Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 6, Episode 1 - Episode #6.1 - full transcript

[Mashama Bailey] When I left Georgia,
there was a piece of me that was missing.

Maybe it was the sun,
maybe it was the marsh,

maybe it was the smell of cut grass.

Something was calling me.

And then to come back to the Golden Coast,

and connect with the people and the land,

there's something
started to fill my soul.

I think that there's a sense of pride
and a sense of peace that happens

when you decide to come back home.

[theme music playing]

[Osayi Endolyn]
When I walk through Savannah,

there's no better place

to think about the spirits of the past,
because they're here.

When you walk into The Grey,
you immediately understand

this is a place that is evoking
the spirit of times past.

The restaurant lives in a formerly
segregated Jim Crow-era bus station.

What The Grey does is it says,
"We have this past, we have this history,

and here is where we're going."
It's a forward-moving conversation.

Southern food is so charged,

particularly when it comes
to a black person cooking that food.

"Black cooking" in the South means

black eyed peas,
shrimp and grits, fried chicken.

Mashama Bailey has shown Savannah that,

yes, you can celebrate
these traditional dishes,

but we can push it, too.

We can expand.

When you look at The Grey's menu,

you might be surprised,
seeing cucumber gazpacho.

But, guess what?
We grow cucumber in the South.

If you want to blend cucumber

and mix it with these delicious
local herbs and summer tomatoes,

that's a Southern dish.

[Lolis Eric Elie]
What's so beautiful about Mashama

is the extent
to which she can express everything

from white-tablecloth fine dining
that she studied in France

to the Black tradition of the South
in Savannah, Georgia.

Her food embodies that kind of bridge.

She's crafting a personal cuisine
of her own,

and that's why it resonates.

[birds chirping]

[Bailey] When you come to Savannah,

you're in this city
that's steeped in Southern tradition.

They love the past.

There are trolley tours,

people dressed up in colonial attire.

People come down and they wanna see that.

They want the black chef at
The Grey restaurant to be frying chicken.

I just find that to be a slap in the face.

That's not the best
that Savannah has to offer.

Should we put the sausage in there?

[man] Yeah, let it go soak
all the way through.

-[Bailey] Yeah.
-[man] How many you wanna put in there?

Just the three. Wanna open them up?

That's a good idea,
and I'll give them to you.

[Bailey] Yeah.

I know. It smells good, right?

African American history in this area

is so rich.

-[man] Oh, these look nice.
-[Bailey chuckles]

[Bailey] These traditions and food,

it's about the storytelling
and preserving heritage.

Whenever you get
a bunch of people at a table,

you learn about the people at that table.

The young folks learn about their elders.

They learn about their culture
and listen to stories about the past.

I feel this responsibility

to educate people through my cooking.

There you go.

[woman] Oh, my God.

[Bailey] That's the part of Savannah
that I want to share.

[indistinct chatter and laughter]

-[man] That is good.
-[Bailey] That's delicious.

It's sweet.

[food processor whirring]

[Bailey] We'll clean 'em up.

Oh, this is like...

It's good.

I grew up in Savannah.

My mom was 19 when she had me,

and we had a little two-bedroom apartment
in a black neighborhood.

As a child in Savannah,
there was just a sense of freedom here.

There were kids on stoops
and doors were open,

and everyone would just
run to each other's houses.

And you'd play old maid
on the porch with your friends.

After playing for three,
four hours out in the sun,

you would go to your neighbor's house
to purchase these little Popsicles.

We call them "thrills,"
and it's exactly how it sounds.

It's thrilling to get a thrill.

And then I would come home,
sit around the table and have dinner.

My grandmother would be there.

And she would have a pot of grits on

and then she would have fish
frying in the cast iron.

She didn't have a lot of money,

but the way she cooked
was tremendously generous.

Cooking was a way that she just
let us all know how much she loved us.

And that was
a very poetic time of my life.

I found that the heart
of many relationships

is surrounded by a meal.

It really cemented what I think life is
and what I want out of life.

