Every restaurant needs both head (investors) and heart (the chef and creative team). Often, the relationship between the two is merely perfunctory. But James Beard Award–winning chef Mashama Bailey and entrepreneur John O. Morisano transcend that stereotype. Not only do they have three restaurants together—the latest two are Diner Bar and the Grey Market at the Thompson Austin hotel—they’re also good friends. They laid bare that friendship in a book they coauthored in 2021, Black, White, and the Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant, about the founding of their first restaurant, the Grey, in Savannah, Georgia. In this interview, their chemistry is obvious—even though they occasionally find themselves in tiffs over who’s the boss or which wine to pair with collard greens.
Texas Monthly: Today, some of the best restaurants are in hotels. Are you thinking about your new restaurants in the Thompson Austin as destinations?
John O. Morisano: We wanted them to be local restaurants, not hotel restaurants. We wanted to first be a place where Austinites will eat. Then travelers will eat there because Austinites like it.
Mashama Bailey: The biggest question for us before moving to Austin was, is there a place for us here? And now that we’re up and running, it seems like there is. The cooks who apply to work for us say that this is the kind of place they’ve been waiting for. We’re bringing port city, Southern-style food to a city that already has its own food identity. We’re coming in as ourselves. It’s nice that we’re a little bit different.
TM: What kinds of opportunities do you see in and around Austin, in terms of sourcing local ingredients?
MB: Texas wine, Texas olive oil, seafood that’s coming out of the Gulf. I drove here from Savannah in January and within a twenty-mile radius of [Austin], there are real farms. Real farms!
JM: In Savannah, we organically grew our knowledge base, as far as what was available to us. It took time. It will take time here too. This project has been hard because there were lots of delays around the opening of the hotel. It was a hurry-up-and-wait game. Then suddenly we were told we were opening the next week and we thought, OK, let’s open doing the things we know we can do well and then expand the repertoire. That’s the mode we’re in right now.
TM: Do you have favorite alcohol pairings with any dishes on the menu?
JM: We have an oyster and caviar station at Diner Bar and we’re doing vodka pairings. Oysters can share qualities you’ll find in vodka: sweet and unctuous or citrusy and briny.
MB: Bourbon. I’d do bourbon with our ugali [at Diner Bar]. It’s locally sourced corn flour cooked like a polenta or porridge, breaded and fried, with salsa macha. It’s a funky little fried bite. The nuts in the salsa macha and the smokiness of the peppers go really well with a bourbon cocktail. And with my collard greens, I’d do a glass of Sancerre.
JM: With your collard greens, I think you go Chinon, a cab Franc—funky, smoky, vegetal.
MB: I like whites and acid.
JM: So there you go: Sancerre or Chinon, both from Loire Valley, only separated by a couple of kilometers.
TM: Mashama, you say in your Masterclass on U.S. Southern cooking that your mom cooked amazing collard greens and your grandmother cooked even better collard greens. What do you think about how food traditions get diluted or improved through the generations? Do you consider yourself a purist or do you prefer to improve upon old recipes?
MB: I do consider myself a purist. I take very seriously holding up the integrity of the dish. One thing I learned from my mentor, Gabrielle [Hamilton, of the shuttered New York City restaurant Prune], was: don’t make it up. There’s no need to make food up. Gabrielle is very much a purist. Her food is recognizable. It’s coming from somewhere. I like that you can trace back dishes, instead of creating dishes that stop and start with you. I try to improve upon the food instead of turning it into something different.
My grandmother used pork products in her collard greens, my mother used turkey products in her collard greens, and mine are vegan—just onion, olive oil, and smoke. There are certain things meat brought to the dish that I try to find alternatives for. My mother used smoked turkey and my grandmother used smoked pork, so adding smoke to the dish invokes the memory. The smoky part and the fatty part and the temperature—those three things are what you’re searching for, and then you can play around with the flavors.
TM: Do you have advice for home cooks who are interested in passing recipes down to younger generations in their families, or re-creating recipes they remember that weren’t written down?
MB: Recreating recipes that weren’t written down is a group activity. You’re going to need people to help you test the recipe and validate the flavor you’re chasing. My mom wanted to re-create my grandmother’s dressing, and it took three of her siblings to help her figure out how to get it tasting the way she remembers it.
For a recipe you want to pass down, the important thing is to write as much as you can about the nuances—how the onions should smell before you add an ingredient, the time of year when you make the recipe. You don’t use sage in the summertime, for example.
TM: As friends and business partners, do you both see the kitchen as a venue for bonding?
MB: I grew up cooking with people. I think it’s really fun because you learn a lot. You don’t just learn what the other person likes; you learn about their temperament under pressure.
JM: When my grandmother was alive, until I was fourteen, I would hang around the kitchen to learn, as part of the Saturday and Sunday routine. I didn’t even realize I was learning. She was Italian—making pasta, cooking gravy, frying up potatoes and eggs for breakfast while we watched cartoons.
Once Mashama came down to Savannah, I probably cooked with her more than anyone in my life. We’ve done holidays with our families. We’ll cook Christmas Eve dinner together. It’s pretty relaxed, but when I’m working with Mashama out on the road, it’s a different story.
MB: (laughing) We went to Hawaii together and I had to let him know I was the boss.
JM: If I was an employee, I would have had my feelings hurt!
MB: It was a dinner for a hundred and fifty people on the beach. It was chaotic. We were really slow. Johno was a little frantic and I was trying to figure out a way to make it faster, and I told him, “Just do this! Do it because I told you to do it!” I think he was in shock.
JM: I went to Mashama afterward and I was like, “Hey, you were right. You’re the chef and I should just shut up.”