Even though the weather this fall has been kind to the Tri-state area, it’s a surprisingly frigid Saturday night in the Bronx. Our photographer Andy and I have been killing time with the doorman at Pio Pio—a chicken-focused Peruvian restaurant—for nearly an hour as we wait for Ghetto Gastro, the four-man Bronx-bred culinary clique, to pull up on their home turf.
The crew, created by Jon Gray, Lester Walker, Malcolm Livingston II back in 2012 (Pierre Serrao joined in later), had just touched down at JFK following a few days in Barbados to work the Food & Wine Festival and get a tour of the island, courtesy of Serrao who lived there for several years. In basic terms, Ghetto Gastro is an ambitious culinary experiment: a sought-after unit of businessmen and highly skilled chefs that put on community events, consult with brands, and remix fine-dining with their Bronx upbringing. It may sound fluid, but people are rolling with it, hitting them up for collaborations and special projects. With everything thrown their way, this was a rare opportunity to have these guys in one place. The game plan was simple: To catch up on their latest exploits over some Peruvian food, and then take our talents to Sin City, a notable strip club, to watch the Miguel Cotto–Canelo Alvarez fight.
Much has changed since I first met them two years ago. I had the pleasure of tagging along with a former co-worker to one of their events. From my recollection, it was in New York’s Lower East Side, and they were serving malt liquor-based cocktails called nutcrackers, a popular concoction found in the Bronx. In true Uptown bodega fashion, they were presented in quarter-water bottles. I had also attended an event they coordinated with Joe and the Juice in Soho, where the menu was inspired by the movie Juice.
This nod to pop-culture is what makes Ghetto Gastro so special: They mix gourmet cuisine with hood delicacies, and take inspiration from their Caribbean upbringing and hip-hop roots. They now travel the world to spread their gospel, which has earned them profiles in national publications like Playboy and Travel & Leisure. Last year, they even ventured to the south of France to cook at a Microsoft event, and they recently traveled to Paris to make Thanksgiving dinner for Rick Owens and his friends.
All these schemes and globe-trotting adventures, however, inevitably tie back to the core mission of repping Bronx culture through food. “The Bronx is one of the largest food distribution centers in the world, but you’ve got the exotic produce going to Michelin restaurants downtown,” says Gray. “But if you go to the corner right here, you can’t get a good shallot, or an apple that’s not coated in petroleum.” He handles business strategy. Malcolm and Lester are the crew’s master chefs, and their pedigrees suggest so. The former is the pastry chef at arguably the most famous restaurant in the world, Noma, in Copenhagen, while the latter is a cook at José Andrés’ Minibar in Washington D.C. Pierre cooks and holds it down when Malcolm and Lester are out of town.
Since Pio Pio’s kitchen closes at 11pm, we decided to do some finessing—order the food to-go and pay the Chinese spot next door $10 to eat at one of their tables. We made a nice little spread, smothered Peruvian green sauce on everything, copped a couple homemade iced teas in takeaway container plastic jars, and talked shop about food, the Bronx, and Ghetto Gastro’s plans for bringing their subversive spin on high cuisine to the rest of the world. According to these guys, the Bronx is going global.
Are there any times where people make assumptions about you guys?
Lester: You mean, like, do they think we rap? Or are ball-players or something?
Jon: Or trappers? Yeah, all the time. Even if they knew we do food, they’d be like, “Oh, what type of soul food do y’all do?” And it’s like, what? Why are you even jumping to that conclusion? And what is soul food? You feel me? Is it food that a black man or woman makes? ‘Cause in that case, yeah, we do soul food. Everybody has their preconceived notions and thoughts.
I see that you guys are working with brands. When you first thought about GG, what was your angle?
Jon: The goal is bringing the world to the Bronx and the Bronx to the world through different types of experiences around food. So when we started, we initially thought: “Oh, we’re gonna create content and do a cool website.” And we took it to a production company that we knew and they didn’t think the name would work. So we told them we’re not changing the name just because y’all are not fucking with it—that’s how I knew this was gonna work. We then started doing events for brands to build up capital, so we could do our own thing.
So what’s the “own thing”?
Jon: At the time, we didn’t know.
Lester: We were just doing dinners and stuff.
Jon: We thought the end goal was to get money to buy equipment so we could shoot our own stuff. But then as we started we were like, this is way deeper than that. It has potential to scale beyond the initial thought, so right now at this particular moment, we’re going to continue to travel and bring the wave. Right now, we’re looking at different brick-and-mortar opportunities, but not in a traditional sense of restaurant. I think we’re still figuring it out amongst ourselves, but something like a flexible lab space. We have an urban gardening component.
I feel like it’s important to connect people with their food again. The Bronx is one of the largest food distribution centers in the world, but you’ve got the exotic produce going to Michelin restaurants downtown. So we’re trying to figure out a distribution model where we can somehow bring food into the hood, but also we want a place where we can work with the youth in the soil. On to of that, we also have an ice cream brand called 36 Brix.
Tell more about 36 Brix. Is the name inspired by Wu-Tang?
Jon: Well, every time we do something that’s frozen, it is an allusion to 36 Brix. I think the Wu-Tang part is probably the entendre, but I discovered what “brix” meant in a conversation with Malcolm and he’s like oh yeah.
Malcolm: Brix is the sugar content in the liquid. It measures between, like, 27 and 36 usually for ice cream.
Jon: There are about 36 ounces in a ki. 36 Chambers equals Wu-Tang and then Raekwon = “Ice Cream.” It all correlates like that. And then Brix abbreviated is BX, so it all comes back to the home front.
What are some of the most ambitious dishes that you guys have made? The one that sticks out for me is the sushi on the Himalayan salt rock from the Joe & the Juice event.
