best caviar.
Dan Pashman: The guys made a name for themselves. Soon, corporate brands started hiring them for events — like the one they did in the south of France, with the sneaker chandelier and the bouillabaisse.
Dan Pashman: Today, Ghetto Gastro has done events around the world for Cartier, Netflix, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it goes on. Jon says it costs a quarter million dollars to get Ghetto Gastro for your business. And as I said they’ve expanded into foods and home appliances and food. Their waffle mixes include flavors and ingredients of the African diaspora — cassava, sorghum, and coconut sugar. And their so called Sovereign Syrup is a combination of sorghum, apple cider, and maple syrups, which were common sweeteners before refined sugars came along. They’re collaborating with the kitchen gear company Crux to sell sleek toasters, waffle makers, and more.
Dan Pashman: And through their work, there’s always a thread leading back to the Bronx. In 2020, when Black and Latino communities experienced higher rates of food hardship because of the pandemic, Ghetto Gastro partnered with Rethink Food, a local nonprofit that helps restaurants make free food for those in need. They served more than 30,000 free meals in the Bronx that year.
Pierre Serrao: We kind of consider ourselves the Robin Hoods of this thing. So taking from the rich, giving to the needy. And when we talk about doing things in our community and being pillars of our community, when our community needs us, we make sure that we're there as a resource to step up and help.
Jon Gray: And to show that two truths exist. Like you could do stuff that is considered whatever, luxury, expensive, but you could also do the groundwork and collaborate with people within communities that have been historically underestimated. And of course, like you see where I live. Like, I'm here. [LAUGHS] You know, we are here. So it's like you can't ignore what's going on. It's like, we still have family members living below the poverty line dealing with incarceration. Like, so these are issues that affect us. So it's like cool to traverse the globe and do the Grammys and work with luxury brands, but, you know, that type of thing could be vapid. Like you actually have to like really do some human things. And I also think folks like us, Black people, people from communities like ours, we don't have the privilege to just exist in another world because we're constantly reminded where we stand, what we are and the the state of being.
Dan Pashman: One thing you hear people say a lot is, food brings people together. But you also talk about — I've heard you say food is a weapon.
Jon Gray: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Food doesn't always bring people together. I think it’s more complicated than that.
Jon Gray: Definitely. Because it is a definitely a big identifier of class, access, resources. It's another platform in which you could definitely, clearly see systemic issues are underinvested in people, underestimated people based on the availability and access to fresh, nutritious, delicious food. You know, early and often since our ancestors were enslaved, you know, a lot of times people from our culture were forced to make the best with what was available to them. Whether it was off cuts, scraps. So in a way, even in today's modern society, these communities are still dealing with the scraps. Like you look at East Palo Alto as an example. You know, you have, probably a lot of the richest people on the planet that live in Palo Alto. But then on the east side you're dealing with environmental insecurity, lack of food, access, all of these things. And a similar thing is with the Bronx. Like we're home to the largest food distribution center of its kind globally — Hunts Point, the meat market ...
Dan Pashman: And huge amounts of the food that is served in some of the top restaurants in New York all comes in through that market.
Jon Gray: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: And yet ..
Jon Gray: And yet, right around that market, within like a mile radius. It's an extremely food insecure place.
Dan Pashman: The area around the Hunts Point Market is one some would call the ghetto. When the guys chose to call themselves Ghetto Gastro, they chose that word very intentionally.
Jon Gray: We're not trying to make the word ghetto seem cool and palatable to white people. It's really about, you know, rejecting necessary respectability politics within our own community. Having an internal conversation like, yeah, we're Black, our food is a global food. It's not just mac and cheese. We love mac and cheese, but it's not just that and collard greens. We can add layers and it's Backness is blurry. It's definitely a lot of ways to act Black and be Black, but we're gonna bring you the unapologetic street side and still demand a premium because for so long our culture has been extracted and the value's been extracted, but now it's time for us to capture the value. And we wanna show that you could do that in a forum, in a fashion that's unapologetic, that's uncompromising, that's fun, that's community driven, all the things.
Dan Pashman: If food is a weapon, the guys from Ghetto Gastro are trying to wield it, to bring resources to the Bronx, and also to bring the Bronx’s contributions to the world.
