The Gospel According to Ghetto Gastro Cofounder Jon Gray
Over the decades, more of the cultural zeitgeist than you might imagine has originated in the Bronx. Find out how one of the borough’s leading voices today uses food to connect his community to the world.
Curation is second nature to Jon Gray, cofounder of the culinary collective Ghetto Gastro. From his art-world contributions and gracing the TED stage to delighting palates at the official Academy Awards afterparty, the Bronx-born entrepreneur understands taste in every sense of the word. Since 2012, he’s been cooking up creative ideas with his business partners, Pierre Serrao and Lester Walker, using food as a medium to promote cultural exploration, community empowerment, and their borough.
Built on the mission of “Bronx to the world and the world to the Bronx,” the group’s partnerships include working with the nonprofit Rethink Food and Bronx restaurant La Morada to provide meals at the onset of the pandemic to Bronx and Washington Heights residents and funneling resources to the Gambian Youth Alliance to help families that were impacted by the fire that occurred in the Bronx this past winter. “We don’t help the community. We are the community, and we collaborate with each other to provide mutual aid,” Gray explains.
“I’m mad generations deep in the Bronx,” Gray says. “My great-grandfather was a bishop and a community organizer who has a block in the Bronx, Bishop J. Arthur Jones Place, named after him.” It’s a heritage that has everything to do with his values today. He wholeheartedly believes in “having community and a structure of support,” an element of Ghetto Gastro’s activism that’s built into its business model with a percentage of the sale of their pantry products, cookware, and merch going back to organizations that fight food insecurity.
“Community remains an integral piece of the work I do individually, with my partners, and brand collaborators,” says Gray. It’s also more than that. Part of Ghetto Gastro’s mission is to “big-up the Bronx as a driver of global culture” and the Black experience is central to Gray and his life work. “As a Black person in America, enjoying and understanding the richness of our place in [the] zeitgeist of culture, and within our communities, is a beautiful thing,” Gray explains. Ghetto Gastro’s forthcoming cookbook, Black Power Kitchen, celebrates Black culture and serves to “spark conversation about inclusion, race, access, and how food—and knowing how to cook—provide a path to freedom and self-empowerment.”
Beyond projects in the Bronx, partnerships that share his ethos help bring the Bronx energy and dialogue at the nexus of culture and cuisine—core components of Gray’s multidisciplinary approach—to the world. In 2020, Gray was selected as one of three artists in residence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of their Civic Practice Partnerships, a collaborative program for socially minded artists who will implement creative projects in their neighborhoods across New York City. Earlier this year the Cooper Hewitt museum, known for its dedication to all things design, exhibited Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro Selects.
The show tells a character-driven Afrofuturist story, crafted by Gray and his frequent collaborator and fellow Bronx native Jose Mejia, about the rise of the African continent following the collapse of global power structures and natural disaster in the United States. Along with drawings by NYC artist Oasa DuVerney based on the story, the exhibition features objects from the Cooper Hewitt’s collection that Gray imagined the main character amassing as a young explorer.
To stay current and support fellow friends in the art space, Gray takes to places like Jack Shainman Gallery and Nicola Vassell Gallery, which just opened last year in the heart of Chelsea and is among the city’s Black-owned galleries. And naturally, he finds inspiration in his hometown’s incredible restaurant scene. Thai is a favorite cuisine of choice and options are plentiful. To satiate cravings for umami-forward dishes, a regular haunt is Thai Diner in Nolita where he enjoys the Khao soi and memories of traveling in Thailand. A close second is Ugly Baby based in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood and serving dishes like crab meat curry custard wrapped in a grilled banana leaf and fried turmeric sea bream.
How would Jon Gray be different if he didn’t live in NYC? He can’t imagine otherwise. “New York is the best city in the world. It’s robust, it’s exciting, it’s multitudes. For me, it’s home.”