[children laughing]

[Catherine Bailey]
When Mashama was growing up,

looking at the differences
between the white neighborhood

and the black neighborhood,

the scale wasn't balanced.

Opportunities were to work at a factory
or being the help.

We had to go somewhere
where there were more doors open.

[Bailey] When I turned 11,
we moved into this middle-class

African American neighborhood
in New York City.

There were a lot of doctors
and lawyers and accountants.

My parents were working all the time.

When they weren't working,
they were going to school.

All they wanted was that American dream.

Every move that they made
and all of their sacrifices

was so they could live
a little bit better.

But one thing
that was sacrificed was food.

Back home, it always smelled like food,
even in the middle of the day.

But in New York City, working and school
was more important than cooking.

It wasn't the same.

I felt like there was a piece of me
that was missing.

I longed to be back in the South.

[indistinct chatter]

[Bailey] There's a huge labor force
in the South.

And when they go out in the morning,

they want a meal
that is going to sustain them.

Yeah, there's syrup in the box
and your butter, as well, okay?

Enjoy the rest of your day.

[Bailey] That's why beef liver and grits
was invented, why it was born.

You have this really rich protein
that boosts your energy.

You have grits that are very humble.

It's a quintessential Southern breakfast.

A few years ago,
we were thinking about doing something

for New Year's Eve
that was really over the top.

One of the things that I loved in France
was eating foie gras.

And that's when I had this epiphany.

Instead of doing beef liver and grits,
why not do a foie and grit dish?

It was really this morph
of something Southern

into something
that is completely decadent.

You have very humble beginnings,

and then you have it topped
with something rich and sophisticated.

And what really melds them together
is just a good, old-fashioned gravy.

It's Mashama as a little girl
on the plate,

and it's also Mashama
as a grown culinary force on the plate.

It illustrates my culinary journey.

That's what's up.

Just eating grits out of the pot
like I'm home.

Hi. Can I order a hot pastrami
with shaved onion and provolone cheese?

[deli worker] And would you
like a pickle with that?

Yes, please. Please.

For my parents, progress was education.

It was not a question
that I would go to college.

When I started looking
into different avenues that I can take,

nothing really interested me.

So I was like, "All right,
I guess I'll just do what my parents did.

I guess I'll just go into social work."

Oh, boy. Oh, boy. I was just beaming.
I was so proud of her.

[Catherine] It was important
that she graduated from college.

This was something
that we wanted her to complete.

[Bailey] I got a psychology degree,

and I started working with kids
at this homeless shelter.

And that was super heavy for me.

I just felt overwhelmed,
and I wasn't doing a good job.

And then I got fired.

That was a shock to the system.

That's when it set in that I needed
to figure out what I wanted to do.

When I got fired from my job,
I was just sort of on autopilot.

Around that time, one of my best friends
was going to culinary school.

And I always had this fondness with food,

but I thought, "I don't have money
to go to culinary school.

I'm just starting to pay off
my student loans."

He was like, "You don't need money.
You can go to work-study."

And I thought,
"A-ha! Maybe I'll try cooking."

There was this externship
and I signed up for it.

Lo and behold, I'm on a plane to France.

I went to work at a château
with Anne Willan.

It was this beautiful castle
on top of a hillside.

We had herb gardens and vegetable gardens,

and we went down to the market
twice a week,

and it was all this color.

And I thought this was heaven.

Living in this environment,

where you're completely connected
to the ingredients,

and slow, all-day cooking.

I just soaked it up.

When I went back to New York City,
I landed a job as a personal chef.

But when I told my parents, it immediately
brought them back to the '50s.

[Dave] She had gotten a job

with this white family
out in the Hamptons,

which is a really ritzier New York
on Long Island.

[Catherine] And we didn't like the image.

-I didn't like the image at all.
-No, not at all.

[Catherine] She was
more like a live-in maid.

-[Dave] Like the help.
-[Catherine] Yeah, the help.

It didn't look like progress to me.
It was more like... a setback.

[Bailey] They just didn't understand.

They just saw a black woman
working in a house for white folks.

