With a historic backdrop, a rookie restaurateur, and a chef stepping into the spotlight for the first time, Savannah’s hottest new restaurant conquered impossible odds in its first year.
Figuratively speaking, The Grey has set the Savannah restaurant scene on fire. But in its early days, the fire was nearly a literal calamity.
Ask Mashama Bailey, the restaurant’s ebullient, Bronx-born chef about those formative months, and the memory quickly clambers to the surface. “That,” she says, pausing and still managing to laugh a little, “was not a good day. That was not a good day at all.”
About three months after The Grey opened in December 2014, some late-night stock preparation went awry, and the porter arrived the next morning to find “green stuff” coating the kitchen—from the floors, to the walls, to every piece of equipment in the pot’s radius. Bailey and her staff cleaned tirelessly before the fire and health departments finally gave The Grey the OK to reopen for dinner.
When you consider the typical pitfalls of opening and operating a new restaurant, especially during its first year, Chef Bailey admits the story is a reluctant, yet acceptable blip in The Grey’s remarkable run thus far, one that includes a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant and for Best Design/Renovation (76 seats and over). The Grey has already been called one of the Five Best Restaurants in America by Food & Wine magazine, and listed as a Best New Restaurant by Esquire.
If anything, Bailey, who began her career as a social worker at a homeless shelter and is labeled as the lone protégé of James Beard Award–winning chef Gabrielle Hamilton, admits she hasn’t had sufficient time to relax, let alone reflect.
“Definitely, humbling. Exciting, yeah,” Chef Bailey says. “We need to take a little bit more time and enjoy it. I think, however, that when I start to do that, I get nervous. I get anxious, and I’m like, ‘I have to do something.’”
It’s that kind of spirit that has made an unlikely, almost improbable pairing with John O. Morisano, a native New Yorker and newcomer to the restaurant industry, work to near perfection.
Where to Begin
“Yes, I think so,” Chef Bailey responds, thinking about whether or not she’s surprised herself at The Grey. It’s as close to contemplation as she will allow before leaping ahead to the future. Bailey wouldn’t mind discovering a new way to unwind. She’s considering vocal lessons, which could provide a welcomed break from her blurring schedule: six days in the kitchen (on the seventh she does office work) and incalculable hours—truly, just try and ask her. “I don’t think that would be a good idea for me to think about,” Bailey answers, punctuating the point.
She hopes to become more “executive,” understand and trust her instincts, and continue to work out operational kinks, like hiring and training.
But this progressive pace, and the frequent drawing—and redrawing—of plans for 2016, doesn’t cloud the past to the point where she can’t appreciate it from a safe distance. Bailey left the bright lights of New York City and, in a certain, distant way, headed home to the live oaks and wrought iron of Savannah, without any real idea of what to expect.