Jon Gray judges Wallpaper* Design Awards 2022
Jon Gray, co-founder of Black culinary collective Ghetto Gastro, talks disruption, inclusion, shaking up Museum Mile, and his pick of the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2022
From its inception in 2012, Ghetto Gastro has made a point about standing out. Co-founded by Jon Gray, Malcolm Livingston II, Pierre Serrao and Lester Walker, the Black culinary collective has been dedicated to bringing the ‘Bronx to the world, and the world to the Bronx’.
They have since served up their culinary flair and distinctive attitude through collaborations with Apple, Cartier, Instagram and Bank of America, creating food-focused experiences that verge on art. Gray serves as the firm’s CEO while veteran chefs Livingston (formerly of Noma and WD-50), Serrao (who was at Cracco in Milan) and Walker (who worked at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market in New York) bring the gastronomical prowess.
John Gray on Ghetto Gastro
Admittedly, food is simply the vehicle to spark a larger cultural conversation. Commentary about race, equity and inclusion is inadvertently woven into Ghetto Gastro’s work – whether it’s disrupting the traditional French brasserie by way of the Bronx with a Cartier pop-up on Paris’ Place Vendôme; taking an unvarnished look at colonialism by casting the lens on the legacy of yams, as part of the Racial Kitchens programme at London’s Serpentine Galleries; or launching a line of sleek kitchen appliances for Crux, including an airfryer, smokeless grill and single-rotating waffle maker.
‘What I love about what we’ve been able to build is the respect and adoration for what we do, which is very Black. [We’ve] been able to put a premium on Blackness, especially in this vernacular that we have that’s really coming from being a product of divested communities,’ says Gray. ‘We take the reference points and collective experiences coming from these underestimated, urban neighbourhoods, like the Bronx, and build a platform [that is] received and respected as a luxury offering. We wanted to make sure we made a space, took a space – in America, especially when you’re Black, nobody’s giving you anything, you gotta take it – [so that we can] break down the current table as it is and rebuild our own, and make it inclusive with a capital I.’
Gray, Livingston, Serrao and Walker are all native to the Bronx. Gray, the only non-professional chef and self-professed dishwasher of the founding group, has a background in fashion (he attended the Fashion Institute of Technology), and ran his own denim label before he came up with the idea for Ghetto Gastro. The collective’s holistic, multidisciplinary approach is fuelled by his wide array of interests, which spans art, design, music, history, fashion and, of course, food.
‘I try to be as pro-Black and disruptive as possible. I want to be the bull in the glass shop, I want to shake some shit up’ – Jon Gray
In addition to driving Ghetto Gastro, Gray’s ability to ride the cultural zeitgeist has been tapped by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (he was named as one of three Civic Partnership Artists in Residence in 2020) and the Cooper Hewitt, where he curated a show informed by explorations and interpretations of the museum’s collection of 215,000 objects for its ‘Selects’ exhibition series.
Gray’s exhibition (until 13 February 2022) transports visitors to the year 2077 in an effort to prompt a rethinking, repositioning and reclaiming of object stories and identities. Always one to collaborate with his network and community, Gray’s concept was supported by a fictional narrative by José Mejia, artwork by Oasa DuVerney and an exhibition display by Snøhetta, who previously teamed up with Ghetto Gastro to create a culinary space in Tokyo.
‘I worked on [the Cooper Hewitt] show in 2019. It felt crazy how things played out because the subject matter was very dystopic and about Afrofuture, and then we had a pandemic and that was the point of view we wanted to take,’ Gray recalls. ‘I try to be as pro-Black and disruptive as possible. I want to be the bull in the glass shop, I want to shake some shit up. That was the goal going into it. And also to critique the institution – museums are very Eurocentric and sometimes can feel oppressive. I grew up in El Barrio, just blocks away from that museum, and I went to elementary school on 103rd Street and Madison, another ten blocks north.
‘With all these things happening on Museum Mile, I never really felt like I was invited to that party. I wanted to have a meaningful dialogue with the institution and show objects that one might be ashamed to show or weren’t safe. I wanted to dust those off and have that conversation.’
Judging the Wallpaper* Design Awards
In his role as a Wallpaper* Design Awards 2022 judge – serving on a panel presiding over our highest honours, the Judges’ Awards – Gray cast his votes with a similar level of discretion, throwing support behind Francis Kéré’s Slak education campus in Kenya and Byredo’s sculpturally packaged, egalitarian make-up line, whose appeal he sums up succinctly as ‘Byredo is bringing a different vibe to make-up’.
Elevating and amplifying these points of difference continues to be the driving force of Gray and his work with Ghetto Gastro. In 2021, he launched Gastronomical, a line of consumer goods and a content platform dedicated to nourishing the world. By engineering what Gray calls ‘gastro-diplomacy’ as a means of impacting culture worldwide, Ghetto Gastro has created visibility at all levels of the spectrum, and truly shows what can be possible.
‘[Rapper] Nipsey Hussle once said, “The highest human act is to inspire” – it unlocks all types of possibilities that I can’t even imagine,’ he says. ‘If the work that we do inspires generations of peers to think about things differently, value their point of view, and deconstruct these patriarchal ideas and the prose of white supremacy, then it gives them the power to think that all this shit is ours. That’s how we change the world.’
With the Bronx currently coping with the aftermath of one of the worst fires in New York City’s history, Ghetto Gastro is campaigning for monetary aid, support and donations for the families and residents of Twin Parks North affected by the destruction. Find out how to contribute at their Instagram post below §