That's not the chef that I wanted to be.

I didn't want to be the maid.

I wanted to be something
more elevated than that.

Oh, my God, that looks amazing.

So, tonight, we're doing crudo.
We're not doing fish toast.

And then tomorrow, we're gonna have
an extra prep person

to help with the new dishes.

So, then we'll just focus
on plating the dishes.

-Does that make sense?
-[man] That makes sense.

Okay. All right, thank you, everyone.

[Bailey] I wanted to take 
my cooking seriously,

and I knew that in order for me
to do that,

I had to go into fine dining.

Growing up, I wasn't exposed
to a fine dining environment.

We never went to restaurants.
My parents just couldn't afford it.

I was going into a whole different world.

I immediately started at the bottom.

I worked all the stations,
I took from each station I worked,

and once I could take the heat,
then I wanted to learn from a chef.

I had heard about Prune
throughout my entire career.


[Elie] Prune, it was one of the places
you were supposed to go.

Everybody was talking about it.

Lot of what Gabrielle Hamilton
did at Prune

was take, sort of lowly ingredients,
like saltine crackers,

and do things with them
that were magical...

in ways that most chefs
might not have thought to do.

[Bailey] The type of food that Gabrielle
was cooking was so simple,

taking a few ingredients
and having them really sing.

And I really thought
that's what food is all about.

I was at Prune for about three years
and I was happy.

I was growing.

I'd finally found an environment
that I felt at home in.

[Johno Morisano]
So, what's the next big switch?

[Bailey] So, I wanna do a rabbit-sorghum
mustard glaze with, like, cayenne.

[Morisano] I think
it's gonna be really good.

The Dijon is so traditionally French,

but then you throw cayenne
and sorghum into it, and it's like...

Yeah, it turns into something else.

It turns into something Southern, I think.

-[Bailey] Yeah, I think so.

[Morisano] When I was trying to find
my business partner for The Grey,

I called Gabrielle Hamilton,
and Gabrielle said, "Talk to Mashama."

-And so, I met Mashama.

We had an hour in the schedule,
and I'm a very regimented guy.

If I have an hour, it's an hour.

And four hours later, we were still
together in a bar, having drinks,

and all we did was talk about food.

It was almost
like being with an old friend.

[both laughing]

If you bring that ugali in,
then the bridges--

-Would you like me to make you some ugali?
-I would like it.

[Morisano] I knew right there I wanted her
to be my partner in The Grey.

I love the fact that we have things
so under control here

that we can just sit and eat
a bowl of pasta and have a glass of wine.

[Bailey] From your mouth to God's ears.

When I met Johno,

I found out that the restaurant
was going to be located in Savannah,

and I was immediately intrigued.

So I'd come down to view the space.

We get out of the car and I look up,

and I can see that we're on
Martin Luther King Boulevard,

across the street
from where my parents got married,

in a city that I lived in
for my childhood.

We walked inside,

and it was this old Greyhound bus station
that was initially segregated.

And I walked through the seating area
where the ticket counter was,

and in the back,
there's the Colored waiting room.

And I thought, "How unfair."

My ancestors were here,

and so many struggles
have happened in this building.

I felt a connection.

I just let that take me with it.

I knew that I was on the right path.

Um, we're gonna do this tomorrow,

and we need to figure out
what we're gonna do with quail,

'cause that whole thing has to change.

-Should we just fry it?

-Fried quail?
-Fried quail with molasses,

-blackstrap molasses.
-Sauce would be nice with cucumber.

We have all those peppers up there.

We have so many peppers,
and I know peppers are in the meatballs,

-but we can do like a...
-Pepper relish or--

Yeah, we could do pickled peppers
or something, you know?

When I initially came down
to think about this restaurant,

I had a few months to figure out
what was gonna be our breakout menu.

Then if we need a little acid...

[Bailey] Up until that point,
I worked as a sous chef,

emulating the wants and desires
of this creative genius.

And then all of a sudden,

I have an opportunity
to really express myself.

I started thinking about,
what kind of chef was I?

