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.”