In the mouth of Jon Gray, Ghetto Gastro’s CEO and founder, ghetto never felt so fabulous. They’re a “Black Power Kitchen”, who’ve masterminded events for everyone from Virgil Abloh to Rick Owens, Tom Sachs to Martha Stewart, Flying Lotus to Vic Mensa, The Serpentine to MoMA. They curate all aspects, from the venue to the DJs to the décor, with themes ranging from the Black Panther future-world of Wakanda to the colonisation and re-appropriation of the yam.
Gray and his tight crew (Lester Walker, Malcolm Livingston II, and Pierre Serrao) are proud members of an influential and high-functioning African diaspora with a global mindset. They take long-haul flights like the rest of us hop on the tube. But they’re New York til they die. “We wanted to distill what it meant to be from The Bronx and apply that to a new discipline,” Gray explains. “The thing about New York is that a millionaire and someone who lives in the Projects will ride the train together. I saw an opportunity to capture the value and aesthetic of the hood and bring it in a different context.”
And so the crew are at once ambassadors and activists for their home town. Each high-end party brings the funds to do good within their community. “The world needs better rich people, so we better become them!” laughs Gray. “I call it a Robin Hood approach.” But the ever-present crew are also showing kids growing up in their neighbourhood just what is possible — “the visibility of us is activism in itself.”
Gray explains that a lot of creatives and innovators have been leaving New York for LA of late. “For me it’s giving me motivation to really double down on New York.” And so we hit him up for a guide to the places that keep his heart and feet firmly in the Big Apple.
“Since I’ve been spending more time in the Bronx I love supporting local businesses run by people of colour,” Gray explains. Like an undocumented and family-owned Oaxacan restaurant called La Morada, with its own poet in residence and lending library; or juice bar, Brother Roy of Green Garden Health Food Store.
Every food professional has their coming-of-age tale. Gray’s came courtesy of regular trips to Lower Spanish Harlem’s Wok 88 aged five with his Mum, and a plate of orange chicken, with a side of broccoli brown rice and a shrimp wonton soup. “Those were my vibes. That’s where my food journey began.”
These days the crew’s further-afield food finds include Wildair – “they have fun with it, but they’re flavour driven. I don’t care about the bells and whistles if the food isn’t delicious.” Attaboy for Korean fine-dining; Uncle Boons and Uncle Boons Sister for Thai with a New York attitude; and Crown Shy in the financial district, where their “homie Jamal” is keeping it boujie. Plus, crew-member Malcolm earned his chops at WD50 before heading to Noma (Wylie Dufresne always let them use his equipment when they were just starting out, so they regularly drop by Du’s Donut’s for his legendary egg sandwich).
Last year Ghetto Gastro finally decided it was time to create a hub where they could “just jam out together every day.” And so Labyrinth 1.1 — a warehouse comprising test kitchen, studio and art gallery – was born. And of course it was in The Bronx. It offered them the opportunity to be positive and conspicuous members of the local community, whilst bringing artful glamour to their ends. “I’m an art collector, so to be able to have a space where people can interact with the art is great,” says Gray.
In the Labyrinth you’ll find a kitchen-cum-modular furniture system that breaks down into stadium seating and stage, designed by Kunlé Adeyemi; Tom Sach’s NASA chair; wooden tables designed by Noe Duchaufour Laurence; and a Deborah Roberts and Larry Mensah collaboration piece.
Gray’s theory is that the internet has created a situation where parties are less about venue and more about “who’s playing and the crowd they bring.” And so he’ll hit up “any party that Venus X is throwing”; The Originals nights with Stretch Armstrong and Clarke Kent; clubs where Kitty Say Word’s on the line-up; The Blue Note residency series; and Aya Brown and Angela Dimayuga’s GUSH parties, where the price on the door is $5 for femmes and $75 for straight men.
Record shopping is a tourist pursuit for Gray – “I like to grab records in most countries that I visit. I got some Thai funk records when I was in Bangkok.” Back home he heads to A-1 Records in the Lower East Side.
The team are also massive ambassadors of local artists, many of whom make an appearance in the Labyrinth space. Gray cites creatives across a range of disciplines, including Lucia Hierro, a Dominican American artist who does “these soft sculptures that imitate plastic supermarket bags and fills them with items that are culturally relevant to being a Dominican in New York – that deeply resonated with us.” There’s also the “really dope painter-sculptor” Kennedy Yanko, a Bushwick local with a go-big-or-go-home approach; Brooklyn’s Hugo McCloud, who works with typically urban materials to create ethereal and beautiful things; Harlem boy Joshua Woods whose giant photograph of a Senegalese wrestler submerged in dusky pink lake water hangs at the heart of the laboratory space; and Brooklyn-based Mexican furniture-designer Fernando Mastrangelo, who teams sand and glass with Italian cashmere for “a very, very cosy situation”.
Ghetto Gastro shop for the makings of their spice mix at a local institution called Kalustyans Spices; their broken rice, palm oil and fufu at a West African supplies shop called Eddie’s Place; and their veg at the Union Square farmer’s market.
Beyond food, Ghetto wellness — meditation, yoga, therapy and massage – is at Brooklyn’s HealHaus. Literary inspiration comes courtesy of a new bar-slash-bookshop in the Bronx called The Lit Bar. It’s been crowd-sourced by Noelle Santos – “a young woman of colour killing shit”.
“I really like to see young people of colour putting things in their own neighbourhood,” explains Gray. “It’s like FUBU — for us, by us. These are the things that keep me inspired and keep me on my toes.”