Was I the chef that just kinda
looked at an ingredient,

and all of a sudden,
I made this crazy dish out of it?

Or was I a kind of chef
that took older recipes

and reinterpret them?
What kind of chef am I?

[Morisano] When Mashama started to develop
her first menu,

she read book after book
and sought inspiration.

Any moment she could get
to travel somewhere, she would go.

Mashama would come to me with a dish
and she would say, "Taste this."

And I would taste it.

And she'd go, "What do you think?"
And I would tell her.

And she would go back into the kitchen.

It was really important to her
to do it right and do it well.

[Bailey] After I wrote the menu,
I was very nervous,

but I sent a copy of the first menu
to Gabrielle.

She looked at it and she was like,
"This food is all over the place.

I don't know what this menu is telling me.

It's not really telling me a story."

It really hit Mashama hard
how difficult the undertaking was.

Something was missing
and I wasn't sure what it was.

I felt that I need to learn
about who I am and what I had to say.

[indistinct chatter and laughter]

[Bailey] When I returned to Savannah,
I was super nostalgic.

I thought I could almost pick up
where I left off,

but I did not know this city at all
through adult eyes.

I was on my own. I had no friends here.

I realized very quickly
that I was an outsider.

-Here you go, ma'am.
-Thank you.

One day, I went to this place
called the Mayflower.

And I order deviled crabs,
and every meal comes with a dressing.

I take one taste of it...

and I'm back in my grandmother's kitchen.

And I have this a-ha moment that 
I've been eating this way all my life...

and that I wasn't aware

that there was actually restaurants
built around the food that I grew up on.

I think that there's something
that I buried with that little girl

that moved to New York City
when she was 11.

I wanted to reacquaint myself
with the South.

I started reading old cookbooks

to learn about the first
African-American chefs in this country.

Who was cooking before me
in this environment,

and what can I learn from them?

[indistinct chatter]

Thank you, Mr. Hayes.

I started introducing myself to people
and learning about the food culture here.

-How do you know a watermelon is ready?
-[woman] I slap mine.

-And what you looking for?
-I'm listening for the sound.

[Bailey] I really wanted to educate myself

on different climates, different terroir,
different Southern ingredients.


Yeah, so you just...

Hey, look at you.

-[Bailey laughing] Yeah.
-[farmer] I don't believe you.

[farmer] Now, you know what I think
is amazing about this whole thing is?

Like, we're walking back into time

-and this is what we did. Okra.

-[farmer] It's West African.

[chuckles] You'll be here.
Where you going? Orlando?

-That's gonna be really nice.
-[both laughing]

[farmer] Thank you, lady. You are tough.

[Bailey] Having this open dialogue
with these farmers

gave me a true sense of where I was.

-How do you like to cook them?
-[farmer] Succotash.

[Bailey] Yeah, that's my favorite,

-[farmer] Succotash! Oh, yes.
-[Bailey laughing]

-That's my favorite.
-[farmer] You can smell it.

You can smell it a mile down the road.

[indistinct speech]

-[insects chirping]
-[water sloshing]

I got some work to do, huh?

-[fisherman 1] Mmm-hmm.
-[Bailey] Mmm-hmm.

-[fisherman 2] You know, some of those--
-[Bailey] These are pretty!

[fisherman 2] Yeah.

[Bailey] These are pretty.
These are awesome.

-[fisherman 2] Those are the best.
-Yeah, these are good.

[Bailey] As I've started to learn 
about Georgia,

I realized that the tradition here
is so rich.

[fisherman 2] Should be close.

[Bailey] I wasn't even aware of it.

Oh, it's right there.

These border islands along the coast,

this was an area
that no one wanted to live.

It's humid and buggy and hot.

Right after slavery,

a lot of African Americans
lived on these islands.

And they learned
how to cultivate the land.

Look at that sucker.

They were fishing and crabbing
and oyster farming.


Four more months, they'll be ready.

[Bailey] I didn't know
black people ate oysters,

and not only do they eat oysters,
they made a living off of oysters.

