“Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” ~ Michelle Obama, Becoming
I have been very unwell lately. I ignored a dull pain in my chest until it escalated into a life-threatening crisis seemingly out of nowhere. I am well on my way to recovery now. I’m told it will still be a few weeks before I am 100% but I am ever so grateful for the 51% I am at now. One of the good things about being on forced bed rest for extended periods of time is that you catch up with lots and lots of internet and TV time. A lot of it!
Being a lover of cooking shows, I came across a show on Netflix called Chef’s Table and decided to try it. I expected it to be about recipes and executing them. Instead, it turned out it was about the chef and their journey to their current status.
The very first episode I watched was about Mashama Bailey (pictured above). Before I tell you who Mashama is now, let me tell you just a little bit about her journey to her ‘now.’ I can not do her entire journey justice in a single blog post so I will focus on the parts of it that struck me deeply and that I related strongly to.
Mashama was born in the deep South in America. The South is known for many things including Southern Belles, hearty cooking and deep-rooted race issues. She grew up with her mom in a two-bedroom house in a black neighborhood there called Savannah, Georgia where the smell of her grandmother’s cooking was almost the definition of home.
In search of the American dream, her parents moved to New York when she was 11 years old. All they truly wanted was to do better and to set their children up to do better and they worked very hard to achieve this. As she put it, ““When they weren’t working, they were going to school,” … “Every move that they made and all of their sacrifices were so that they could live a little bit better.” Her parents’ endeavours are something a lot of us can relate to not only parents ourselves but also as children to parents who did and aspired the same for us.
Mashama’s parents aspired for their children to go to college and to “do better” than they did. So when she finished high school, she went to college as expected. This was despite feeling like she didn’t really know what she wanted to do with her life exactly. In fact, she picked her degree according to what her parents were doing because she just didn’t know what else to do: social work. Her parents were incredibly proud when she graduated. She got her first job and instead of continuing on her upward trajectory, she was promptly fired because she hated it and consequently, could not do it very well. She found herself once more trying to figure out what exactly she wanted with student debt and no financial resources.
Finally finding inspiration in a friend’s move to culinary school and finding that the thought of working with food excited her, Mashama decided to pursue a culinary education of her own. This was after confirming that should earn her training by working and studying because going to school cost money that was not readily available. She joined an externship program that took her to France, where she began her journey into learning to cook. Not at all what her parents or she had imagined.
When she returned to New York with her new found skills, she landed her first culinary job as a private chef for a family in the Hamptons that happened to be white. Her parents were horrified. To them, despite all their efforts, she had taken a massive step backward by taking a job as “the help.” “They just didn’t understand,” she says. “They just saw a black woman working in a house for white folks.”
She persevered and eventually got another job working in a renowned restaurant in Manhattan, Prune where she was mentored by star chef Gabrielle Hamilton. The rest, as they say, is history (or a history of hard work) that culminated in her being recognised by the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast this year. Venture capitalist John O. Morisano heard about Mashama through her mentor, Chef Hamilton, and reached out to her about a long-abandoned, once Jim Crow segregated Greyhound station he’d bought in Savannah, Georgia. They partnered and she is now a co-owner and executive chef of “The Grey.” It is an upmarket, much-awarded restaurant right across the road from where her parents got married. Mashama’s parents are very proud of her.
I listened and thought, what a remarkable story. It is a multi-layered story of leaving home to find your way back to it. It is a story of a necessary journey because one must find herself on that path. It is the story of generational differences and parental hopes. It is a story of an unconventional path that would have meant an entirely different outcome for the previous generation. It is a story of different paths to the same goal. It is a story of becoming. It is a story of finding your own voice despite what you have been told to do. It is a story of an ordinary girl who just put one foot in front of the other and landed on extraordinary. It is a story of being open to possibilities. It is a story of meeting the right people and recognising them. It is the story of not having to have it all figured out but making your way anyway. It is the story of the girl next door. lt is the story of Mashama. It could easily be the story of you or me.
Michelle Obama will close the curtain on this story with something she said in an interview with Oprah. “You know, all young women probably have some magic number of what age you’ll be when you’ll feel like a grown-up,” she said. “Generally, when you think your mother will stop telling you what to do.”She added: “But the truth is, for me, each decade has offered something amazing that I would never have imagined. And if I had stopped looking, I would have missed out on so much. So I’m still becoming, and this is the story of my journey. Hopefully, it will spark conversations, especially among young people, about their journeys.”