Jon Gray in an black t-shirt and zip-up smock on a white brick background.
Photo: Leilani Foster

Ghetto Gastro Brings Its Food-Centric Message of Inclusion and Unity to Japan

Jon Gray details what the Bronx-based food collective plans to cook at Burnside, a new experimental kitchen in Tokyo.
By Cynthia Rosenfeld
February 27, 2021
3 minute read

Jon Gray, along with chefs Pierre Serrao and Lester Walker, form the Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro, whose work celebrates their native borough while seeking to elevate its stature within global culture through immersive, food-centric experiences. (They got their start back in 2012, cooking for house parties and events; listen to Gray share his journey on Ep. 2 of our Time Sensitive podcast, recorded in early 2019.) Through imaginative storytelling, experiential activations, and product development for clients including Airbnb, Cartier, Marvel Studios, and Tate Modern, the group’s projects spark transformational dialogue around inclusion and economic empowerment.

Ghetto Gastro plans to frequent Burnside as a part of a rotating roster of chefs, once the pandemic recedes. Here, Gray explains how his team envisions using the venue to bring its work to Japan, and what they intend to cook when they get into its kitchen.

“When I flew to Tokyo and met with Masa-san [Nishimoto], I immediately felt a Bronx connection to the future Burnside space. It’s located above a Family Mart, a Japanese convenience store that’s equivalent to a New York bodega.

Enjoying great food should be more democratic. That belief motivates us, whether in Harajuku or at La Morada [the latter a Oaxacan restaurant in the Bronx that offered its kitchen and staff for Ghetto Gastro’s 2020 Covid relief initiative with Rethink Food]. Food for the soul is always the goal. At Burnside, we’re creating a new, shared language through ingredients and flavors. Food is our tool for communion and unity. With it, we’re breaking down walls. Ultimately, we see Burnside as a vehicle to help people imagine possibilities.

Through food, we’re also learning about Japan and the country’s respect for craft. This led to our recent collaboration with Sakai Takayuki, one of the preeminent knife brands in the country, and Yanagi Knife to make Ogûn, a layered steel knife that’s named after Nigeria’s Yoruba deity of metalwork.

We’re going local in Japan, working with organic farmers who grow citrus south of Osaka and experimenting with Japanese spices like togarashi, a mix of chilies, sesame, orange peel, and nori. You’ll be seeing sweet potatoes and glazed yams, plus flavor pairings like yuzu fried chicken and Jamaican patties with Japanese fillings. Definitely expect waffles on the menu, and our cornbread and caviar. Tempura veggies will take guests late into the night without feeling heavy. We’ll have porridge, roti, and jerked meats, as well as sashimi.

But there’s no dogma here. The food programming is loose, and Burnside is a super-collaborative space that builds on its ‘one team, one dream’ concept by finding other talented people, who maybe don’t normally work together, and bringing them into the space. For example, Ghetto Gastro was involved in every aspect of the kitchen design. We even added LED-lit display fridges. Does it get more bodega than that?”