Natasha Gaskill of The Grey and The Grey Market
Back when our kids were toddlers at Maggie’s Morning School, Natasha Gaskill was always the mom with the best food.
Flash-pickled veggies for a weekday potluck. Homemade soup on Halloween to counteract the kids’ candy high. Gorgeous tiered cakes for every birthday. When it was her turn to bring classroom snacks? Fresh baked sticky bars gobbled up before anyone got wind that they were actually healthy.
Rather than intimidate all us other moms, this woman of superior chopping skills and supreme wit only made us want to learn her ways. Hanging out in her kitchen taught me the proper way to prepare shad (researched to a “t” from Edna Lewis’ The Taste of Country Cooking) and the simple joy of dipping fresh radishes in salt and butter (she counts Alice Waters and the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook as lifelong inspiration.) Always an advocate of local food, the Bellingham, Washington native’s affinity for fresh ingredients extended out of the kitchen, with a prolific backyard garden, weekly trips to the Forsyth Farmers Market and urban foraging expeditions to relieve neighborhood trees of citrus, figs and other found fruits for preserves.
Natasha’s creative confections caught the attention of Savannah’s busiest hostesses and party planners, and her meringue tarts and petit fours began appearing on silver trays in mansions during her children’s elementary school years. Her side hustle became a bona fide career after a stint at Lulu’s Chocolate Bar and led her to create her own A Squad Bake Shop, operated out of her backyard shed. Her stunning wedding cakes and delectable donuts earned their own cult following, and then local fine dining establishments came a’calling. Chef Sean Brock’s team tagged her as top local talent when it came time to open Husk Savannah, and these days the envy of the preschool Mom Squad is at the helm of dessert and pastry at The Grey and The Grey Market, which — with recent international exposure — are now known by some of the finest palates in the world.
As her soufflé continues to rise, Natasha lives in Midtown with her husband, Savannah Fire Battalion Chief Nathan Gaskill, and their two sons, Aidan and Morgan, both at Benedictine Military School. Catch her cameo on the recent episode of Chef’s Table as Executive Chef-partner and James Beard Award semi-finalist Mashama Bailey gives enthusiastic approval of Gaskill’s Chickasaw plum jam.
Let’s review how you went from enviable home cook to creating the desserts at one of the most important and visible restaurants in the country, shall we?
Well, I’d always cooked at home, going to the farmers market and having fresh produce around me. My family always had a huge garden going — a half acre with an orchard, plums, pears, apples, cherries, and we had chickens and rabbits and geese at certain times, too. We were always making something from what was around us. That followed me here as we started our family. I loved hosting people over here for food with the kids. It was my main source of entertainment!
In 2007, we were running a small business called Rare Earth Recycling and then helped the city start its recycling program — which sort of put me out of a job. So I began taking classes at Savannah Technical College. They didn’t yet have the baking and pastry program back then, but I took every pastry class I could and did some special projects with Chef Jean [Vandeville].
Why did you choose to concentrate on pastry and desserts?
It wasn’t because I had a burning desire to make sweet things. I was a mom, and working in a restaurant from one o’clock in the afternoon to 11 at night wasn’t an option. I had to be available for my family. Baker hours just made more sense.
My first job as a baker was for Lulu’s Chocolate Bar, and I helped them open up their second location, Lulu Cakes. Then Nathan helped me build a kitchen in our shed to start A Squad Bake Shop, and I started doing a lot of weddings.
The incredibly life-like sugar flowers on those wedding cakes received a ton of recognition on social media and in magazines. Who taught you to do that?
I was so fortunate to find a mentor in cake artist Minette Rushing, who lives and works out of Savannah. It was such a boost of confidence for me. Minette believed in my talent and really encouraged me to go out on my own. She also taught me that systems are everything: By following steps and paying attention to details, you could make impossible things possible, like sugar dahlias or sparkling geodes.
You became quite a one-woman show, baking in your backyard. Where else would Savannah folks have tasted A Squad’s delights?
