The Grey to open in former Cafe Metropole spot

Savannah Morning News column

Sun., Oct. 26, 2014

Things were finally falling into place for John Morisano, a freewheeling entrepreneurial Italian from New York City who loves good food and good wine. He came to town on a whim and ending up launching a vehicle to merge money and creativity when he fell in love with a derelict building on Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd that used to house the popular Café Metropole. And then because he is a bit of a self-described risk taker, he decided to convert the building on MLK into yet another Morisano venture – a restaurant (“My friends told me I must be the dumbest man in America”).

Plans were drawn, tiles ordered, the last Vitrolite glass manufacturer in America in St. Louis was found. He had a name: The Grey, after the erstwhile Greyhound bus station. The problematic roof was fixed, permits submitted, scaffolding ordered. Morisano and contractor David Bloomquiest had a myriad of grand plans, the least of which included repairing the terrazzo flooring, touching up the Masonite paneling, ordering custom-made lights and furniture and bricking in sections of the large opening to the courtyard. There would be an oyster bar, a private room and wine cellar downstairs, another gathering area upstairs and an eating bar in the middle of the high-ceilinged dining room. Landscape designer John McEllen would work his magic in the outside garden space.

But who would be the chef? Who would command the kitchen? Morisano, who is known as Johno, was growing desperate. He needed to get serious. Then, on one of his frequent 12-hour car trips between Savannah and New York City, rides necessitated by the constant presence of his two beloved Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Otter and Flounder, Johno, who likes good food and listening to books about good food, slipped in a compact disc and started listening to Gabrielle Hamilton’s book, “Blood, Bones & Butter.”  A hundred miles later, Morisano realized he had eaten at her restaurant, Prune.

Hamilton would be the one who could help him. She would find him a chef.

“So I started sort of stalking her,” he said. “I had to meet this woman. I emailed, texted and called. I wrote. Finally she agreed to meet me. When I said I was starting a restaurant in Savannah, she got excited. ‘Oh, I love Savannah,’ she said. But did she know someone who could cook?

“She thought and then she said she might have the perfect person, someone who was working for her but who she was afraid she’d lose one way or another.”

Enter Mashama Bailey.

It was a good fit. They met for three or four hours in Morisano’s office. Then they started going out to restaurants.

“I’d pick a place and then I’d say, ‘OK, you pick a place,’” Johno said.

They talked food.

They had the same sensibility, Italian and Southern. Fresh, simple, local, in season. Right about then, as we were talking, as woman from Kachina Farms in Rincon walked into the restaurant/construction zone and handed Mashama a bag of freshly picked peppers. Mashama was ecstatic.

“I was ready for a move,” Mashama said. “By nature I’m a little bit of a risk taker myself. But I trust myself and move on it. We both agree on one thing. We want food that will stand on its own, arugula that is dressed lightly, meat that isn’t smothered with sauces. Classic Southern but not necessarily fried chicken and biscuits and gravy”

.            Mashama, who worked at Prune when the restaurant won the prestigious James Beard Award for best restaurant, kind of backed into cooking. She was a social worker first in a homeless shelter. Then she started cooking for the population, potluck and dinner on holidays. After that she got serious. She went to cooking school, then got jobs as a personal chef, then in kitchens at the Oak Room, the Plaza Hotel and the Aquagrill, a seafood restaurant.

This whole relationship between Johno and Mashama – “and make no mistake, this is an intimate relationship we’ve created,” Johno said – occurred before the big reveal: Mashama, while born in the Bronx, moved with her parents to Waynesboro, Ga., when she was 2. Her mother, a Waynesboro native, now lives in Denmark, Ga. At five, Mashama and her family moved to Savannah, where she went to Charles Ellis elementary school. At 11 they moved to Queens in New York.

For both, it’s all about the food.

“Let’s just say I came from a tumultuous household,” Johno said. “For me, the Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s was the great equalizer. It quelled everything.”

Target date for The Grey? Two weeks.

“I want to start cooking,” Mashama said. “I’m ready.”