Dan Pashman: That’s their approach in their first book, Black Power Kitchen. It includes recipes for dishes like their take on chopped cheese. Now, the chopped cheese is a classic sandwich in the corner markets of Harlem and the Bronx, traditionally made with chopped up ground beef, cooked down with onions, peppers, and American cheese, served on a roll. In their book, Ghetto Gastro calls it a “hood staple.” But Lester says …
Lester Walker: I don't really eat chopped cheeses. My claim to fame with the chopped cheese is turned into a chopped stease. And I feel like that's more valuable than, you know, eating processed chopped meat.
Dan Pashman: Lester’s chopped stease is a vegan version of the sandwich that uses plant-based ground meat and cheese, flaky sea salt, heirloom tomatoes, and aioli made from aquafaba, which is the liquid leftover from cooked chickpeas.
Lester Walker: There’s more to my claim to fame and how I want to tell the story, my story, the alternate story using alternate ingredients to something typical and something classic. I'm not classic. I'm from the Bronx. We remix things. We remix music. You know, that's what we do. Our creativity is our currency. Chopped cheese is a very sturdy sandwich that supports your hunger, supports your expenses, and it's a typical blue collar meal. But I want to reverse the narrative on what a chopped cheese is, and introduce people to the chopped stease, cuz that's the future.
Dan Pashman: The book also includes recipes inspired by some of the guys’ favorite Bronx restaurants, as well as a deconstructed apple pie inspired by Black Lives Matter. In the book, that pie is depicted alongside a chalk outline of a body.
Dan Pashman: And if you continue flipping through the pages of Black Power Kitchen, you’ll find much more. After all, these guys never do just one thing. There are essays on redlining. Interviews with people like the rapper A$AP Ferg, and museum director Thelma Golden. There are poems, paintings, and portraits of people from the Bronx.
Dan Pashman: We’re in the Bronx right now at Jon’s place, but I want to go out and see a bit of the borough through their eyes. Plus, we all seem a little hungry. As we’ve been talking, Jon’s been chowing down on a bowl of pasta that Chef P made …
Lester Walker: My boy really over here busting down that spread while we having this interview.
Dan Pashman: Everyone’s welcome to eat at any time during any Sporkful recording, so knock yourself out.
Lester Walker: He's got a sporkful right now.
Lester Walker: You hear any lips smacking in the background, Jon's over here putting away a plate of pasta.
Dan Pashman: Coming up after the break, Jon, Lester, Chef P and I visit some of the places in the Bronx that inspired the recipes in their book and we eat. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Last week on the show I talk with Zahra Tabatabai, who created Back Home Beer. Zahra heard stories all her life about her grandfather in Iran, who brewed beer before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And then a visit with her grandmother a few years back gave her an idea:
CLIP (ZAHRA TABATABAI): She made a comment in passing about how she missed the taste of my grandfather's beer. Said something like, I miss the taste of that beer. That's what I could use right now. And that sparked interest in me and I thought, well, I've got free time. Let me figure this out. It can't be that hard. Let me check out some YouTube videos. And I'm gonna make this beer. I'm gonna make it. I'm gonna send the bottles down. Let's see if we can make the taste that she's looking for.
Dan Pashman: As she learned to make beer, Zahra also learned about the long history of beer brewing in Iran, which is at odds with the image that most Americans have of Iranian people. In the episode we also talk with a home brewer in Iran who continues to make beer despite the harsh penalties. That episode’s up now. Now, back to my conversation with Jon Gray, Lester Walker, and Pierre Serrao of Ghetto Gastro …
Dan Pashman: All right, let’s hit it.
[CITY AND CAR SOUNDS]
Jon Gray: All three of these spots inspired ...
Dan Pashman: We're getting the trifecta.
Jon Gray: You getting the source material tour right now.
Dan Pashman: All right. All right. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: They’re gonna show me three places they’ve been going to for a long time, that influenced recipes in their book, Black Power Kitchen. Lester and Chef P go ahead separately, they’ll meet us at the second stop. I’m in the car with Jon.
