The Gastronomical Guide to Life
Ghetto Gastro co-founder Jon Gray shares his philosophies on business, life, and expanding his empire.
Words by H. Drew Blackburn
Illustrations by Richard A. Chance

When the brothers over at Ghetto Gastro hit the scene in 2012, they were a true aberration to the system. A collective of food, art, music, fashion, and culture-obsessed men, they represented a new flavor of unapologetically Black and unapologetically Bronx.

The founders of the collective—Jon Gray, Pierre Serrao, and Lester Walker—have jet-setted across the globe cooking up meals for high-profile clients like Cartier, Nike, and Marvel. They’ve prepared intimate meals for high-fashion deities Rick Owens and Michèle Lamy, and even designed their own sneaker with Jordan Brand. 

When the pandemic hit, Ghetto Gastro teamed up with nonprofit Rethink Food NYC and engaged in grassroots mutual aid, distributing food to seniors, people of color, low-income families, and formerly incarcerated persons. And when the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police shook the world, Ghetto Gastro dug their heels even further into community work and hooked up with their homies at La Morada to regularly distribute free meals for the people in their borough. In case people got confused with all those bougie clients, Ghetto Gastro was, and is, always for the people.

Next up for Jon Gray is Gastronomical™, a grocery product line that’s looking to invade the homes of anybody with truly discerning taste. Right now, you can buy their pancake and waffle mix online, but Gray has his eye on more products and getting Gastronomical on the shelf of your favorite bodega, grocery store, or big-box retailer. 

“I want to be able to be in people's homes and shape that experience,” he said. [I think about] how we can create scalable change and build resources to be able to affect change in communities that we care about without having to ask for permission.”

H. Drew Blackburn  hopped on Zoom with Gray while he was having lunch in London and asked if he could lend us some free game and knowledge darts. Rest assured—he didn’t disappoint. Keep reading for his thoughts on business relationships, ego, meditation, capitalism, growing Gastronomical™ and more.

“[I think about] how we can create scalable change and build resources to be able to affect change in communities that we care about without having to ask for permission.”
Stay humble

“I started off selling nicks and I worked my way up to selling bricks. I didn't come in the game moving heavy weight. Just understanding that even with GastronomicaI™, I can't lean on the success of Ghetto Gastro and think that, ‘Oh, I don't got to start from square one with this new project.’ It's always square one.”

Assemble your crew

“When you're dealing with humans, there’s always gonna be challenges. Especially with a group like ours: full of alpha males who are unlearning toxic masculinity, erasing generational curses, and poverty. 

[But] honestly, don't do business with folks that you don't want to sit down and have a meal with. You don’t wanna be at the dinner table uncomfortable, your shoulders being tight cause you're not being yourself. You always want to be able to relax and just be you.”

Photo credit: Kumo Shai. Photo provided by Jon Gray
Photo credit: Kumo Shai. Photo provided by Jon Gray
Jon Gray, Co-founder of Ghetto Gastro, and Jeremiah Stone, Founder of Contra. Photo credit: Kumo Shai
Jon Gray, Co-founder of Ghetto Gastro, and Jeremiah Stone, Founder of Contra. Photo credit: Kumo Shai
Stay in your lane

Try to release the ego. Compliment the team where you have deficiencies. For me, I'm not the most left-brained person, I'm more of a right-brained person that also has great business acumen. So I need to get a spreadsheet—someone that's going to cross the t's, dot the i's, and watch every penny. That's the key. Figure that out and don’t have an ego about it. Be honest with yourself about where your genius lies and what you do well because we all can’t do it all. I think that's the key. The most important thing in business is just figuring out your voice, your lane, and just really sticking to it. Persistence really is the key.

Choose your collaborations wisely

“We don't collaborate with brands or corporations. We collaborate with the homies that happen to work at these spots, so it’s all natural. At the end of the day, we work how we work; so it’s important to work with people who are gonna understand what we do.

