The tenets of Ghetto Gastro are as follows: Be the catalyst. Empower the community. And “vibes.” For Jon Gray, one-third of the Bronx food collective, it’s simple: “We’re storytellers. We use food and experiences around food history to tell stories about culture and life.”
Along with cofounders Lester Walker and Pierre Serrao, Gray spoke during the opening night of WIRED25 about the importance of food justice, changing value systems around cooking, and the future of the culinary world in underrepresented communities. The WIRED25 honorees—part of a group of change-makers across tech, entertainment, and media—were joined by the restaurateur Gabriela Cámara, of the famed eateries Contramar (Mexico City) and Cala (San Francisco).
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Informally known as the “Black Power kitchen of tomorrow,” Ghetto Gastro is a global enterprise headquartered in the Bronx, home to one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country. It’s that very obstacle that fuels them to end “generational cycles of diseases” and use “food as a weapon.” Although the phrase was originally coined in the 1970s by former secretary of agriculture Earl Butz as a slogan to combat political unrest and the threat of communism, the saying has taken on a stronger relevance today.
Food, Serrao said, was originally “a system that’s been designed for people to be oppressed, for people to not operate at their optimum self, by feeding them foods that are full of sugars and pesticides, processed foods.” Many of the leading causes of death in the United States among communities of color “are all things that we consume and put in our bodies,” he added. “By us talking about how they use food as a weapon to oppress, we use food as a weapon to arm ourselves to be ready for everything that life has to throw at us.” Ultimately, Serrao suggested, we need to be “conscious about the sourcing and what we’re consuming.”
Moderator Sonia Chopra, executive editor of Bon Appétit, steered the conversation to the subject of “cheap eats,” a cheeky and convenient buzzphrase used inside the culinary world that has become a pain point for many like Cámara. It’s often recklessly applied to traditional styles of cooking—Chinese, Indian, even soul food.
According to Cámara, this happens because our systems are rooted in the wrong place and need to shift. “With Mexican food, I can’t go on enough. Especially in the United States it’s been considered a cheap food. And it has to do with the population who consumes it, to begin with. I feel very proud to have insisted always to begin with my restaurants in Mexico, on paying what you need to pay to eat what you’re going to eat. We as a restaurant industry, we are just subsidizing a lifestyle of people who want to get the cheapest version of a sophisticated experience,” she said.
But there’s more to the process. “It takes a lot. It takes so much to make good food—careful, learned farming, handling, maintenance, good serving and good everything. Why is that not valued in food? Why are the only important food people in the food chain consumers?” Cámara wondered. “If we don’t get our act together in food, just in food—we have the whole spectrum. Before, it was challenging, but if after Covid we don’t do it, then there’s no solving this society in any possible way.” When the pandemic hit, Ghetto Gastro got to work. They teamed with nonprofit Rethink Food NYC to distribute food to Black, Asian, and Latinx low-income families in their home borough.
These sorts of considerations aren’t often taken into account when we talk about industrialized food and who is affected by it. Camara urged viewers to rethink their approach to dining and everything that goes into it. “The important issues are the environment, the well-being of everybody, and the health of everybody,” she said. “This is the right environment to be talking about these things.”
Gray was in agreement. “A big reason that people look at food that comes from brown and Black people, that are not Eurocentric, it’s just an extension of white supremacy—how society values people and their creations,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is disrupt that notion and bring some other narratives.”
“It’s now or never,” Gray said.
All of which brings us to the last and most important tenet of Ghetto Gastro: Pay up.
Portraits by Paul Morigi/Getty Images and Alanna Hale/The New York Times/Redux
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