Exchange Alley's Paul Gerard on Old New York and Three-Chord Cuisine
"It's about everybody that's together and the conversation and the music. And if you stop for a second and say, 'Oh my god you have to taste this,' that's good enough for me."
Amongst the niche coffee shops and farm-to-table, reclaimed furniture joints surrounding it, chef/owner Paul Gerard's décor at Exchange Alley is refreshing. The lighting fixtures emit an orange, almost dusty glow over the bar. Photographs of Sinatra and Sugar Ray Leonard and starlets in dark lipstick and minks are scattered amongst a large mural of a pinup with a steak and another shellacked with, well, a lot of stuff.
Juxtaposing an ambiance that you'd expect would serve up a solid bowl of pasta and red sauce at best, Gerard's tiny kitchen makes incredibly flavorful, unexpectedly elegant food, like Beef Cheek Parmigiana with smoked mozzarella and duck with figs "swimming in port." He pulls vegetables and herbs from the restaurant's backyard garden, which his four-year old son Frankie helped him plant.
Gerard spent many years in New Orleans, then cut his teeth back in New York with executive positions at the Soho House and doing corporate work. Luckily for us it seems the village has a good bit of his heart, and his place may just turn into an old New York haunt one day.
What's your history with the East Village? You look fitting here. There's a couple of things I could probably say off the record as to why I'm attracted to the East Village, but all through the eighties I was playing in bands and this is where we came to hang out. It was full of everyone we wanted to be and be around—The Ramones, The Dead Boys, everybody that I admired at the time.
Are the same types of people still here for you? This area has changed enormously. A lot of people are gone, but it's the last great holdout for underground eccentrics; there are still more tattoos, more ink per square inch on people, more of a rebellious feel than other parts of the city. If the East Village falls to become, like, the Meatpacking District, New York is gone.
What about the state of restaurants here? Yours is a bit different than most we walk into. I think everything has changed a lot, and a lot of it is for the better. I have a lot of friends that are in the business and everybody is still dedicated to the craft of food and hospitality, but I think sensibilities have changed as far as what people are doing. A lot of things have become kind of "pop-y." The milk jugs and the wagon wheels and the urban farmhouses. I don't know what other people's quests are, but I know what I do and why I do it, and that's to retain some of old New York.
So you built specifically to counter the pop with a bit of nostalgia? I built this place to make it like the places I grew up going to, and the places my father used to take me to that were just dark wood and dark leather and pictures of Sinatra, and they smelled like stale beer and liniment, and there were old guys at the bar that could barely speak with these gravely voices. I wanted to retain some of that. So I took a lot of the pictures from home, I built the place with a friend of mine, I touched every screw—I was basically building my home. I knew I'd be here all the time, so when people come in here I'm inviting them into my home. I hate when you walk into a place and you look like you're inconveniencing someone. And you get some kid, some hipster in a short-sleeved plaid shirt and a beard and he looks at you like you're a jerk. That's the kind of thing that brings out the old East Village in me because I want to punch him in the face! You know? I don't know if I should say that, but it's true.
I hate when I leave a restaurant and have that feeling that, "If I got hit by a bus right now I'd be really pissed off that that was my last meal." I don't think it needs to be Eleven Madison Park every time, it just has to be a good meal. It has to be well thought out, have nice ingredients, the technique has to be there, and then the service and the love and the energy and the vibe... we thought about all those things. And I think it does reflect old New York and I think it entirely reflects me.
Do you consider yourself naturally a nostalgic and romantic person? Even the way you talk about food... Yeah. Absolutely. I often think that I was born in the wrong time. I don't see a lot of things coming out in the past decade. I see a lot of "content" and things like that, but at the risk of sounding old, they just don't make things like they used to. People used to really craft songs, and they would craft toys and tables and chairs. Marco Pierre White has a great line about food where he says, "Cooking is as an admirable craft as making good chairs." Everybody's calling it an art, and it is an artful craft. It's just as important as bricklaying or anything else that you have to spend thousands of thousands of hours doing. I don't like it to be as pretentious as it's becoming.
You're a seventh-generation Irish/American boy from Brooklyn. How does that come together with the trained chef in you on a plate now, in a restaurant full of such nostalgia? When we would gather for dinner as a kid, my father wouldn't let us cut the bread with a knife—we had to break the bread. And it was always an event without being an event. It was family time; it was a time to talk, we shut off the TV, we were together. I think that's one of the biggest things that appeals to me. It's about everybody that's together and the conversation and the music. And if you stop for a second and say, "Oh my god you have to taste this," that's good enough for me. Then if they leave and they get hit by a bus and they were happy, then I'm okay with that.
So I often say I like my food to be simple and frank like a Ramones song. It's three-chord cuisine; there are only three major things on each plate. So as long as the initial product is solid and impeccable on its own, then basically all I'm doing is not really messing with it. I'm just kind of altering it a little bit with the right amount of salt, or just cooking it properly with the right amount of technique and that's it, I'm letting it speak for itself. I think everybody gets too busy. I don't want to be Rush. I'd rather be the Ramones.