Dan Pashman: First stop: Kingston Tropical Bakery. It’s been around for more than 50 years, and they specialize in Jamaican patties and coco bread, an airy sweet bread made with coconut. Kingston Tropical was one of the first bakeries in the area to cater to Caribbean customers.
Dan Pashman: Ghetto Gastro’s book includes a recipe for a Highbridge Plantain Patty — Highbridge is a neighborhood in the South Bronx, near Yankee Stadium.
Jon Gray: We did our own rendition of a patty inspired by this type of Jamaican patty, but the filling in it is plantains and collard greens.
Dan Pashman: Bringing together collard greens and plantains blends the flavors of the Caribbean and West African diasporas, both of which are well represented in the Bronx, all inside a flaky pastry.
Jon Gray: Just to kind of talk about like the Black American coalition and the merging of cultures with like Black Puerto Rican, Dominican, Black American. Cuz it's Black people from all of those places. But it's like the cultural nuances like and the similarities. Like even when you think about Africa, plantains are heavily used throughout Africa and all throughout the diaspora, you know? Especially, in the Caribbean.
Dan Pashman: Well, and just right here as we just turned onto the main drag in one block, you see Kennedy Fried Chicken, Chinese food. Then you see African, Indian, Caribbean Food Market, Champion Bakery West Indian Specialty ...
Jon Gray: You see a Puerto Rican flag flying, right?
Dan Pashman: A Puerto Rican flag in the window.
Jon Gray: A rainbow.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Jon Gray: This is the culture. This is where it happens.
Dan Pashman: And here we see Spanish meat markets.
Jon Gray: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: You drive down a road like this and you really do understand why the Bronx is known for remixing.
Jon Gray: Tell me what you see.
Dan Pashman: Well, just — literally, from one door to the next, you're seeing all different kinds of cultures, all different kinds of influences, all smashed up, right up against each other. That's just cross pollination.
Jon Gray: Yeah. Yeah. It's how things come together, right?
[CAR DOOR AND KEY SOUNDS]
Dan Pashman: All right. We're here?
Jon Gray: We are here. We’re gonna go grab …
Dan Pashman: Kingston Tropical mostly looks like a classic bakery. A counter with a glass case full of breads and cakes, shelves behind the counter with more goodies. Then to the side there are the patties in a windowed hot box.
Dan Pashman: How many patties should we get?
Jon Gray: How many people do you want to try a patty in your life?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Can I please have two chicken and two vegetable and two cocoa bread, please. Is that a good order, Jon?
Jon Gray: That's a good order. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Thank you, appreciate it.
Dan Pashman: We take our patties to go and walk out the door. Outside, there’s a white guy eating a patty on the sidewalk. And he immediately catches Jon’s eye …
Jon Gray: How do you you know about this spot?
Dan Pashman: I know it’s noisy with the train but Jon’s asking him, “How do you know about this spot?”
Jon Gray: How did you find out about this spot?
Dan Pashman: The guy’s got a mouthful of food, at first he waves us away. He doesn’t want to talk on the mic, but Jon chats with him for a minute and reports back …
Jon Gray: He used to date — had a honey up here. And just to give you a visual, that was like a white dude with a Arc'teryx jacket …
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Jon Gray: I was just curious. I don’t see a lot of white cats up here, you know?
Dan Pashman: Yeah. But also it’s like, things didn't work out with the girl, but he’s still coming for the patties.
Dan Pashman: Patties in hand, we head to our next stop. On the way, Jon and I keep chatting about Ghetto Gastro’s book, and its depiction of the Bronx.
Jon Gray: People have an idea of what it's like. And often it's related to hardship, right? People think that. They think, oh shit, I'm not going up there. [LAUGHS] And a lot of it is because of the media, right? People saw the Bronx burning in the seventies, they feel like it's not a reason for them to come up here. So wanting to put that on our back and really represent where we're from was definitely a big part of the project. And our coauthor, Osayi, co-collaborator, co-conspirator, all of the things, you know, she spent a lot of time up here, visiting these spots for us to be able to — and just listening to our stories and so we could put those words on a page.
