I’m not shy to admit it: I’m in love with New York City.
I always knew I’d live in New York and, being fortunate to grow up a mere 40 miles from her, the transition after college was easy. Yes, it took a bit until I instinctually knew the exact spot to enter a subway car so as to exits at the stairwell I’d want forty minutes later. It would be years before I could walk the West Village without wondering how the hell I’d found myself back on Bleeker again, or before I’d stop being intimidated by all the too-pretty people who seem to congregate on the UES and SoHo. But 13 years in, she and I are still passionate lovers, and now old friends.
Those ties go even deeper for chef Paul Gerard, a born-and-bred New Yorker who has one of my favorite attitudes of anyone working in NYC kitchens today. The first time I walked into one of his spaces, the East Village’s Exchange Alley (which closed after Gerard had moved on), I nodded my head with a, yeah, this feels good. I got the same down-home vibe at Belle Reve in Tribeca. So after visiting his latest, Ethyl’s Alcohol and Food on the Upper East Side, first to shoot photos of his menu and then on a first date, I knew I had to chat Gerard up again.
Mostly because I like to listen to him talk about old New York.
Here’s the full interview that I condensed for a Village Voice profile.
Chef Paul Gerard Walks Me Down (Pre)Memory Lane
Tell me about one of your first favorite restaurant memories in NYC.
I was twelve years old when I started in restaurants; the first job I had was as a busboy. By the time was I was thirteen, my hair was getting too long so the owner of the place – he used to call me Stoney because I smoked a lot of week already – told me I had to cut my hair or go into the kitchen. At the time, it was a world of cash: I would walk away as a busby with fifty to seventy-five bucks a night in cash. I was making two-hundred dollars a week. But I was determined not to cut my hair, so when he told me I’d have to be a dishwasher for twenty-five bucks a night, I went into the kitchen.
The guys were fantastic. They had a drive that was uncommon. Back then, there was a back of the house thing where you probably had anger issues, alcohol issues, and were antisocial to a certain point. These guys had a rock n roll sensibility to them, but they were into it. It was like being in a band; if you wanted to be in a band, you’d sit in a room and practice every day. These guys would be reading cookbooks every day. They’d be sitting with red devils in front of them, smoking some weed, with other “dry goods” in front of them, reading cookbooks, and I thought it was great. I was in bands at the point, but they would teach me how to cook. Unlike how it is today, they wouldn’t show me how to make something; I had to watch, and keep my mouth shut, and know how to hang.
Everyone now throws around the word “abuse”, but there really was abuse back then. It was Brooklyn in the early ‘80s. I didn’t recognize it as abuse: I opened my mouth and said something smart and they reacted. You learned how to be cool quick.
But my biggest memory was walking into the kitchen one day, and Mike Smith–who was the chef and seemed to be an absolute grownup but was probably nineteen–was surrounded by this wall of smoke, coughing, his eyes red. He looked like some sort of mustard gas test from the army. I was like WHAT ARE YOU DOING? And he was like, “I’m blackening!” He had Paul Prudhomme book’s open, and we went on this whole thing where we blackened everything for a while. It was the first time I saw something further than Italian-American food.
That got me to wanting to work in New Orleans. I worked in the city till I was 21, and then moved to New Orleans. New Orleans gave me serious training. Those guys in Brooklyn gave me my basics. As wild as they were, they had classic technique. Their stocks were perfect. They spent time butchering. It had to be in your soul back then; it wasn’t “I wanna be a chef because it looks really cool on TV.” It was in them the same way music is in a musician. That was very appealing.
Is any of that memory imbued into Ethyl’s?
Well, Ethyl’s is based on more of a ‘70s field than an early ‘80s feel. I wanted to go back further to my core of my nostalgia; to the things that dazzled me as a kid. My mother would take me to a Broadway play, and I can remember her wrapping her fingers around my eyes in Times Square and me peeking through them, looking for the little circle with an X on it, at the giant billboards, the way Times Square used to be.
Charlie’s Angels, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Fonz, the music, the soundtrack from Chico and the Man, Paul Simon, disco… all of those things are the world I grew up in.
