Chef Paul Gerard On His New Restaurant, Exchange Alley, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll
The six-week-old Exchange Alley is a shadowy hideout in the East Village, featuring a gutsy New York-meets-New Orleans menu (jambalaya balls with dirty gravy, meatball parmigiano flatbread). Chef Paul Gerard, also a musician and writer, spent a decade in the Big Easy (the joint is named for the street he lived on) before returning to his native New York a few years ago. Partner Billy Gilroy of Employees Only custom-designed the space for the chef, adding touches of Raymond Chandler film noir and burlesque. Helena Christensen, Bebe Buell, Michael Stipe and David Johansen are among the nighttime figures who've stopped in so far. Soon, Exchange Alley will also be a daytime hangout, serving coffee and light fare. We chatted with Gerard about his wicked past and good survival instincts.
When you worked at Sweetwater in Brooklyn your name was Paul Williams but now it's Paul Gerard. Are you hiding out from somebody?
My name is Paul Gerard Williams and I started using Paul Gerard when I was in bands. I got sick of hearing: "Paul Williams? Oh, he wrote The Love Boat theme and hangs out with Muppets." It didn't fit the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.
You're more of an Anthony Bourdain-style, pirate chef.
Drugs, sex and rock-and-roll, that's what it was like when I started cooking in the '80s. A totally different world.
What made it change?
Culinary TV. Now you have people who are changing careers and think it'll be really fun to be a chef. They don't want to put in the grueling time of being a line cook. They say they have a passion for cooking, but passion is fleeting. It's true love that fuels the fire. It's better now in some ways. With drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll, eventually things crash. People are more together now; it's more organized. There's no more yelling and pan-throwing. The edge is gone.
So you wouldn't want to be a celebrity chef.
Not particularly, unless it was on my terms. I did do a sizzle reel called Work the Line, produced by Anthony Bourdain's people, but I don't want to dance like a monkey.
I heard you used to have a bit of a drug problem.
Keith Richards was my idol ever since I was a kid but it's hard to live like that when you're not actually in the Rolling Stones. I very much lived an outlaw lifestyle. I had a lot of ups and downs but the one constant all the way through it was cooking. No matter how bad I was being I showed up the next day and said, 'Yes, Chef.' It's the one thing that kept me alive and sane and connected to reality. There's a saying about a drunk man holding onto one blade of grass to keep from falling off the earth.
As for the rock 'n' roll part, what was your band called?
Baby Strange, after a T-Rex song. I sang, played drums and bass and became the front man in high school.
Did you finish high school?
Kind of. I went to Catholic school and was supposed to take wood shop. I said no, I don't need it, see you later. I was young and arrogant. My general manager at the restaurant said, 'For such a smart guy that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.' But I was a good student. I was so hungry for books, I got my education reading on the R train.
How did you give up the drugs?
I stopped using on an anniversary of 9/11. I was talking to a guy who was one of the first responders. He told me a story about another firefighter, that when the plane hit the tower he borrowed another guy's gear and went in. Later they found his wallet with a note to his family about how, if anything happened, they should know how much he loved them. My body went limp and I fell to the floor. It was an epiphany. I had never heard of somebody being so selfless. I realized I was running into burning buildings every day. I lived like a wild animal and then boom, the obsession went away. I never used again.
Above: Exchange Alley
Before that epiphany, you went to New Orleans to get clean. Odd choice.
A friend of mine in a pretty big band said, 'Man, you should move to New Orleans, focus on the alcohol, leave the drugs behind.' At 21, I thought it sounded great. It didn't work out. It took me another 17 years to leave it all behind.
Were you there during Katrina?
I left right before Katrina. I didn't want to live through another hurricane season. There was a creepy feeling and I knew it was time to go. I have very good survival instincts. I had the apartment on Exchange Alley for over ten years and I took everything and put it in storage. The apartment remained dry but my storage got looted. I lost everything.
No vices now?
Aside from bad one-liners, coffee and cigarettes.
I read that in the '80s you got started by cooking for the mob in Bay Ridge.
Back then the mob was still very prevalent. I was a teenager, a little naÃ¯ve, and I always saw them in party mode so everything was cool. Nobody else would tip you fifty bucks for shucking a half-dozen clams. We'd be running Bloody Marys out to cop cars at two in the afternoon.
The last place you worked before opening Exchange Alley was Soho House, right?
I was the chef there for almost two years. It was time to open my own place. I put my head down and got it done.
Were you there when that designer was found dead in the bathtub? I heard her boyfriend is coming to trial soon.
I can't talk about that.
Okay, I understand. Exchange Alley has a great vibe.
I want it to be like what White Horse Tavern used to be, actors talking to writers and poets and musicians, a place to exchange ideas, listen to music, drink coffee or a bottle of wine at eleven in the morning. Fly your freak flag. I care about food and I get that it comes from farms but I don't need a wagon wheel on the wall to remind me. This is still New York.
Old New York is disappearing.
It breaks my heart a little, it's so gentrified now. It's not that I want crime and violence but I miss the danger. The other day in Union Square it was so refreshing to see a crazy person in a wedding dress.
I bet your parents are happy you finally came around.
Very happy. My mother cried when she walked through the door.
424 E. 9th St.,
Photo of Gerard via @ChefPaulGerard