Pierre: I don’t know about them, but there’s this dish that Malcolm did last year at Art Basel—the coconut three-ways. He put it on a mirror.
J: What was the name of that one?
Pierre: He put it on a small mirror plates and it basically looked like a plate of cocaine.
Jon: And it was in Miami, too.
Lester: Had the real fiends lurking.
Pierre: People’s true colors came out when those plates went out. People were in the kitchen, like: “How do I get some? Do I gotta talk you?”
Jon: Malcolm, what are the components to that dessert?
Malcolm: Coconut ice cream, freeze-dried coconut milk powder, a jelly made from the coca leaf. I think that was it. Visually, it looked crazy.
Jon: Imported from Belize. We had to reach out to our old plug to get the coca.
Lester: I like the Swerve and Turf that we did. Beef tenderloin, lobster cooked in saffron butter. Nice trumpets and truffles. For the Microsoft event in France we had dish named Triple C’s for crab, caviar, and cornbread.
Jon: That color, cut, clarity.
Lester: We did some biscuits with a really nice foie gras butter, fried chicken, breaded in Japanese rice crackers, and Lipton-cured crudo as well.
Jon: That dish was inspired by homemade ice tea from the Chinese spots.
Malcolm: We cured the fish with Lipton iced tea and we made a granite, which is like ice, of Lipton, and I think we put candied lemon peels and olive oil caviar. That shit was lit.
Jon: We served it on wonton spoons.
You guys should go on Iron Chef or something.
Lester: I did Chopped in 2011. I won it.
Jon: “Chewing the Caul Fat” is the name of the episode.
Lester: I won all three rounds. You get three secret ingredients. First round it was scallops, beans, and pickling liquid. The second round I made a puree with the beans and pickling liquid, a nice sear on the scallops.
Malcolm: I think that’s the dish that won him Chopped. It was that “quickle.” [Laughs]
Lester: I definitely hit them with that quickle, that lingo from here to Santo Domingo. They were in love with that. Then I hit them with a black sea bass wrapped in caul fat, seared nicely on both sides; then I made a salad with like cabbage, a bunch of greens, Thai basil, dill, cilantro, fish sauce, Thai chiles. For dessert I did a parfait with confetti edible flowers and biscotti.
Malcolm: Ghetto Gastro was just on paper then. Shit was just in the iPhone. [Laughs]
Lester, talk about going from the Bronx to working in some of the world’s top restaurants.
Lester: I’m educated by Johnson and Wales. I went to school, got my degree in Culinary Arts, and worked in hotels in the beginning. Then I got into fine dining with Danny Meyer at Tabla, Eleven Madison Park, Fatty Crab…I like to work with tasty food, man. I’m not really into the pretentious shit. If the food is good, that’s what I’m rocking with. That’s how I like to cook.
What about the rest of you? Malcolm what’s your story?
Malcolm: I started cooking very early. Then, after high school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was kind of between being a dentist or cooking. I ended up going into cooking, which is ironic because now I’m in the field of pastries, ruining people’s teeth.
How’d you end up at Noma in Copenhagen?
Malcolm: So, I was a pastry chef at wd~50 for about five and a half years, and then I received an invitation from Noma. They’re like family too because I knew Rene [Redzepi] and his previous pastry chef, Rosio [Sanchez]. So, we go way back and it’s kinda amazing that they thought of me to come out there.
What about you Jon?
Jon: Nah, I’m not a chef. I do help in the kitchen if need be. I’m the dishwasher, that’s my official title. More so from my previous life. It’s not technical dishwashing skills. Those could definitely be improved upon. But yeah, I’ve always had a love for food. My mother is classically trained in pastry and in savory. Food has always been a big part of our household—just me and her, so we bonded over food. I was working in fashion and just realized that wasn’t my calling. And I thought about what I was passionate about and how I wanted to spend my time, and I really enjoyed food and travel. I figured, let’s reverse engineer a business model from the things we enjoy and here we are, just having fun.
Pierre: I’m the only one on the team not from the Bronx. Well, I’m from the North Bronx. It’s what we call Connecticut. I’m from Connecticut. The North North Bronx.
Jon: Like you know Game of Thrones, where the wall is?
Pierre: I’m like Jon Snow, except I’m not dead yet. My culinary school had a program where they sent the top eight students over to Italy to do a program, and so I lived and worked out there for about a year. At the time, Ristorante Cracco was the top restaurant in Italy, and from there I moved and worked in Barbados for three years. I then came to New York and worked in a couple restaurants out here like Catch and Abe & Arthur’s, and I had a little stint at Rouge Tomate for four months until it closed. So I joined up with GG and just been making history ever since.
Jon: We were neighbors and I heard him talking shit about food and kind of pressed him. I didn’t really like his answer at first. P got an air about it. He didn’t know I was in food and he was lifting weights so I guess all the testosterone got him charged up. [Laughs.] But later, like down the line, it was crazy how it was connected because his girl is connected with Malcolm’s wife through their dance company and they’ve known each other for years.
Have you guys frequented Sin City much?
Jon: I wouldn’t say a bunch of times, but I feel with First We Feast we had to. Publications like Travel & Leisure—they’re not coming to Sin City. We do it for the youth. Gotta show them how we play in these concrete streets.
Plot twist: We never did make it inside Sin City because someone in our party lost her ID. We tried to finesse our way in, but they wanted us to buy a bottle. Fuck that—we’re not into paying $500 for a fifth of Henny. So no strippers to spend rent money on, and no Cotto fight for the gods. Instead, we found ourselves at 67 Orange Bar in Harlem. It’s a cozy, faintly lit little bar with menus in the middle of books. The night didn’t go as planned, but like most of Ghetto Gastro’s dishes, we improvised and played the cards we were dealt.