I always had an affection for the darker side. I loved that stuff. I would get chills when I would see or hear certain things; even something like Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard. I knew the cobblestone streets, the guys on the corner with the cutoff denim vets, the guys on the chopper bikes, people on the stoop. It was a time in New York when it was dirty, gritty, violent, sexy and sexual. But it was also more of a neighborhood. Everyone knew each other. As much as it was drink-and-fight, drink-and-fight, there was a security in that. If you got off the train on 59th Street the guys would chase you, but you could stop on 69th Street knowing they’d stop, not coming into your hood.
NYC doesn’t have as much character now. I wanted Ethyl’s’ to take us back to that time.
What about that period do you want to carry with you in your restaurants today? What made them so special that you want to bring them back a bit?
We were in a harder environment back then. But we weren’t so… stiff, you know? One of the things I find myself saying all the time lately is, “Why can’t you fuck up?” We have to be respectful, we have to be PC. I don’t want to be hurtful to anyone, but we have to poke fun at ourselves! When you’re in an environment that’s a little rougher and people have to gather together to get through things, everybody’s a little looser. It gives you more gratitude. I guess it’s a primordial thing – if you don’t have dogs nipping at your heels, you don’t have anything to worry about so you nitpick at other things.
It seems insane to me, and I don’t wanna get political, but we still have Trump! We’re still talking about gender equality, and bathrooms… how is it possible that we’re going backward? New York used to be the pace where you could fly your freak flag–people coming to New York were adding to it. Now people seem to have too much time on their hands, or they’re too connected. Everybody’s offended at every little thing.
I do the social media for Ethyl’s, and when some people say things like “that might be a little offensive” on a sexy photo or something, the thing that always comes to mind is lighten the fuck up, people! It’s New York City! We’re in the greatest city in the world. I don’t know… you get what I’m saying? Everyone seems so nitpicky instead of letting loose. Go out and eat, drink, party, have a good time and enjoy the fact that you’re out in New York City. Why do we want to create a Midwest atmosphere here? Why do we want to regress on civil rights? We should break each other’s balls and have each other’s backs at the same time.
It was a better time. It was more liberal then than it is now. It’s crazy, too, because when I was a kid I grew up on 69th Street. If I broke a window on 75th Street, my mother would know about by the time I got home: someone called someone who called someone and it got back to my mother. I recently lived in Park Slope, and now everyone’s walking around with their yoga mats and cloth bags with quinoa sticking out, and if I say hi they flinch, like, “Why are you talking to me?” I want to say, “You’re getting it all wrong. If you’re not living in the moment and saying hi to your neighbors, then something’s amiss.
How do you imbue that spirit into a restaurant now?
It starts with the people. The people I have here are my crew, my family, the neighborhood. They’re the ones who I’m very fortunate in, that the ethos I put out to them that I want tapped into who they are innately. I have a lot of great people; they’re funny, they’re friendly, they’re courteous. People say this feels like a “downtown place uptown”. But I say, we’re nice! We’re not too cool for school. The cool people I know are cool. They’re not dicks. Don’t be a dick! Let’s not be dicks. It goes back to the lighten up thing. Enough. There’s enough trauma in the word, enough bad shit going on. A little gratitude and being nice to each other makes a world of difference.
Flip side, what about that part of your history are you glad still isn’t around?
The biggest thing is the addiction. When I was a kid, that kitchen environment was exactly what I needed because I was gonna do that stuff anyway. The kitchens of New York welcomed me with open track-marked arms. I loved that aspect of it. Now, you hear, “Oh that dude’s a total rock star.” That guy wouldn’t have survived in that old New York. The guys I grew up with partied like actual rock stars. But, those guys are either dead or in AA.
It’s strange: one of the biggest things that comes up with friends of mine who are chefs and have been there is that we wouldn’t want to have that level of abuse again or put anybody through the things we went through. But when I was coming up, you came to work with “I hope I don’t get fired.” You’d work your ass off, harder and harder. If the chef didn’t speak to you, that was a good day. If you got kicked out, you’d leave with your tail between your legs, mortified because the chef sent you home. Pushing people and making them achieve their potential that isn’t possible anymore. Because pushing was a way of helping them get to the next level. Now, they’ll never get to the next level, because if you get to even level five people are like, “You can’t talk to me like that.”
