“WE NUH EAT raw fish,” the woman at my table says aloud to anyone who will listen as Chef Mashama Bailey introduces the first course of her dinner at Skylark Negril Beach Resort in Jamaica. On this evening, she's headlining a benefit for the Rockhouse Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Rockhouse Hotel and Skylark — two hotels in Jamaica’s Westmoreland Parish — and Skylark’s restaurant, Miss Lily’s. The plates just placed in front of us hold translucent slices of freshly caught kingfish, a relative of the mackerel, served with local baby arugula and diced papaya so fragrant and ripe it seems as though the soft orange cubes are glowing. The fish is, as the woman said, raw; a crudo highlighting some of the best catch and produce on the island. But not entirely, since it had been cured with a bit of salt and fish sauce earlier.
Bailey, who is executive chef and partner of The Grey in Savannah, Georgia, is serving a three-course dinner to a hundred or so guests tonight. She’s combining some of her restaurant’s greatest hits with regional Jamaican ingredients she’s encountered during her time on the island. The dinner was supposed to be on the beach, under the stars, but rainstorms moved the festivities inside.
A day prior, in the kitchen behind Miss Lily’s, the first Jamaican outpost of the New York–born restaurant, Bailey faced a similar refrain as she broke down two whole kingfish, an endeavor requiring the help of several kitchen staff. With her business partner John O. Morisano, she tasted a bit of a filet and offered raw pieces of its flesh to the local cooks around her. They sheepishly declined.
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As she recalled her time cooking with the Miss Lily’s team in the open-air dining room for over a hundred guests, she spoke about the many similarities and differences she found between Georgia and Negril. On the surface, this beachside dining room feels as far removed as possible from the light, airy Savannah kitchen she usually cooks in, but it may be the best way to see and understand her culinary style. Negril has an omnipresent and consuming headiness, felt in the pulsing nightclub lights and wisps of smoke from drums filled with smoldering pimento wood. This creates a sense of immediacy and background, like the history of Bailey’s restaurant, The Grey, which is housed in a formerly segregated Greyhound bus station.
Much has been made of Bailey’s path from New York City to Georgia, back to New York City, and eventually back to Georgia again to work as the executive chef of The Grey. Born in the Bronx but mostly raised in Queens, Bailey originally wanted to be a social worker but found that (good) cooking was a way to receive praise from those she loved. She followed that love to cooking school in Manhattan, to stints at restaurants in Burgundy, France, and then to Prune, Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s bistro-like restaurant revered for its simple, seasonal dishes.
While at Prune, Hamilton introduced Bailey to Morisano, a serial entrepreneur who had just purchased an abandoned bus station in Savannah and was looking for a chef to work with. Bailey and Morisano opened The Grey in 2014 to mixed reviews, but really hit their stride in 2017 when they were met with glowing profiles and praise from national food critics, dripping with honeyed sweetness. Writers were in love with not only Bailey’s take on Southern cuisine but also with the story behind the building: “We all look for inspiration in our lives; few of us channel it as effectively as Bailey has,” wrote Eater’s former national food critic Bill Addison in his 2017 review. “This is reclamation cuisine. Bailey has found her home, and The Grey’s enthralling story has actualized into a triumphant reality.”
She’s creating her own version of Southern food and doing what many Black chefs around the world have done for centuries: coaxing deliciousness out of what’s around them.
In 2018, Time magazine named The Grey one of the “World’s 100 Greatest Places.” A year later, Bailey won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast and was featured in her own episode of “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. In 2021, she and Morisano released “Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant,” a book about how Bailey and Morisano work together in a “biracial business partnership,” as she calls it. This year, the James Beard Foundation awarded her Outstanding Chef.
In each story, video, and review of The Grey, historical and societal themes of discrimination against Black people in America swirl around the discussions of her cooking — and meaning encapsulates her dishes like a glass cloche, adding an additional layer of context. It feels like a somewhat inescapable aspect of being a Black, Southern chef in America.
But how does that feel to the woman at the center of those stories? “There’s an image that has defined us and a narrative around the space that we have to carry,” she recalls to me over the phone from her home in Savannah after the dinner. She’s alone, eating Triscuits and hanging out with her dog. “I try to lighten it up because it can be heavy; it’s important, but it also comes with expectations.”
In Negril, with that pressure removed and some Caribbean inflections added, Bailey’s signature dishes take on a new tone of singularity. The main course, a variation of the Chicken Country Captain she serves at The Grey, looks similar to the traditional Southern version of stewed chicken with curry sauce but has a sharp bite of smoke thanks to being finished over pimento wood in a jerk drum. “It’s a bastardized kind of curry, a dish that has 200 years of history in the South but with some subtle changes,” she says. On the side, a dish of greens stewed in coconut milk looks exactly like Southern-stewed collard greens, slick with oil, the leaves a deep earthy green. “I wanted to use a local green, so it was callaloo greens instead of collards, but still speak to that dish,” she says. “I wanted to evoke those same feelings with those dishes and ingredients that we’ve been eating for generations.”
There’s a clear shared history between Bailey’s approach and the Jamaican cooking that can be seen in these dishes. But ultimately, she’s creating her own version of Southern food and doing what many Black chefs around the world, known and unknown, have done for centuries: adapting to location and space, applying techniques to familiar and unfamiliar ingredients, coaxing deliciousness out of what’s around them.
But there’s also a sense of yearning for home that can be tasted in many of her dishes. The dessert of cornbread soaked in coconut milk until it resembles a more textured tres leches cake would feel immediately familiar to Southerners, but different in texture and context. In this way, Bailey’s recipes also speak to what cooks from all over the world do when they’re transported somewhere else. They try to recreate the tastes of a home, even if that home is far away. The shared history between the Caribbean and the American South could be felt by the cooks as well. Two days prior, Bailey and Chef Andre Fowles, a native Jamaican and the culinary director of Miss Lily’s, made rice for one of the evening’s hors d'oeuvres: fried Savannah red rice balls with green goddess dressing. “When we were making it together, she sauteed garlic and spices, and it smelled exactly like our seasoned rice,” he says. Seasoned rice — rice cooked with spices, tomatoes, and garlic — is a touchpoint across the Caribbean. “There’s similarity there.”
Dinner also spoke to the differences in cuisine between the American South and Jamaica. In the kitchen, they told Bailey that callaloo is not usually cooked in fresh coconut milk, but she did it anyway. A cook also seared the kingfish crudo and told her, “This is how we eat it in Jamaica.” She took it in stride. “We’re so similar but we eat completely different,” she says. The broad strokes used to discuss food from the African diaspora rarely speak to those differences. But being in Jamaica, in another context, made the differences and similarities crystal clear.
Now, being back in Savannah, Bailey says she’s thinking about what she saw, those differences, and what they mean to her. What it means to make food rooted in history that speaks to the essence but not always the same setup or ingredients. Taking liberties but not losing the elements of what makes that dish special. “This environment,” she says, “makes us look into our Blackness and see the nuance.”
Header image: Photography by Matt Conan
Korsha Wilson Writer
Korsha Wilson is a New Jersey–based food writer and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She is the host of A Hungry Society, a podcast that takes a more inclusive look at the food world. Her current obsessions include travel, Negronis, and authentic Maryland crab cakes.
Oriana Fenwick Illustrator
Oriana Fenwick is an illustrator from Zimbabwe currently based in Frankfurt, Germany. Her pencil illustrations marry classic analog drawing techniques with her interest in establishing surprising relationships between compelling objects and fascinating subjects. Her diverse body of work includes editorials, book illustrations, product packaging, and film posters.