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An Interview With Exchange Alley's Gardener/Chef Paul Gerard

Photo by Sara Keough

Paul Gerard Exchange Alley

For the fall 2013 issue of Great Gardens, I interviewed Paul Gerard, chef and co-owner of Exchange Alley about the vegetable garden that he tends behind this "New Orleans meets the Big Apple" restaurant, which opened in 2012. You can read my article and see pictures of the garden in Great Gardens. Here's the full transcript of the exchange between Paul and me.

Maria Woodie (MW): What made you start the garden behind the restaurant? When did you start it?

Paul Gerard (PG): It’s every chef's dream to have their own garden, and it’s few and far between that New York City chefs have such a luxury. When I purchased the property our first inclination was to have backyard seating, but since that was squashed due to zoning, I immediately drew up plans for a garden. I enlisted my good friend, Chef Sisha Ortuzar of Riverpark (which has the largest farm within city limits) to assist me in the building and planning, and together we achieved a beautiful and productive garden with planters made out of recycled palettes, hot boxes made of old pane-window doors, and rows and rows of milk-crate planters.

MW: When did you start the garden?

PG:I started the garden immediately after I bought the place. We purchased in early May and after a very diligent month of planning and planting, Sisha and I were eating herbs by mid-June.

MW: How long have you been a chef?

PG: I’ve been in restaurants since I was 13 years old, a full time line cook by 15. At 44 . . . it’s been a long time.

MW: How long have you been gardening?

PG: Since I built this one! Fortunately, I’ve learned I have a green thumb, but I think anything that is shown enough love will succeed.

MW: How big is the garden?

PG: It's 25 by 50 feet. There are 6 large palette planters, one very large cinder block planter running the length of the wall, one hot box, and dozens of crates.

MW: How has the garden grown over the years? What all does it include?

PG: Last year I did a huge variety of things: okra, grapes, squash, tomatillos, chilies, herbs, tomatoes, lettuces. It was too much. I didn’t get a big enough yield. I’d “harvest” and say, "Oh, great, I have 2 eggplants." It couldn’t sustain even a daily special. This year I’m focusing only on herbs—many varieties including ancient Aztec herbs epazote & papalo)—tomatoes—beefsteak, yellow pear, green grape, red grape, Cherokee heirloom—and chilies—mostly cayenne but also cherry peppers, habaneros and bell peppers. I also do a fair amount of arugula, grown from seeds my friends grandfather brought with him from Italy, red frill mustard and micro greens.

MW: How do you make the best use of your space?

PG: I use vertical gardening by stacking crates, I have hanging plants, pots, planters, old sinks, tubs…even old toys filled with plants. I have built a “ramshackle” New Orleans–style courtyard, with works of art, old mannequins, gold bikes, searchlights, antique gas cans, toys, old sleds, wrought iron and cool old watering cans and sprinklers. It really gives that feel like it’s been there for quite some time.

MW: What is your story? Are you from New Orleans originally or what inspired you to create a New Orleans themed menu?

PG: I’m from Brooklyn, NY. My menu actually isn’t New Orleans themed, it just has the feel and aspects of some of the things I love that invoke memories of that wonderful city. I always say this is a New York joint with a New Orleans feel. The Big Apple to the Big Easy. I lived there for 15 years, so of course it’s touched me in many ways. When I lived there, I worked at more classically inspired places. Classic French and Italian technique. I didn’t cook Creole food, nor do I now, but I will employ aspects and flavors of things that bring fond memories. I want to have fun with it. I’ve done my time, I learned my scales, and played the classics for years. Now, I deserve to riff.

MW: Do you incorporate all of your edible plants into your recipes? What are your favorite dishes from the menu?

PG: I utilize everything I have, even inadvertently feed the local squirrels at times. I am very herb heavy in my food. I love the freshness of herbs, and being that they are usually very expensive, it’s great to have an abundance on hand. I am a big proponent of “more”…more herbs, more chili, more lemon, more salt! I like to take things to a level that the home cook would never do. It’s extravagant and aggressive to a point that it makes a huge difference. My Green Goddess dressing has almost ten times the amount of herbs the original recipe calls for. My tomato salad is tossed with basil just picked. The fried green tomatoes—the squirrels only eat ripe ones, so now I pick them all green—are picked daily. This isn’t even “farm to table” it’s “straight to the plate." It’s picked, washed, and served. Nothing is wasted, and everything is day-of.

MW: What are your favorite plants and/or focal points from the garden? Why?

PG: I like it all. If I had my way, I’d commandeer the other yards so I could quadruple the size of the garden. For me to pick a favorite herb or vegetable…my desert-island scenario would be impossible. It really is like asking me which of my children I love more.

MW: Do you only have a garden behind the restaurant, or do you garden at home as well?

PG: I have windowsill herbs, and a few potted plants, but I’m not home enough to really blow it up. I do spend a fortune on flowers though. I love the look and feel of live things in my home, but I also do not want anything to die, so the cut flowers satisfy me for now.

MW: With fall quickly approaching, do you have any highlights within your garden that you are looking forward to?

PG: I am in the process of planning the fall/winter garden. I have a few urban-farm interns that are working with me, and we’ll move to kale, mustard, collards and other durable greens that will actually thrive through the winter. I planted kale last year and it was still coming up in February. It’s really nice to look out the back doors, past the snow-covered ground, and see me clipping some greens you’re about to eat.

MW: What plants are you most excited to harvest for fall season?

PG: I’m excited for the rainbow chard. It tastes great. But looks really lovely in the planters.

MW: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you or your garden?

PG: Please come take some mint! (Laughs.) They should come by and I’ll give them a tour of course, then they should stay and eat. Our herbs are even in the cocktails!

Exchange Alley is located at 424 E. 9th St, New York NY. Visit the website for more info.