Now, you tell a cook to leave and watch the smile spread on their face. That comfort zone is off. It could be just that you need to go faster, that you need to work harder, that your flavors need to be more on point. Getting that is harder to achieve without people crying abuse. It’s sad. You can go to the gym and your trainer’s gonna be screaming, “one more, give me one more”, and you don’t get off a bench and cry abuse. That happens in the kitchen. It’s not only detrimental to the business, but to the apprentice, too; to the dude learning. To push as hard as you can go brings satisfaction. There are times I thought I was gonna break and crumble with the pressure, but when my head hit the pillow at night (or the next morning) I had a huge satisfaction, and the next day I could push even further.
Tell me about the food menu. Why should people grab food along with their drinks and entertainment?
This kitchen can produce anything I can dream up. A lot of the guys have been with me for years; some started as dishwashers eight nine years ago, coming with me to various places and jobs. As I’ve grown, they’ve grown, and we’ve done it together. I’m very fortunate in that position that they already know my style, how clean I like things, the very basics, so I don’t need to train a staff every time. I’ve been cultivating people for years.
It’s all basic French and Italian technique anyway, so my cooks know what I want with a demi. We’re eventually gonna move into more entrees, but I wanted to start with delicious, fun, unique bar food. But you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The same five things sell — guacamole, French fries, wings, hamburgers, fried calamari — so you take those things and make them delicious. It’s still my three-chord cuisine with the best possible products, made to taste good. It’s not my magnum opus, I just want it to be good: crunchy, salty, tasty, going well with beer.
Break down for me how you like your dishes to be balanced, or what makes these better than their cheap bar food counterparts.
I already have the answer to test; I know what people want to eat. So I approach it from a modest way that, yeah, it’s a bar menu. But I grew up in kitchens; the kitchen is my briar patch. Bar food doesn’t negate my 30+ years in the kitchen and my own standards. I still have certain things that I wanna do.
There are two chefs here: the chef I hired to run the kitchen, Joel Luna, and me. He was the chef at 212, and the Hotel Grand and SoHo House. He went and opened his own place for two years, sold it, and came back with me. So there are two people who are very well trained in this business. I could have opened a classic French restaurant, with the greatest hits of French cuisine, and he would pull it off the same way because that’s the way we’ve been trained.
Because we’re making simpler food, it doesn’t mean we approach it any differently. The same technique to reduce a demi is going into the Valentina hot sauce for the chicken wings. We go through a painstaking process of cleaning the wings, frying the wings, drying and frying them again, saucing them… the process doesn’t change in our minds. There’s no half step because it’s chips and guac: it’s still fresh herbs, and perfectly pickled chilies, and limes cut a certain way with no seeds in them. The standard hasn’t changed because the format or menu has.
Ethyl’s is already drawing a beautifully diverse crowd. As someone who’s lived in New York a long time – how do you do that? What’s the appeal for different types of people?
It’s interesting. The New York I was talking about before, the one I grew up in, a woman who’s lived for decades on the Upper East Side gets that, too. That friendliness, that camaraderie, the neighborly feeling, it’s like a secret handshake. We know what the other one is talking about because we’ve both been through it. It’s like the difference of someone who’s been punched in the face and someone who hasn’t. People who have been through shit are generally cooler – we can enjoy this, instead of picking on what isn’t right. Everything is a cooler vibe. Whatever you put out – music or a novel, any creative endeavor – you’re going to get people into that thing; the people in the past are going to want to experience it again, and the people who haven’t are going to want to for the first time. Even if you take everything else away from Ethyl’s – people want the experience we’re creating for the most part. They want a good drink, tasty food, and spending time with people who are fun and cool and friendly. They want to listen to good music and enjoy their time. It’s like, lighten up!
The old New Yorkers on the UES are totally digging it. Everything now… not to say anything bad about anyone else, but have we not had enough of inner city barns? I get it … food comes from farms. But we’re in New York City. Lighten up.