But it should always be a give-give and not a give-take when you approach collaboration. Think about how all parties can win and everybody can see success, versus just being a selfish collaborator and thinking about how it turns into a win for you.”

Know that all money ain't good money.

“Trust your gut. In my prior profession, the stakes were different.  It wasn't just about making money, or not making money, or losing money. It was losing a life. It was jail. Those were the consequences if shit went wrong. So, I think that kind of instinct is important.”

Meditate and reflect

“Step away from it for a second, give yourself time to think. I think so much of our lives is responding to having to do calls, having to do Zooms. I think carving out space to think is such an important thing.

I've seen a lot. Done a lot. Experienced childhood trauma. The burden of being Black in America  kind of just holds you. As you get older you realize. ‘Oh shit, this really is not normal.’ When you're in it, you're in it and this is what everybody around you is doing. But when you zoom out and see the fact that I've had guns to my face numerous times or I know what it sounds like to hear a bullet whizzing by you—that shit ain’t normal.

Facing that and dealing with that is real shit. I can’t remember who introduced me to the Headspace app but, shout out to whoever did that, cause that was my introduction [to mindfulness]. And then I got into the Deepak Chopra, abundance meditations, and microdosing mushrooms.”

Play the game, but don’t let it play you

“Access to capital is an issue that a lot of Black entrepreneurs and women have. Pretty much, if you're not a white dude you probably run into these issues because we didn't create this game or learn the game because it’s not made for us. I think that’s a big issue: having to scrape and do everything on a budget and figure it out as you go. Like, I didn't come into the game with a mentor. You almost have to reach a certain level of success to then be in the same rooms as someone that could be a potential mentor, at least in my day. Now you might be able to send a DM to somebody and get lucky if they respond. 

I think the biggest thing is understanding that you don't need permission. Make sure your shit is heard.  Not saying that Black capitalism is the answer, because capitalism is an oppressive structure, and it's not an accident. But look, we in this shit. I don't know if it's gonna change in my lifetime, so what I know how to do well now is make those dollas holla. So I’mma do that.”

The Ghetto Gastro founding team. From left: Pierre Serrao, Jon Gray, and Lester Walker. Photo credit: Leilani Foster
How Gray is expanding his empire with Gastronomical™

Jon Gray views his new grocery product line Gastronomical™ as more than just a food company. For him, it’s an opportunity to shape culture and tell ancestral stories through tangible products, content creation, community activations, and more. But it all starts with community.

“When you look at these preexisting health conditions that exist in a place like the Bronx or in low-income communities, it’s no accident who is affected because of a lack of health care,” he says. “We're looking at food sovereignty. We're feeding our communities.”

Gray sees Gastronomical™ as not simply an expansion of his success with Ghetto Gastro, but a continuation of the work of his ancestors. “We’re taking inspiration from the work of ancestors like Fannie Lou Hamer and the Black Panthers with the Free Breakfast Program, and thinking about how we use technology as a tool that exists today to continue that vibe.”

From design to brand ethos, Gray is approaching this second act with deep intention. “The ethos for Gastronomical™ is ‘Nourish Yourself To Nourish The World.’ That's like our ‘Just Do It,’” he explains. “I think communication is so important, [particularly] visual communication. I’m really thinking about Afro-futurist design language. So when you look at the Wavy Waffle, we’re paying homage to Yemọja, which is a Yoruban Orisha of the sea of water.”

From Ghetto Gastro to Gastronomical™, he wants his brands to make an impact and for people to feel proud to have his products on their shelves. But his ultimate idea of success is grander: “Success would be people looking down in the annals of history and Ghetto Gastro going down as a school of thought, as a way of thinking, as a way of approaching not just food, but many different facets of life and culture,” he says.

“I'm trying to reject Eurocentric ideas of excellence but, like, let's go down in the annals of Timbuktu, you know what I’m saying — of the Timbuk new — creating something amazing, that inspires generations to come.”

For more information on Ghetto Gastro and Gastronomical™, shop their website and follow them on Instagram

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