Jon Gray: We met with a lot of people to think about collaborating on this with, and I knew she was the one from the jacket she was wearing. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]. What was the jacket?
Jon Gray: She was wearing like a powder blue Moncler jacket. So I was like, all right, this is, this is ... we can rock with this.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Jon Gray: You understand. You going get the nuances of what we do, what we talking about here. A big part of what we do is the style. And I think you have to be able to appreciate all of the elements, you know, from the activism, the politics, right? That vibe, the Blackness of it. But also the style of it, like it's a certain "je ne sais quoi".
Jon Gray: All right, here we are. We at Feroza's ...
[CAR KEYS, DOOR SLAMMING]
Dan Pashman: Oh, this looks promising.
Dan Pashman: We walk into Feroza’s Roti Shop and it has all the hallmarks of a great place. First off there’s a line, so everyone in the neighborhood clearly knows about it. Second, no frills, no seating. Just a long narrow counter on one side with a register at the end where you order. Third, at the register I see the friendly face of an older woman who’s clearly been running this roti shop for a long time. I would learn that she is Feroza herself, whose portrait is featured in Black Power Kitchen.
Dan Pashman: She inspired Ghetto Gastro’s recipe for Curry Chickpeas — stewed with coconut milk, lemongrass, and Scotch bonnet peppers, among other things. In the book they describe the dish as “a little Trini, a little BX, and a lotta bliss.”
Dan Pashman: Those chickpeas are one of many potential fillings for a roti, which is a light but chewy flatbread that arrived in the Caribbean via Indian indentured servants brought over by the British. By the time Jon and I arrive, Les and P have already ordered for us.
Dan Pashman: P, what’d you order?
Pierre Serrao: I got a double and I got a chicken and potato roti with tamarind and pepper sauce on it.
Dan Pashman: Ohh.
Pierre Serrao: And we got you a veg with a double as well.
Dan Pashman: Oh, fantastic. Did I get tamarind sauce?
Pierre Serrao: Yeah, tamarind and pepper. I put everything on it.
Dan Pashman: Oh, perfect.
Jon Gray: Bless Aunt Feroza’s, who’s always blessed us. Thank y'all.
Lester Walker: Thank y'all.
Jon Gray: Appreciate y'all
Dan Pashman: Now I'm trying to fit four patties, two coconut breads, a double, and a roti in the bag that's meant to hold my recording equipment. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: We’re moving on to our final stop. But by this time, I’m pretty hungry.
Dan Pashman: Am I allowed to take a bite of this food in your car, Jon?
Jon Gray: Hell yeah.
Dan Pashman: Okay. [LAUGHS]
Jon Gray: I eat so much food in here.
Dan Pashman: I got my double here.
Jon Gray: Yeah, the double’s good. It won’t crumble too much …
Dan Pashman: Of course, a double is so named because it’s two small, round, pillowy fried breads with some kind of filling. In this case chickpeas and more …
Dan Pashman: Oh my god. Was that scotch bonnet peppers I smell?
Jon Gray: Probably some scotch bonnet, some black pepper, and some tamarind.
Dan Pashman: Mmm. That's exactly what it is. And it's such a good combo. Scotch bonnet pepper is my all time favorite hot pepper. Mmm. You’re right though. You got the spice and the scotch bonnet and you got the tamarind.
Jon Gray: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: It’s sort of like tangy and tart and sweet. It’s got everything.
Jon Gray: Trini culture, you have so many cultures just within. You have like East Indian and you have the African and the indigenous, you know? Like, so it's like layers on layers. Because Trinidadian food is the remix in its own when you have the collision of all of these cultures. You know what I mean?
Dan Pashman: I took three bites and I managed to spill something on myself.
Jon Gray: I'll never wear light colored shirts because ...
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Jon Gray: Like a white shirt for me is a one wear, you know what I mean?
Dan Pashman: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
[CAR DOOR, SHOP SOUNDS]
Dan Pashman: We’ve arrived at our final stop, Green Garden Juice Bar and Health Food Store. Jon says this place basically raised him and Lester. The store is on a busy street, across from an elevated train. But once you step inside, it’s like an oasis, calm with the sweet smell of fresh fruit. In Black Power Kitchen, the guys have a juice recipe inspired by Green Garden. It’s called " Green For the Money Juice", with celery, kale, cucumber, and black seed oil. Jon called ahead, so our juices are waiting for us.
