Ready, Set, Auction

For Johno Morisano, stakes and spirits ran high at one unforgettable dinner party

Photography by Geoff L. Johnson

“Do I hear twenty-thousand dollars?” the auctioneer asked.

It was a brisk February night last year in Forsyth Park, but the hundreds of attendees at Savannah’s swankiest fundraiser, the Telfair Museums’ annual Telfair Ball, were plenty toasty in their tuxedos and evening gowns. The opulent tent, which seemed the size of a football field, had heaters, champagne, and hors d’oeuvres on hand to warm everyone’s bellies and flush their faces

“Yes! Twenty-thousand,” she boomed, pointing toward a handsome gentleman, “coming from the good sir on the left.”

She turned to her right, “That’s twenty-one thousand to you, ma’am,” she gently demanded of an elegant woman in a glittering white floor-length gown.

Without hesitation, and with all the hundreds of sets of eyes locked upon her, the woman nonchalantly raised her paddle, as if she did this all the time.

Onlookers cheered like we were at a football game rather than a philanthropic fundraiser. My wife, Carol, and I, also dressed in our finest, sweated bullets as we bore witness to the mood overtaking the room.

The auctioneer, expecting the move, quickly turned back to the gentleman, “Twenty-two thousand to you, good sir.”

But his paddle remained in his lap.

The room fell silent.

“Twenty-one thousand going once,” said the auctioneer. “Going twice,” — yadda, yadda, yadda, you know the rest.

I excused myself from the table and stepped outside to dial my business partner, Mashama Bailey.

When she answered, I could barely hear her over the sound of a busy Saturday night dinner service in the kitchen of The Grey, the restaurant we own together. “The dinner we donated to the Telfair just sold at the auction,” I said. “For 21 grand.”

Silence for a few seconds, and then she uttered two unprintable words.

Eight months later, the winners of the auction, Leslie and Angus Littlejohn, Schuyler and Charlie Hinnant and Cathy and Doug Johnston (and their son AJ), along with their friends Chuck Chewning, Tommy Gennuso and Karon and Rick Meyer, came to the downtown Savannah home Carol and I share to claim their prize: a private dinner cooked by Mashama, who just a bit later that year would go on to win the James Beard Foundation Award for best chef in the Southeast.

But this not a story about well-to-do people donating their money to worthy causes — although that is a very necessary thing in this world. Without that, organizations like the Telfair would not be able to host exhibitions bringing the works of the world’s greatest artists to Savannah, or provide education to Savannah’s youth through programs like Free Family Days or the Drop-In Studio, or be an active member of Savannah’s historical and preservation communities through its work at places like the Owens-Thomas House, focused on educating the public on the lasting impact of slavery in Savannah, the South and beyond.

Everything afforded by the work of the Telfair Museums and the generosity of its donors is real, and important. But this is the story of a dinner party underwritten by the spirit of community, a spirit that makes Savannah unique and special.

Start with Mashama Bailey. She never works fewer than 60 hours a week; it’s usually closer to 70 or 80 or more. She is committed to The Grey, of course, but she’s also committed to Savannah and to the people and institutions who strive to continuously improve upon this wonderful place. When I asked her if she would give up more of her time to cook a private dinner to benefit the Telfair Museum, her response was an instantaneous yes. Thanks are also in order for our team, particularly our sous chefs, Trevor Elliot and Tim Morris, and our pastry chef Natasha Gaskill, who gave up their free time to prep food and prepare dessert so that the winners of the auction would be blown away by their dining experience.

But Mashama and The Grey are just the beginning. When we called our friend Chris Poe, a supporter of the Telfair Museums, and asked if he would fly to Savannah for the weekend from his home in Philadelphia, don a tux and play guest bartender for the night, we got another yes.

We asked Cathy and Philip Solomons, folks always looking for ways to contribute to their beloved Savannah, if they would join Carol, our niece Allison and me as kitchen staff and servers for the evening.

Another yes.

Now, here’s where it really gets good.

We asked Leslie Geer of Leslie Geer Designs to arrange flowers to give our home the feeling that its occupants actually spent time there, rather than living at work. It would take her an entire Saturday.

Another yes.

We asked Geoff Johnson, local photographer extraordinaire, if he would waive his normal fee and shoot the evening for the benefit of the Telfair.

Another yes (by the way, these are Geoff’s photos here).

Johno Morisano and Mashma Bailey
The menu emphasized local ingredients

And then the pièce de résistance

We asked Velvet Caravan, our beloved local gypsy jazz band, if they would perform a little light music on our roof terrace during cocktails and then blow the doors off the joint after dessert by performing a full-on concert in the parlor to get the assembled crowd up and dancing the rest of the night away. Oh, and we also asked the band to waive their sizeable gig fee and give up their Saturday night, too.

Jared Hall and Ricardo Ochoa, the band’s founders, said… wait for it…

Yes.

As you can see, this story is ultimately about a diverse group of people who came together to support their city, their community and their museum — donating money, time and talent, all most precious commodities, to a deserving cause that makes Savannah so much the richer and more vibrant. It is about an evening so special that those lovely folks who plunked down $21,000 to help the Telfair continue to achieve its mission would remember that night for the rest of their lives (and maybe plunk down another $21,000 next year).

Was the night a success? Consider that just after midnight, when I told Jared, still banging away on our piano over an hour into their agreed upon 45-minute after-dinner set, that the band could wind down after the next song so we could start cleaning up, he said, “Really? Just one more? Let’s do two or three and then see how everyone’s feeling after that.”

Two or three songs later, everyone was still feeling pretty good, so the band played on.

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