The Bronx gets a bad rap. But things ain’t all bad uptown. Once you hit this cultural melting pot, you can pretty much choose any cuisine in the world to feast on. In the Bronx, you can find Little Anywhere, everywhere. Growing up in such a multifaceted environment is bound to spur your culinary creativity, and that’s where Ghetto Gastro comes in. The quartet, Jon aka Fidel Gastro, Lester aka Don Maldon aka Soignee West, Malcolm aka Ice Lord, and Dan aka Meyer Lemon Lansky, call this borough their home and the inspiration behind the high-low dichotomy of their cuisine. Playing on the contrast, they will host an East Village pop-up this week named after the Bronx thoroughfare, Featherbed Lane. “When you look into the history of Featherbed Lane,” says Jon, the Creative Director of the collective,” it sounds like a lovely name but the neighborhood is rough, you know, a lot of drugs, a lot of violence.”
If you think these are just some random dudes from the Bronx, playing around with an uptown menu, think again. Three out of four are Michelin star chefs. With a rolodex of notable restaurants (Dan works at Eleven Madison Park and Malcolm is the executive pastry chef at WD-50) and mantle full of accolades (Lester is the Food Network Chop Champion), these guys have the (pork) chops to match their menu. Mass Appeal sat down with the Ghetto Gastro gang to discuss all things tasty. Here’s how it went down…
Mass Appeal: What’s your earliest food memory?
Malcolm: I was six years old, baking and eating chocolate chip cookies. My dad used to cook a lot and my moms used to make coconut dirty rice. She’s from the Islands.
All: Yeah Shabba! [Laughs]
Malcolm: She’s from Barbados. I had a passion really early on but I didn’t know I wanted to cook ’til after high school. I was at a cross between cooking and dentistry. I think it’s kind of ironic that now I’m ruining people’s teeth as a pastry chef.
Lester: I always liked to cook. For me, food brings people together. Food is a gathering. I like to ask people around. I like to keep the mouths happy, the stomachs happy. My earliest memory of food was with my mother. She would make lasagna, layering flavors. That’s what the wolf is about. We have a wolf moniker with Ghetto Gastro which is actually an acyronmn for ‘We’re Out Layering Flavors’. I thought, “I’m gonna make different types of lasagnas, seafood… meat… just cheese and go form there.” Everything’s complimentary to each other. What we do, we hustle, we give love and be fly.
Dan: I grew up in Florida.
Lester: He’s got no socks on right now, that’s that Florida shit.
Dan: My mom was a macrobiotic vegetarian and I grew up a pescatarian. So my biggest memory was when I was 13. I was with my grandparents and we went to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where the Amish live. There was nothing but meat there. I ate about 5 pounds of bacon. I had one bite and went HAM. That’s when I fell in love with food, eating a ton of bacon.
Jon: I was six, too. My mother had a love for food, so it kind of came down genetically I guess. My mother took me out to a lot of restuarants and she crowned me the restuarant king because I would order the food for everyone. I was known for ordering the best shit.
MA: What are your favorite dishes?
Jon: It all depends on my mood but I’ll give you my top three. I like Oxtail, smoked salmon on a croissant, artichoke and swiss cheese.
Malcolm: That’s like asking who’s your favorite child. As long as it’s cooked well it doens’t really matter. It depends on the temperature outside. If it’s really cold out, I like curries and stews. They can be from anywhere like Japanese, Carribean Spanish. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s prepared well.
Lester: Anything Dan or Malcolm cooks I’m with it.
Dan: I’m going to be a Jew and say smoked salmon on a bagel. It was what I was raised on.
MA: There have been one or two Shabba references so far, what other music do you guys like?
Jon: A$AP Ferg is the homie. That’s our brother. We’re all from uptown. It’s good to see them come up. But, honestly I like all types of music. You can catch me listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Anything, really.
Malcolm: I like Gregorian chants. I like Enya.
Dan: I went to music school before I got into cooking, so I like classical…
Jon: Dan plays the jazz flute.
Malcolm: He plays really well. He’s smooth.
MA: Any advice for someone who wants to start out as a chef?
Dan: Yeah, read some good books, “Letters to a Young Chef” and “Kitchen Confidential.”
Malcolm: Be humble. When you work in a kitchen you’re going be shit on. Just take it because you’ve gotta come up through the ranks. You can’t come out of culinary school thinking you’re a bad ass. It’s like military.
Lester: It’s definitely a brigade in the kitchen.
Dan: Hard works takes you everywhere.
Lester: Come in early, leave late, have that approach to it. Soak in all the knowledge.
MA: Any pet peeves?
Malcolm: I hate people who don’t know what they want. Like you’re telling me you won’t eat pork but you’ll eat ham. Pork is ham. Or, ‘I’m vegan but I’ll take some meat here and there.’ Either you vegan or you not.
Lester: My pet peeve is when people ask for salt. Fucking eat it before you ask.
MA: You guys have big plans to give back to the community. Can you explain a little about that?
Jon: We plan on doing more. Once we have the infrastructure we plan on doing classes with single parents, shopping with food stamps at the farmers market — to get healthy ingredients and help people eat better. We’ve done a lot of lunchroom work with students and taught them. Once we have the infrastructure we’ll do more.
MA: What is the biggest misconception about the Bronx?
Jon: A lot of people think that the Bronx is the lost borough. But I take it and say we might be the only real borough left because of gentrification. The Bronx is the essence of what New York is. We birthed a billion dollar industry! They’re probably wouldn’t be a Mass Appeal without the Bronx. Through our food we want people to get comfortable going there not just for the Zoo, the Botanical Garden or the Yankee Game.