In an industry of cutthroat cooks and high-intensity kitchens, world-renowned chef Mashama Bailey takes the approach of mindfulness.
Though practical, she’s serious about her food. In fact, her forward-minded, gilt-edged southern cuisine has garnered great renown, including a spot on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and a 2018 James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southeast. After leaving the blistering pace of New York City, Mashama moved to Savannah, Georgia and opened her first restaurant, The Grey, in an art deco Greyhound Bus Terminal built in 1938. The change in scenery has allowed her new space to decompress and get in touch with the city’s coastal environment.
We spoke with Mashama about how she’s listening to her body, practicing meditation and yoga on the coast, and how dog walking can be therapeutic (both for her and her dog).
The first thing I do when I wake up is walk my dog. I’m trying to break that habit because she’s getting a little pushy. I haven’t even gone to the bathroom yet, and she’s like “let’s go,” whining. I’m like, “Fuck, I literally just walked you six hours ago, I only slept for six hours and now you want to go again.” I do think that there needs to be some change in habit because I do kind of jump up, brush my teeth, wash my face, then walk her. I wanna pull that back a little bit. I think in that moment is when I can start to practice things like yoga, meditation, things that give me serenity. This morning I got up, I used the bathroom, I drank a glass of water, and then I sat in a yoga pose because my knee was hurting a little bit the night before. As I was sitting in that pose, I sort of meditated and stretched a little bit and then about five minutes later I pulled my notebook out and wrote my to-do list and checked my emails. I feel like there’s a sense of control there, whereas I’m sort of learning as a new dog owner, I’m letting the outside dictate my time.
When you’re outside there’s space. Your brain can release and explore things that don’t happen in the confines of a building, things that definitely don’t happen in the confines of your work. As a creative person I’m noticing that I need to be outside, I need to connect with nature, I need to remove myself from noise, I need to remove myself from music, I need to remove myself from voices. I just need to be outside.
That’s where swimming comes in. Where the beach, and hiking, and yoga come in. Those things give me general joy. When I don’t make time for those things, I feel my morale [decrease] and the aches in my body.
I’m a chef that’s very in tune with the nuances of my culture. I am not a Michelin-trained chef, per se, but I am a chef with really good habits. I am a chef with really high standards. I have really high expectations for people, sometimes higher than I have for myself. Which isn’t fair, but it’s true. So, I think that I’m the kind of chef that is connected to the people that she wants to feed by the fact that they grow the food and by the fact that they cook the food.
I want to connect with the people that work with me, I want to know what they’re eating, what their eating habits are, who is growing my food, and where it’s coming from. I think that in a lot of respects I’m laid back, I’m kind and I’m fair. But, I’m also strict. I’m like “Why did you do this?” I think my sous-chef might say three different words to describe me, but I think I’m fair.
The thing about Savannah and cooking food here is that I don’t want to take advantage of the fact that I’m in a place and there’s all this opportunity to reappropriate the history of the food here. I take that very seriously and I think that we’re in such a conscious time in food that it comes off as false when you do that.
I walk my dog two miles every day, and that’s therapy for her but it’s also therapy for me because I get to think and plan. In those moments, I get to analyze and forgive. I also get to appreciate my environment. The cool thing about my neighborhood is that I don’t exactly live downtown so in order for me to reach a place where there’s a big enough field for my Greyhound to run around, I need to walk there. When I’m walking, I’m connecting — with different businesses and different people. I’m connecting with my dog and we meet up with other dogs. So there’s this slow rise to a peak and then I come back down and then I can meet everybody in a place where I am satiated and I don’t have to worry about this sort of tug and give and take that I had to do the first two to three years when we were opening because I didn’t know what else to do.
I hold myself accountable to my practice. When I don’t practice and I don’t take care of myself I hold myself accountable and it forces me to re-engage and resubmit or reconnect with it.
When I fall out of my practice, my body tells me. I have to hold myself accountable because I start to feel these aches and pains that I don’t want to mask with medication, or Advil, pain killers, muscle thinners, muscle relaxers. A lot of us tend to do that, whether we self medicate or we get prescriptions for different pains we have going on in our bodies. As a middle-aged woman, or going into middle age, I don’t want to have to rely on these things as I approach the prime of my life. I want to be able to have a full range of motion. So, I think when I start to feel these aches and pains it’s really a clear sign for myself that I am not properly addressing or taking care of myself physically and my choice is to listen to my body and not mask the pain with muscle deflectors. I had an operation and I had some pain killers, literally a day or two after I felt no pain. How do you have surgery and feel no pain? That means that this medication is a serious mindfuck. Like, you can’t ignore the fact that there are pills out there that make you feel nothing. I don’t want to go through life not feeling anything.
I don’t want to go through life not feeling anything.