So is everyone else who had anything to do with Café Metropole.

As I left the site, I saw someone standing and staring.

“I spent many hours here,” she said. “It’s where I met my husband.”

Mike O’Neal: A Bahai who likes to fix things

Savannah Morning News column

Oct. 19, 2014

Mike O’Neal: A Bahai who likes to fix things

Life is all one big circle. You think you’re doing one thing, then boom, Hermes or some other capricious mythological god intervenes and it turns out to be something entirely different. Take that day 38 years ago when Mike O’Neal, on track to graduate from Savannah State University, gave a couple of friends a lift to International Paper (“I had a car,” he said. “They didn’t”) to apply for a job.

Those were the days when you could look someone in the eye and sell yourself as something other than a name and a resume on a screen.

Mike, today the face, brains and “50 percent of the staff” behind Parent University and Early Childhood College, had no intention of applying for a job even though for thousands of people International Paper – then Union Camp – was the only game in town. But while he was sitting there he joined in and filled out an application. He got the job, his friends didn’t.

He started off as a general labor person in limekiln. He went on to the shipping department as a clerk. Then he drove a truck. Several months later he moved into the electrical department.

“The woman who gave me the job, Ruth Christian, I’ll never forget her name, she changed my life,” Mike said. “It was a steady job that paid well.”

Just the fact that Mike, a Philadelphia native, was in Savannah at all was a serendipitous occasion. He had been going to the University of Pittsburgh when he traveled to South Carolina to visit his grandmother, who was ill. While there he started talking to his uncle, Ernest Nicholson (Uncle Skeet), who taught math on Savannah State University.

“I was telling him how expensive Pitt was when he convinced me to try Savannah State,” Mike said.

Though he never graduated, his path was clear. He always liked electrical stuff, science and fixing things, which is kind of what led him to Parent University, some 14 years ago.

“I was still in Philadelphia when this lady on our block started a Junior Achievement club,” he started. “I was 15 or 16. We had meetings. We did stuff for people. I took minutes. I was president. I saw myself in a whole different light.”

As soon as he got his footing at International Paper he started a Junior Achievement chapter in Savannah. But something wasn’t going right. The kids would leave on Thursday or Friday all excited but when they came back on Monday their mood had changed. All Mike could get out of them was their parents didn’t get what they were doing. That’s when Mike decided to take back off Junior Achievement for a year and to see if maybe he needed to approach the problem from another angle.

“It was the parents,” he said. “They didn’t feel connected with the process.They wanted to support their kids but they didn’t know how. They felt marginalized by the institutions, the school, and the courts. Parenting is a very private and sometimes insulating thing. You have the institutions with all this power so they think it must be them.”

Last week, Mike, 58, watched 200 parents crowd into Otis Brock elementary school for one of 12 sessions of the early learning college at four different elementary schools. Early learning is designed for parents of children up to three years old. Parent University, for children up to 18, meets three times a year.

“One of our jobs is to love them out of their defensiveness,” said Mike, the father of four and grandfather of nine. “We try to make parents feel more connected. Isolation is the most under-discussed issue of all.”

In the end, it’s all about people.

Which is the driving force behind Mike’s involvement with the Bahai Faith.

“We’re about bringing unity to the community,” he says of the congregation that meets on Waters Avenue. It’s not a religion, Mike says. It’s a community that seeks to unify mankind.

Mike’s involvement with Bahai is another circuitous story.

“I learned about it at Savannah State from a fraternity brother at Kappa Alpha Psi,” which Mike described as a “traditionally African American fraternity.” Except this young man who was pledging the fraternity “was a white guy.”

“Bahai has changed my life,” Mike said, “no less than International Paper or Uncle Skeet. We think we’re in charge but then something like providence steps in and takes over.”

And then the host on the city of Savannah’s TV show on Parent University, the man with the ebullient personality and the big smile stepped out of my car – where we were talking because when you work 50 hours a week, as Mike does, that’s the best he could do – and headed back to the sprawling plant on the west side of town that was such a good fit for the young man from Philadelphia who likes fixing things.