Lil' Deb's Oasis & Food Art
“We always knew that we wanted to be more than just a restaurant. I think that’s what happened when we started working together. We knew that our language was beyond food and not just about our aesthetic. Our desire was not only to make a dish and feed it to people, but it was about the experience and the feeling and the whole thing from start to finish.” — Carla Perez-Gallardo
“When we did the pop-up it was much more of a catering project called ‘Table Table’ that was just us, and we would go do different things with galleries. But when we did the pop-up at 'Little Deb’s' it was as a collaboration between us and a curatorial group with which we were working. We wanted everything to tie in together from the art on the walls to the placemats. We had some dishes that were more art projects than food.” —Hannah Black
Interview by Oskar Peacock / @downwardddog666
Photos by Guzman / @lesguzman
Lil Deb's Hudson, NY / @lildebsoasis
Oskar Peacock: How long has Lil' Deb’s Oasis been operating?
Hannah Black: It started in August when we were doing pop-ups. We just wanted to have a restaurant. We were doing catering and pop-up projects and we were looking to have more ownership of a space.
OP: And the previous restaurant in the space now occupied by Lil Deb’s Oasis was a diner owned by Debbie, the current landlord of Lil' Deb’s Oasis?
HB: Little Debbie’s restaurant was open from 6 in the morning to 11 in the morning, and served things like, potatoes, bacon, eggs, pancakes…. we never went there because we were never out of the house before 11[am]. It’s hard (Carla laughs). So one of our friends approached her and asked if we could do a pop-up, and she said yeah, totally, and was totally down. She had been a single mother, married four times, which may explain her personality a little bit. She had run this business by herself for twenty years. So the restaurant wasn’t the model we were going for but we were inspired by her energy.
Carla Perez-Gallardo: When we opened the restaurant keeping the name [Lil' Deb’s] was a very conscious decision to pay homage to the past, because we found that in Hudson there is a lot of newness happening that comes in and erases old landmarks or histories and we wanted to make a nod to the fact that Debbie had been there.
OP: Not a lot of restaurants have collaborators listed on their website such as galleries and other artists in the area. How did your relationship to the art community inform your conceptualization of the restaurant?
HB: For me I got into food because I love my community, which is the art community. And I was beginning to get bored with painting. The gallery world was not resonating with me but I loved my friends and I loved my community and was always cooking dinner and having people over, and that’s where I found my passion and creativity. Moving forward to today, I don’t see myself being solely part of the food community.
CPG: There are similarities between how exclusive both communities are. And I think that’s something special about our relationship that we share. It’s not disdain but a certain kind of awareness and a desire to not work in a way similar to those communities; to not have our space, our food or our concepts feel alienating to anyone. I never felt part of the art world and I don’t relate to networking, to the gallery system. I don’t desire to be a part of it.
HB: I just got over “The Gallery World." In New York, especially, it can be a little bit toxic. I was working so much and I could afford to have an art studio, but because I was working so much I never had the time to get to my studio. When I started working in restaurants, I knew that I wanted a restaurant and FOOD, Gordon Matta-Clark’s project in the ‘70s, was the coolest thing that ever happened. But when I got into the food world in New York, I realized it was not that different from the art world. It’s very male dominated; there are kings who oversee everything. It’s definitely based around whom you know, where you’ve been and for whom you have worked in the past.
"When we did the original pop-up at Deb's, we asked 30 local artists to design a placemat for one of the 30 seats in the restaurant. We wanted to think of other ways art and artists could interact with the food and space than just on the walls. We still use them interchangeably at the seats at the bar- its fun because they are all so different and funny."
OP: Does your artistic background come into play when considering the aesthetic elements of the dish?
CPG: I think so. I’ve worked in kitchens where, of course, color is taken into consideration. I think any chef would say, ‘Yes I have a relationship to color.’ But I feel like, for serious chefs or chefs that were trained and have a particular historical art reference for how they think about making food, color is not primary element, and isn’t for us either but we think a dish is often not complete until it has a full color profile and a flavor profile that accompanies it.
HB: And sometimes it’s like an Agnes Martin style dish, and we want it that way but that’s not always our ultimate goal. When I was thinking about getting into cooking I got so excited about it because painting is two-dimensional and really just involves the visual. Food is so cool because the first thing you get is this visual element, then you can smell it, and, on top of that, the music we play in the restaurant is really important to us. That’s the aural element in the space. Then, obviously, there are taste and texture. It affects all the senses. And having our own restaurant, we have the ability to control the experience.
OP: In your experience, as both artists and now restaurant owners, where is the line between the presentation of art and of food? By participating in the symposium at PS1 as a performance, where you’re serving and feeding people, you’ve become a part of the art exhibit. Do you find that you’ve come full circle?
CPG: Totally. I feel, finally, after years of being like, ‘What am I? Who am I?’ I’ve found peace with that. I think for a long time I’ve had a hard time identifying as an artist. I would tell people, ‘I’m an artist!’ And then when I started cooking I was like, ‘I’m a chef!’ But I never really owned those words. But now this feels very natural, and I think the space that both of us exist in most comfortably is straddling both of those identities.
HB: Like I said before, people would always ask me, ‘Hey are you still painting?’ because, ever since I was a kid, I was always painting and drawing. And I kind of hate that question because, no, I’m not working with acrylic or oil paint but what I’m putting my energy into is the space. And when I talk about playing the food…
CPG: Yeah we’re playing the Ceviche all the time. (Laughs)