Hawkins New York: Just to prelude what we're going to talk about, how did you get to know [our founders] Nick and Paul?
Halo Kaya Perez-Gallardo: I mean, it's a great question. I feel like we just met Nick and Paul as customers. And then in a small town, you get to know the other small business owners in town. Paul and I reconnected more recently because he was eating alone at the bar at Deb's. And I was like, “What's up? I haven't seen you in so long.” I hadn't seen them for two years. And it was that moment of being like, wait, I recognize you.
Actually… [we reconnected] at their old location, where they used to have the store. I went in there looking for a gift for a friend — I literally was on the way to the birthday party — and I was like, “Do you guys have a bread knife in here?” And then out of nowhere Paul's like, “We do.” [laughs] So we went back to the [Hawkins] warehouse and got a bread knife. And after they had been so generous, I sent them the cookbook, which they've been cooking out of. That’s just been cute to see.
HNY: Yeah, they have been gushing about the cookbook. We would love to know if you have a favorite recipe? Or since summer is coming, if there's something summery you would like to share or talk about [from the cookbook]?
HKPG: I would say that the Spicy Chorizo Larb is a really good one, we almost bring it back every summer, and it's great for sharing with friends. I think [Nick and Paul] actually made this when they were making [food] from the book. I'm sure you're familiar with Larb, but it's a classic Vietnamese, Laotian, and Malaysian dish, and we do it with chorizo that's made locally in the area, within 10 miles. We make a fish sauce caramel that’s sweet and spicy and pungent. And then there's tons of herbs and lettuces and fried shallots and pickled chillies. It's just so fun to eat with your hands and it's my favorite thing in the summer because it's protein but also fresh. In the summer, when I only want to eat fruit, this is the fruit-meat dish of the summer. [laughs] It just goes down. It's really light, it doesn't feel heavy at all.
Another one is our Tuna Tataki. It's a good dish for later in the summer when it's more grape season, but you can definitely substitute with other fruits. You could try it with strawberries in earlier June before grapes are out, but it's really just a wonderful dish. It came together out of nowhere and now I feel like it's emblematic, as one of our signature dishes. It’s basically super fresh tuna that you sear on all sides, but keep it raw in the center, and then slice it. And then we made a Nước chấm with grapes — Nước chấm is a Vietnamese dipping sauce that usually has fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, and shallots. But we use the concord grape as the main sweetener and then add a little bit of sugar and still keep the fish sauce, the shallots, and a little chili, too. But you pound the fish a little bit, you sear it, and then you pound the grapes and add all the seasoning and then sear the fish, slice it, dress it, and we serve it on little shiso leaves. So it's also a one bite thing. It would be a really good appetizer for a garden party, for sure.
HNY: It sounds like a complex composition in a way. There's a lot of dynamic interaction, which is really interesting, and in terms of having a dinner party, that's visually a nice focal point. If you were setting a table, would you put the food as the centerpiece?
HKPG: Yeah, always. Maybe I have a flower arrangement on the table as guests arrive, but then all that's going away for the food for sure. [laughs] The complexity, I think, is cool to hear you say it just because when I saw Paul, he was like, “[The cookbook recipes are] not easy”. And I was like, yeah, it's true. It's not. But we wrote this book definitely with new cooks in mind. In the beginning, we really go through just the basics of how to build your pantry and what tools you need and what tools we love. I feel like we set people up for success. So even if you're a new cook, it's definitely a book that you can get into and have fun with. We do a lot of hand holding throughout it. We break down the steps and say encouraging things like, “Don't get too scared,” or “We know this sounds hard, but we're there for you.”
HNY: It sounds like that reflects the ethos of your restaurant as well. I know that community is such a central aspect of Lil’ Debs. How would you personally define the word community or what does that look like in your life?
HKPG: Oh God. Yeah, I mean, you're definitely right. Community feels really essential to who we are. And I mean, I think it's such an overused term. I think especially in business, it's like the new flashy word that legitimizes you or is supposed to. I don't know, especially like, post-COVID and uprisings, I feel like everyone is being a community hub or something. And I think there's beauty and truth to that — I'm sure tons of good intentions too — but I also think it's super commercialized and often empty. Hopefully, we are not that version.
I think it is a really complex term because I would say our immediate community within the restaurant is a community of queer servers and queer cooks and people of color and folks that are often marginalized, that find themselves excited and happy to work in a place that feels welcoming to who they are. And then there's the wider community of Hudson, which is very diverse. That feels like a way more challenging question because the community of Hudson is economically diverse too: There's class diversity. There's a Bangladesh community that's actually really big here. And then there's Warren Street, which feels super white and rich and not that welcoming. And then there's a big Latin American community. And then there's Section 8 housing down the street.
We've tried to be really intentional in how we build our business, in the sense of really wanting our space to feel welcoming to everyone. But I would be remiss to say that we can or have succeeded. And that's partially because it's like, by simply opening our doors, we participated in gentrification for sure. And I think there's the age old story of “Gentrification starts when the artists move in” and the artists are like, “This is a cool neighborhood”. And then that gesture pushes other people out. So then the bigger businesses come and the coffee shops and blah, blah, blah. And so when we opened, we maybe were more naive and thought somehow we could move unscathed without having had that impact or something, or make all the right choices to avoid participating in the violence.
But the truth is that we have made a great impact for better or worse, I think. We definitely do things to mitigate that. I mean, we donate 69 cents from every menu item to mutual aid. And the mutual aid projects that we choose are deeply embedded in Hudson and run by people that grew up here. Some of them are food justice projects, some of them are educational projects, some of them work with kids, some of them are farm related. So there is a responsibility that we take in a stewardship that we hope to lead by example in the reparative work we're doing.
HNY: Okay, last question. What do you hope for in the future of Lil Deb’s and your own personal future?
HKPG: So we're in the process of building out a new space two doors down from where we currently are. And the plan with that is to be able to expand, to have a larger footprint, to have outdoor seating, to have an event space. And that's super exciting and really scary and intimidating. But mostly, I feel really elated at the opportunity to expand the things that we have done in small doses and do them more consistently and in more space. A lot of that overlaps with community work that I think has felt really limiting in the space that we have and with the current business model that we have.
So yeah, that new space will have an event space where we can host our own events, curate our own shows, host music and performances, and also provide a lot of community programming. So our hope is to have free dinners once a month and be able to have workshops for children that are free and have free yoga classes. So many of the people that work with us are multi-hyphenate type people, like a server and a yoga teacher and a self defense instructor and a musician, so being able to empower the people that already are involved in the network of Deb’s to also get paid by us to do other things that we can offer them the community for free is a really exciting prospect.
I think the first few years were just a struggle to run a business and to stay up with the day to day and to not be so drained. And then the next few years were like, getting used to being popular and keeping up with volume and getting the systems in place to run a smooth business. And I feel like the last few years… because I've had the time and space to step back a little bit more have also really made me feel like I need to ask myself and ask everyone involved in the operations of the business: Where does it feel like our values don't align with who we say we are? Where are the gaps in the experience of, for example, our employees who work here? And do they feel like our values align in their day to day experience? The answer is yes in some places and no in others. And how do we repair the no and turn it into yes? I'm an Aquarius, and for me, it's always been really important to feel like I'm doing the right thing. Not always the right way but it's about the feeling in myself of feeling at peace and like I can sleep at night knowing that we did the right thing morally. So, yeah, I think this moment is about being like, okay, we've grown, we're almost 10 years old. What do we do with that experience? What do we do with that power?