Cooking Up the World They Want

Ghetto Gastro, a culinary collective from the Bronx, makes a memorable visit to Mayflower Hill

Pierre Serrao, right, of Ghetto Gastro, talks with students at Cotter Union during the Bronx-based culinary collective's campus takeover last week. (Photo by Gabe Souza)
By Abigail CurtisPhotography by Gabe Souza and Michael G. Seamans
October 5, 2023

Mayflower Hill was abuzz last week with the flavors, energy, fashion, and wordplay of Ghetto Gastro, a globally recognized culinary collective from the Bronx that came to Maine for an all-day takeover of the College. 

Students sampled recipes inspired by the collective’s Black Power Kitchen cookbook Thursday at campus dining halls, and they had the chance to talk to members Jon Gray, Lester Walker, and Pierre Serrao around campus and in two African American Studies classes. 

That evening, the takeover culminated with a panel discussion at the new Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts and a celebratory battle of the DJs to mark the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. 

Erica Wall, director of the Lunder Institute for American Art, spent the day with a smile on her face. The Lunder Institute was among the many organizations that collaborated to bring Ghetto Gastro to campus, with others including the Colby Arts Office, Colby Dining Services, the Office of Campus Life, the Center for the Arts and Humanities, the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs, the Department of African American Studies, and the Student Government Association. 

Copies of Ghetto Gastro’s cookbooks are lined up for purchase during an event at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts. (Photo by Michael G. Seamans)

“I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am about today, to have these three amazing individuals here with us. It’s a really monumental event,” Wall said while introducing Gray, Walker, and Serrao at the outset of the evening discussion. “Ghetto Gastro’s interdisciplinary approach celebrates the Bronx as a driver of global culture. The crew masterfully blends influences from the African diaspora, Global South ingredients, and the pulse of hip-hop to create offerings that address race, identity, and economic empowerment.” 

The collective launched in 2012, and over the decade it has grown from hosting underground parties to spearheading large-scale brand campaigns and high-profile events with leading fashion designers, artists, and entrepreneurs. They’ve been featured in the New York Times, Vogue, Wired, and other major publications, and Walker, a chef who is a staunch believer in building food security through community farms and gardens, was a winner on the popular Food Network reality show Chopped in 2012.

A first-time college takeover

Their Colby visit marked the first time the collective has spoken to a college or university. Between stops at the Joseph Family Spa in Cotter Union to meet students and give them red velvet cupcakes, and the Colby College Museum of Art, where they enthusiastically took a guided tour of some of the works in the collection, they shared some of their philosophy with the campus community. 

The Colby community attends a panel discussion with members of the culinary collective Ghetto Gastro at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts. (Photo by Michael G. Seamans)

“It’s all about the creative arts for us. Food is a vehicle, it’s just a skill set that we have to kind of open up doors for ourselves and break down barriers, build bridges, and make memorable moments and experiences for people,” Serrao said, encouraging students to find their own path and commit to following it. “Strive, aspire, continue to grind it out. It’s not going to be easy, but you can get there. Nothing good happens overnight. And if it was easy, everybody would do it. So just keep consistent and believe in yourself.” 

From the beginning, the Ghetto Gastro team has strived to keep community building and social change at the heart of their mission. In the spring of 2020, when the Bronx became a center of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ghetto Gastro gave back to the community by helping provide tens of thousands of free meals to the borough’s residents. They also provided meals to those who took to the streets of New York City to protest the May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer. 

“I always imagined that we’d have to design the world that we want to live in. We can’t just expect anybody else to create what we want or need,” Gray said. “At the end of the day, it’s really about integrity and enjoying what you wake up doing on a day-to-day basis because you spend so much of your life working. Let’s make it purposeful. Let’s make it meaningful. Often, people can’t imagine being what they don’t see. So we had to create that.”

Reclaiming power

Along with an emphasis on healthy ingredients, another important focus of the group is finding ways to reclaim power and worth from those who have devalued places like the Bronx and the people who live there. The collective’s name, Ghetto Gastro, honors where they come from. 

“People have their assumptions and their preconceived notions of what a ghetto means,” Gray said. “Usually, the way people think about people from the ghetto is that they undervalue them. They don’t really value their contribution to this society. And often within these neighborhoods, sometimes we don’t value each other or ourselves because of the lies that were told through constant oppression. So I think it’s really just a critique on white supremacy and capitalism.” 

Jon Gray, a founding member of Bronx-based culinary collective Ghetto Gastro, answers questions during a panel discussion. (Photo by Michael Seamans)

For them, it’s been thrilling to see where their journey has taken them, from high-profile events such as the Paris Fashion Week to the shelves of 19,000 Target stores around the country, where some of their signature flavors such as sweet potato pancake and waffle mix, the toaster pastries they playfully call “BOP” tarts, and spicy maple cider syrup became available this past July. 

Creating their own lane

On campus last week, students enjoyed some of those flavors, including fried chicken, jerk chicken, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and much more. Alexis Favela ’27, a biology major, said he was initially confused on Thursday morning when the waffle batter was not golden yellow but a darker hue instead.

“I was surprised. I was pouring it and it came out the wrong color,” he said. “I was like, ‘What’s going on?’” 

But the waffle, made with the collective’s special mix, was delicious. Favela took a photo to show his friends. “I thought it was really good,” he said. 

Colby students enjoy red velvet cupcakes inspired by the Ghetto Gastro culinary collective while meeting chef and collective member Pierre Serrao, at right, in Cotter Union. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

Ghetto Gastro excels at turning the ordinary into something extraordinary. Another is using creativity, innovation, joy, and hard work to claim their own lane, Wall said, which is what makes them so special and why Colby brought them to campus.

One of the Lunder Institute’s goals is to bring people together in conversation to create opportunities for innovation, thought, and practice within the field of American art, she said. 

“And these folks, they model that. Where there was not something, they created it. Where something exists, they create an alternative to it. They are defying the definition. … It’s not this or that. That’s what our students deserve.”