Years and years later,
throughout all these hardships,

the people who have been
working the waters for generations

are keeping these traditions alive.

You can't help to be humbled
by that kind of history.

[Endolyn] So much of Southern food
has been forged

from people who came from Africa
and their descendants.

People were brought here in chains,

ripped apart from their loved ones,
their language, their lives,

and made to forge a country
without any say in the matter.

Because of those atrocities,

so many people moved away
to forge something better.

After so much time away,

Mashama had this openness
to being back in the South

and learning more
about the story of Southern food.

[Bailey] I was soaking in
all that heritage

and all that knowledge,

and there's a sadness
that comes with that.

[fireworks bursting]

[Bailey] But it's also
this great sense of pride...

because you look
at the beauty of survival...

the fruitfulness of hope.

[children cheering]

[Bailey] You realize
how resilient your culture is.

Learning about history in this area
was so empowering.

I started to see where I wanted to go
with the food.

That confidence started to reawaken.

I became this chef

that was looking backwards
in order to look forward.

New ticket. Order fire.
Meatball, clam and a fish toast.

[Morisano] One day, Mashama decided
we are changing this menu.

What we're gonna do
from this point forward

is reclaim African-American history,

and we're going to advance Southern food.

In that moment, all those experiences,
her heritage,

her readings, her memories,
her life in New York City,

it all came together for her.

She would come to me with a dish,
and she would say, "Taste this,"

and she would walk away.
There was no doubt anymore.

[Bailey] I was ready to portray
my Southern heritage.

I started focusing on rice,
fresh Southern vegetables,

crab, shrimp and oysters.

And then I wanted to focus
on young Mashama.

So, after the guests have dinner,
we clear their plates,

and we give them a thrill.

Locals would come in and be like,

"What? You know what a thrill is? What?"

That made me feel good

because they understand
that I have roots here.

It's a little part of my history
on the plate.

Just in case you were wondering
why Savannah's such a special place.

-Full of the sunshine. Full of sunshine.
-[Bailey] And they're so warm.

Yeah. See, you put it in my hands.

-I'm gonna eat it.
-[Bailey laughing] Good, eat it.

[deli worker] You live in the city?

I used to. Now, I live in Georgia.

-Definitely a slower pace than New York.
-[Bailey laughs]

He's like, "We were cracking pepper
at the table." I'm like, "Really?"

-Salty fresh. [laughs]
-[fisherman 1] Salty fresh.

Yeah. [laughs]

[farmer] Here's this. I'll trade you.
Be careful with it.

[indistinct chatter and laughter]

[Catherine] I remember when Mashama jumped
in the front seat of the Galaxie 500.

[Dave] I was thinking about that.

[Catherine] Your legs
weren't even long enough

to touch the pedals.

I had got my back turned,

-and the car is rolling down the street.
-[all laughing]

Mashama was determined
to do things her way.

Mmm-hmm. Yeah.

She had a strong personality

-even as a baby.

I remember the park was there,
and that's where...

Our daughter is head chef

in a Jim Crow-era building.

She opened our eyes to a whole new way
of how we were gonna make it.

This is my daughter
that is blazing new trails.

-If your grandparents were here...
-[Dave] Yeah.

-Your grandmothers would be equally proud.
-[Dave] Oh, man.

They would just be amazed.

Your ma-ma,
she would have talked you to death.

-She'd be giggling...
-[Catherine] Yeah.

She would have been so happy.
She'd be slapping you on the knee, boy.


[Endolyn] It is really exciting
to see Mashama be celebrated.

She opened up an idea for Savannah
of what was possible here,

and she's sharing that light

with many men and women
who came before her,

who just didn't have the chance.

[Bailey] When I'm in this building,

I can't help but understand
the historical impact that it holds.

My family members would not have been
able to walk freely in this space,

and now to be the executive chef here,
to be a partner in this restaurant,

you understand
that change is willing to happen

in a place like Savannah.

And at the same time,
there's so much to do.

I'm just getting warmed up.

[upbeat music playing]