This Chef Almost Quit Before She Found Success
How Mashama Bailey finally found her purposeRachel Tepper Paley
March 05, 2020
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners and Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) Program alumni. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Rachel Tepper-Paley catches up with James Beard Award winner Mashama Bailey as she recalls how female mentorship helped guide her (and keep her) in the restaurant industry.
In the late aughts, Mashama Bailey found herself wading through a sea of cookbooks squirreled away in a chateau deep in the heart of Burgundy. The Bronx-born chef would later earn a James Beard Award for her vibrant interpretations of Southern cuisine, but in that moment, Bailey wasn’t sure she wanted to cook professionally at all. After a winding few years that saw her transformation from social worker to chef, Bailey had labored through a handful of high-pressure New York City kitchens and personal chef gigs. Through the highs and lows, she felt something missing, and debated leaving the kitchen to become a food writer.
That’s why she was in Burgundy, for a change of pace. She’d been accepted to La Varenne, a now-defunct cooking school run out of the historic Château du Feÿ by British–American food writer and teacher Anne Willan. Over the course of the three-month program, Bailey would make a deep impression on Willan.
“She was like, ‘You should cook, because you're really good at it. And not everyone is good at it,’” Bailey recalled Willan telling her. Bailey was unconvinced. Still, she agreed to stay on for an additional two months—Willan had made the difficult decision to shut the school down after her husband’s stroke and needed help packing up the chateau. That’s how Bailey found herself lost one day in Willan’s cookbook collection.
“She had The French Laundry Cookbook, and Thomas Keller had inscribed to her, 'Thank you, Anne, for all your advice. I wouldn't have made some of the decisions I made in my life if it wasn't for you,’” Bailey recalled. “That was the final nail in the coffin. If Thomas Keller was giving her credit, I might as well give it a try.”
Upon her return to New York City, Bailey resolved to get into “the meanest, dirtiest, white-boys’ club kitchens” and climb the ladder. She learned “how to work clean and quiet, and work in a small space,” Bailey said. She also picked up some bad habits “as far as attitude and trust and competitiveness” were concerned. Plus, she was approaching 30—generally older than most of the green, male cooks around her—and was sick of all the “dick talk.” It was time for a more grown-up kitchen experience.
The opportunity appeared in a sous chef position under James Beard Award winner Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef and owner of modern American mainstay Prune. Hamilton had a gentler touch than the male chefs in her Bailey’s orbit and encouraged Bailey not only to find her own voice, but to trust it.
In other kitchens, Bailey felt a need to impress her coworkers—to go out for endless rounds of drinks after work, to prove that she’s one of the guys. “I don't know if it was because I was a woman. I don't know if it was that I was Black. I don't know if it's because I was older than everyone else,” she reflected. At Prune, though, she didn’t have to play any games.
“For women, sometimes we feel like we have to prove ourselves,” Bailey said. “That was something that I had to get over. I am going to cook as best I can and not really compare myself to anyone.”
During her time with Hamilton, Bailey was able to more fully define desires that had been percolating since her stint at La Varenne. She knew she wanted to cook her own version of Southern food—dishes not only inspired by her family’s history in Georgia, but her time in New York City and France. And she wanted to do it in Savannah, the moss-covered city where she had spent a chunk of her childhood. Hamilton stepped in to help, connecting Bailey with future business partner John Morisano.
In late 2014 they opened The Grey, an upscale eatery ensconced in a restored 1938 art deco Greyhound Bus Terminal. The menu is packed with fare like “Chicken Country Captain,” a curry powder–infused dish whose global ingredients hint at Savannah’s port city heritage.
“You think of the Lowcountry, you think of black people…slaves and the cultivation of rice. And then you think of curry, you think of the spice trade that came through here.”
Bailey wonders how her career might have looked had she not crossed paths with Willan and Hamilton. Although it was the Southern women in her family who first planted the seeds of her culinary identity, it was Willan and Hamilton who helped them take root, ultimately leading to her 2019 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. She describes both as straight shooters, but compassionate.
Today, Bailey tries to channel her mentors in her own kitchen. “I’m just trying to lead by example, with compassion,” Bailey said. “I think ‘compassion’ is my buzzword for 2020,” she continued. “We work so hard, and I just don't think we treat each other with enough of it.”
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.
The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi, with visionary support from GrubHub and Edens and sustaining support from Enroot.