For a while I was supplying desserts and pies to The Collins Quarter, Atlantic and Bull Street Tacos. I also developed a nice little following delivering fresh morning donuts to PERC and Smith Brothers Butcher Shop — I enjoyed coming up with new things every day as well as the food photography and social media aspects of it. People who followed me on Instagram would get really excited about hunting down donuts!
A Squad was a lot of fun and creative. It reminded me of all those projects we used to do when the kids were little, knitting dishcloths and sewing aprons for the teachers and stuff. I felt like all of those crafting things use the same muscles — wanting to make something and share it.
So why did you leave your backyard?
When I heard that Sean Brock was coming to Savannah to open Husk, I wanted to be part of that. I’d read his cookbook and heard so much about the restaurant in Charleston, and it was going to be a whole other level. Plus, I was ready for more of a challenge, to grow and learn more. Everything had been so centered around the kids, it hadn’t even occurred to me to go into fine dining. But then suddenly they were older — driving, even! — and my world opened up.
Did you feel intimidated?
A little, because I knew how much I didn’t know about being in a professional kitchen: Plating, service … I was selling whole pies and cakes to restaurants, but I didn’t have anything to do with putting it on the table. But I got in there and learned.
Husk was so exciting because it was this elevated version of the way I’d grown up — gathering local ingredients and putting them up. I learned about things I’d never even known existed, like lacto-fermentation.
How did that lead you to The Grey?
I reached out to Mashama because I had questions about how to navigate as a woman in the kitchen. I had provided pies to The Grey, and I respected her as a chef and a person so much. We’d meet for coffee, and she was so generous with her advice and time.
I’d also become more ambitious, seeing what was possible in terms of taking local ingredients and creating something new that tells a story, which is why everyone in the world is talking about Mashama. Now, working with her side by side, it’s the best! I feel so fortunate to be part of something so special.
How does The Grey’s narrative of elevated, authentic Southern food inform what you put on the plate?
It’s incredible to meet the people who have lived on this land and water and touch the ingredients at their origin. The relationships that Mashama has built here with local providers is incredible,
like Ernest McIntosh, the oyster farmer featured on Chef’s Table. As an African-American chef working with African-American farmers, she has created something that speaks to history as well as something super specific to this area, and I feel humbled to be part of it.
We recently went to visit Sapelo Island, where Coastal Georgia Gourmet Farms is producing purple ribbon sugarcane, a varietal specific to that area. Sean Brock bought out their whole press of cane syrup last year, but this year The Grey has first dibs.
I look at Southern food in a whole new way now. I recently took sweet potato pie, this quintessential Southern dish, and essentially deconstructed it. We can’t really serve a slice of pie at the restaurant, because people are expecting to see something more interesting, but those flavors … so I decided to treat it like a Napoleon, sandwiching the custard with mille feuille on top of a marshmallow meringue. All the same flavors you’d have in a normal slice of pie, with classic French presentation.
Why have you been spending your days off at Wormsloe lately?
I’ve been volunteering with Sarah Ross, the director of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Environmental History, who has started an heirloom seed-saving program. Last year she planted 40 different varietals of collard greens and other vegetables to find out what grows best here, and she’s also working to partner chefs and farmers to bring back many of the crops that have been lost.
I find it so interesting that we have a living, breathing history from the crops that were grown here. The rice that used to be grown on Wormsloe was lost after the enslaved people were freed and went to Grenada — they took those seeds with them. And now the seeds have been found again and people are working to bring them back. We’ll be able to cook and eat them again.
Whatcha got cooking at home these days?
I’m showing my support for Planned Parenthood Southeast by helping coordinate its annual Cookie Grab fundraiser for Mother’s Day. And I’m doing a lot more plant-based cooking, especially dairy replacement. Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook has changed the way I eat — I can’t with all the gluten and dairy anymore! I get a CSA box from Three Sisters farm every week, and it’s fantastic. And I’m also foraging for whatever is in season — figs, loquats, berries — and preserving, always! That’s my first love.
Will you still make me a birthday cake?
Girl, I don’t have time to make anyone’s birthday cake anymore. But you can order one from me through The Grey Market!