Dan Pashman: Oh, is this my green juice? Awesome.
Jon Gray: You want one?
Dan Pashman: Can you just describe the green juice to me? What's inside?
Vaughn Mitchell: Combination fresh green, spinach, meringa, probiotic blend, own homemade sea moss. A little spice to give it that tremendous flavor at the end.
Dan Pashman: This is Vaughn Mitchell. His dad, Brother Roy, opened the store in 1984 – there’s a mural of him on the wall. When Brother Roy died, Vaughn took over. Jon gives him a copy of Black Power Kitchen — Vaughn’s heard about it, he’s even featured in it. But this is his first time seeing it. He thumbs through the pages.
Vaughn Mitchell: It's beautiful. And just to see so much different culture in one place and handled with so much care, like you don't see that enough. Just putting a real artistic, high-end flair on something that people take as mundane. You know what I'm saying? Which is unfortunate because there's so much beauty in it.
Jon Gray: This book is going outlive us man. And I'm glad you could be a part of that with us.
Vaughn Mitchell: Have a nice day, all right?
Dan Pashman: The green juice was thick and satisfying, with a nice hit of peppery ginger at the end. Later, I would feast on my chicken patty in flaky pastry crust, and perfectly spiced veggies in a chewy roti. I’d picked up some papaya-based scotch bonnet pepper hot sauce at Green Garden — I added some of that to the roti.
Dan Pashman: All those flavors and foods coming together from all over the world and all over the Bronx — it was like a remix in my mouth. And one that requires a lot of skill to do right. Which I think is a big part of what Ghetto Gastro is saying when they highlight these flavors in their book, and in their glitzy events.
Dan Pashman: While it may not be the all encompassing tagline they’re still searching for, they’ve taken to saying they want to “Elevate Your Plate.” Back in Jon’s apartment, I had a question for them:
Dan Pashman: A word we hear a lot is “elevate.” So and so chef came along and “elevated.” But like to elevate, you're kind of assuming —
Jon Gray: Something needs to be fixed.
Dan Pashman: Right? And you're assuming the hierarchy.
Jon Gray: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: For something to go up to be elevated, it has to be down to start with. And often we hear that word applied when foods associated with Brown or Black people get European techniques applied to them, and suddenly they have been "elevated". What are your thoughts on that word.
Jon Gray: When we think about hierarchy and social highbrow, lowbrow, whatever, that's really the art and Ghetto Gastro show is to change the common perception of these ideas, right? Because you hit on it. Like often when people think of something Eurocentric or coming from Europe and it's applied to something else, they think it's elevation. But I really think it's the reverse. Like people often think Mexican food's supposed to be fast and cheap, but when they see a $14 taco that has incredibly expensive ingredients, a lot of labor that goes into making a tortilla, it's like those are elevated techniques. Like when you look at the nixtamalization of masa and that being done centuries ago, those are elevated techniques. You think about where bread was first created in North Africa, those are elevated techniques. You know, I think we've just dealt with bad marketing for centuries. You know, so it's really thinking about how we reframe these ideas and that’s really the art in Ghetto Gastro.
Dan Pashman: That’s Jon Gray, Lester Walker and Pierre Serrao of Ghetto Gastro, their new book Black Power Kitchen, co-written by Osayi Endolyn, is out now. They also have a podcast that shares the stories of many of the foods found in the book, it’s called In the Cut. You can find more about all their products and projects at GhettoGastro.com.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show the hosts of the podcast Vibe Check join me to talk about what you can learn about your partner by the way they shop for groceries, and to take your calls and settle your food disputes. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: While you wait for that one check out last week’s feature on Iranian-American beer brewer Zahra Tabatabai. That one also includes audio from a home brewer in Iran who’s risking his life to carry on a centuries old tradition of brewing there. That’s up now.
Dan Pashman: Please remember to connect with this podcast in your podcasting app, subscribe, like, follow, favorite, whatever the button in your app on our show page is please press it. Thank you.