Good Spirit
Baltimore magazine|February 2021
Chelsea Gregoire’s approach to hospitality finds its roots in religion.
Jane Marion

Chelsea Gregoire is giving a Zoom tour of their apartment in Hampden’s Whitehall Mill, where the vast collection of books they share with their artist wife, Shandi Chester, is organized by the color of the books’ spines. The blue books alone show the range of the collection. “We have The Basics of Biblical Greek,” says the 30-year-old, who uses “they/them” pronouns and identifies as queer. “We have What If?, which are critical-thinking exercises for philosophy. We have Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. We have a book about Madeira, Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis (“I read this four-chapter beauty every time I go through something difficult.”), and The Sick Rose, which is a book about medical illustrations.”

If one’s bookshelf can be considered an autobiography of sorts, Gregoire’s volumes speak volumes. In this case, Gregoire’s varied book collection serves as a sort of metaphor for the acclaimed beverage director’s mission of inclusiveness, diversity, and making everyone feel at home, including their coworkers, such as NiHao bar manager Ashley McMichael, who previously worked with Gregoire at True Chesapeake Oyster Co.

“They have taught me so much,” says McMichael. “I’m a recovering alcoholic. And when I first got sober, I was like, ‘How can I be sober and then run a bar program and mix drinks for people?’ And Chelsea was like, ‘You can totally do that. If that’s what makes you happy.’ And they encouraged me to come up with ideas for mocktails. I’ve never had a mentor who was so passionate about everything they do, especially when it comes to teaching others. Chelsea always makes sure that everyone feels included— they’re everything you want in a coworker, a boss, a friend. And I give Chelsea such accolades for being the person they are in a world that told them ‘no’ a lot.”

Dave Thomas, the former chef-owner of Ida B’s Table, who worked with Gregoire when they were a bar manager at his restaurant, puts it like this: “They say what’s on their mind and care about how things affect other people. They fostered this idea of the bar collective and emboldened the staff to create cocktail menus, instead of taking the credit.” Gregoire, says Thomas, has the rare ability to give careful consideration to every last detail in a way that goes way beyond the bar. “We were an African-American-owned and operated business that didn’t carry Hennessy behind the bar, which was a big problem,” says Thomas. “We didn’t know a lot about Hennessy back then, except for the fact that it was a staple in Black bars. But we also wanted to make sure that whatever brands we carried didn’t exploit the culture. Chelsea took on researching the brand and was also always explaining to customers why we weren’t going to carry it until we knew more.”

Even beyond Baltimore, for Gregoire, an industry veteran despite their relative youth, the hosannas keep coming. Gregoire has won numerous national awards in the beverage industry for their mission toward creating more inclusive and equitable restaurant spaces and better working conditions for people in the service industry, from talking about affordable health care and a livable wage to raising awareness surrounding fair hiring practices, product selection, and company partnerships.

In 2018, as the bar manager at Hotel Revival, they were named an Eater Young Gun. And in 2019, while still working at True Chesapeake Oyster Co., Gregoire was named Beverage Director of the Year by Esquire magazine, which mentioned their “radical, generous-spirited approach to inclusiveness” and called them a “game changer” for the industry.

“I wake up to an email that says, ‘Congratulations, you’re America’s Beverage Director of the Year,’” recounts Gregoire. “I couldn’t have imagined it in my wildest dreams, but I don’t want the awards to elevate me. I want them to elevate the idea that things could be better.”

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