I’m from the South, so I’m used to like “whew whew whew,” as soon as you get anywhere you’re sweating because you’re moving too fast. I think my ideal sweat level is high because I feel like I’m doing something, I feel like things are getting out of my body and there are changes happening in a positive way. But a functional sweat level is a little perspiration, some beads across my forehead and I can wipe it off and that’s it. But, as soon as it starts to pour and become excessive, that’s when I’m like “wait, I need to slow down.” If I’m working, but when I’m exercising the more I sweat the better I feel.
That could mean I’m hungover and I had too much alcohol or impurities in my system, which also is not a bad thing to release, but I don’t even know if that’s healthy. It’s like you grow up and you sort of you know, federally standardized exercise programs that you’re taught in school. It’s like you have to sweat and move like this and that’s how you’re healthy. I think all those thoughts are embedded in our brain when we’re small.
I notice every single kink in my body. If I lift up my arms and my shoulders, I notice. If I wear the wrong shoes, my knees ache. If I lift something too heavy, my backaches. I’m pretty good at the lifting part, it’s just the lack of fluid movement, that’s the part that starts to stiffen you up. But, people either do one of two things: they either respect their body and they exercise and they stretch out their muscles and they take care of themselves or they self medicate and take Advil or prescription pain pills and they drink to alleviate those issues that are bound to happen in this job. I think I’m more of the “I’m aware of what’s going on with my body and I need to pay attention to it.”
I’m not consistent but I did yoga today. I got up yesterday and every time I stood up, my knee ached. I’m like “what did I do? I don’t know what happened.” But I did yoga this morning and I’m like “oh, now it’s better.” So, I do understand that there’s a direct relationship with moving my body and feeling better, but I don’t think everybody does. I do think that there is a part of this culture where it’s go go go go, and you don’t make time for yourself. And that part, the lack of time for yourself, is where you start to feel the pain.
I do understand that there’s a direct relationship with moving my body and feeling better.
On Recreational Areas
I like being outside but it’s so buggy here that it’s just distracting. It’s so beautiful here but the best time to workout outside is when it’s cold. So for me, my favorite Recreational area is probably my house. I like being in the studio too. I’m a classroom learner. I like being around a bunch of people when I’m learning how to do something different, or when I’m learning something I already know. I like being in a group environment. I could never be a caterer because I don’t like working independently. So when it comes to exercise, I like when it’s a group thing.
I like being around a bunch of people when I’m learning how to do something different
It depends but I like to workout with music. I love jazz. Jazz helps me. Like John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk, my dad used to play them on the weekends all the time. I also like that kind of Count Bassy fan music, early 1920s 1930s music, it gets my mind going. But, if I listen to 90s hip-hop and R&B, I’m not thinking, I’m just singing along and dancing, but my brain isn’t working. I like music without lyrics because then it starts to get my brain going a little bit.
I kind of have to be into stuff for it to stick. It’s like that with exercise. I love swimming, and I’m an okay swimmer but I love swimming. Because it goes back to that sweating factor right? When you’re swimming you don’t really feel yourself sweating, but after you’re done sweating you feel what it’s done to your body and you feel it’s easy on your joints.
I haven’t been swimming in a while, I used to have a membership at the Y and they had a saltwater pool. But it’s such a time commitment. You have to make the time. So with my business partner, he’s like “I gotta work out today, I haven’t worked out in 4 days.” and you’re like “Okay,” but he’s like “I have to do it today, but I only worked out for 20 minutes,” and you’re like “damn, that’s cool” you know? It’s good because it’s so embedded in his brain or it’s such a habit to him that he just knows he has to do it. I respect it because that’s how you get joy out of life. You have to insert it, you have to make time for the things that bring you joy and bring you pleasure.
You have to insert it, you have to make time for the things that bring you joy and bring you pleasure.
I fail at habits, but I don’t beat myself up from my failure, I try to learn from my failures, so there are a lot of things that I like but I know there’s a consistency to what I’m attracted to. And I used to beat myself up about it, I used to be like “Oh, I suck, I’m never gonna be skinny, I’m never gonna be happy with my body, or happy in my body,” and now it’s like “I can do what I do. I like these things, and when I want to do them I’ll do them and if I form habits in doing them, I’ll feel better. And I’m sort of more inspired by the outcome of doing it versus beating myself up from not doing it. So if I don’t do yoga for a month, that doesn’t mean that I don’t like yoga, that just means that I don’t have good practices with yoga at the time. But every time I do yoga, my body feels better. So I just have to focus on the reward factor of why I do what I do or why I like what I do, versus beating myself up for not doing it.
More info about Mashama and The Grey, including full menus and reservation bookings, can be found here.
Video & Photo by Mekdela Maskal