Paul Gerard: Culinary TV ‘Ruins The Business’, Paula Deen’s Racism Is ‘Not Surprising’
Part one of our interview with the self-proclaimed Pirate Chef Paul Gerard of New York’s Exchange Alley went into his New Orleans background. But few people know that this journeyman chef not only shot his own television pilot about being a line cook with Tom Colicchio and Anthony Bourdain — he’s brushed shoulders with celebrity chef fame, fortune, and Andy Cohen. So why isn’t he chasing the cookbook/reality TV/morning show dream ? Read on to find out.
I noticed you filmed a pilot with Zero Point Zero [the production company behind Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown]. You said later in an interview that you weren’t going the “celebrity chef” route.
It wasn’t really that I didn’t want to go through with it, the times just didn’t dictate it. I took the job at Soho House which ended up being a bigger job than I expected. Having Tom [Colicchio] and Tony [Bourdain] as executive producer, it was difficult to get meetings together. One’s in Cambodia, one’s in Dallas; next week he’s in San Francisco — it was a little difficult, so I put my day job first.
How did you get involved with Zero Point Zero and Bourdain?
I was consulting at two restaurants uptown and I couldn’t get good help, so I met with a very good friend of mine, the chef at Riverpark. We had met in New Orleans in ’93. We were talking about how it was ridiculous I still had to work the line every day. I was quote-unquote “Chef” and I can’t get good help. I said it was because of culinary TV. It ruins our business. It tells kids that you’re going to go to culinary school because you like cooking, you’re going to learn how to cook, leave, and become a chef.
Not just a chef, but a “Star!”
Exactly. Crisp white chef coat, glass of merlot, sitting at the table, like every other picture you see. And that’s how it was: nobody wanted to be a cook. Nobody wanted to bust ass constantly for 12 hours and do their time. And I said, if I’m going to be doing this, we should film it. We get a soapbox and tell people what it’s really like. We both kinda laughed and there was a moment of silence and we looked at each other and said, maybe we should.
I was talking to my friend — the guy who was the rock ‘n roll agent — and I asked him how I go about it. He said, ‘you gotta get a reel together and all that.’ So I put an ad out on Craigslist to wanted, budding Cassavetti. I got some kid for 400 bucks and he gave it to Tom Colicchio and he loved it, and gave it to Tony, and he loved it. And that was that. We got the ball rolling.
It would be great to have an honest look about what goes on because really, the food industry isn’t as glamorous as people think it is.
It’s really not that hard for me. There’s so much love involved. I love the excitement of every bit about it, even the tough and horrible parts about it, and might love them more sometimes. It was very difficult to translate to networks what would happen in the show. So they would say, ‘Do you yell?’ And I would say, ‘No, only if I have to.’ I want to convey the achievement on a daily basis. You have four or five people in the kitchen and they have to feed 200 people in the matter of four hours, with 20 different plates and three main ingredients on each plate. So that’s 16 ingredients of perishable product that has to go out and it just keeps growing exponentially. The amount of focus and dedication it takes to get through that, with the smoke in your eyes and a knife in your hands, fire licking in your face. It really is brutal. But they would say, ‘where’s the conflict’?
The conflict is between the kitchen and the rest of the world…
Right, and then you look outside and the candle is flickering, the light is low, everybody is drinking wine, and they get these beautiful plates presented to them that are absolutely perfect. They are enjoying themselves and loving life and they have no idea that some guy is in the back wrapping [his] finger with duct tape and people in the back [are] patting their face so they don’t die from heat exhaustion. It’s like that from when you get there in the morning to the moment you leave. It’s constant. You do not stop.
Why is it so hard to convey to people entering the restaurant business that their life is not going to be, like you said, sitting in a chair, drinking Merlot?
Yeah, I don’t know. There’s a lot of culinary schools that are getting sued because people are getting out and they’re getting barista jobs, saying that the school said they’d be a chef. And a lot of the schools are actually giving them their money back. I don’t understand why somebody hasn’t gotten up and said: this is really the deal on a day to day basis. It’s very strange, people are saying food is the new rock ‘n roll. But it’s like, there’s no alternative. We’re represented by housewives and buffoons.
The picture they’re painting that you’re either leaning into a panel saying, ‘Hey, I can hear the clams talking to me,’ or someone whisking something and it’s all cleavage, and you could care less what she’s actually making, or some guy with sunglasses on the back of his head. And that’s not me, that’s not my colleagues, and that’s not everyone I know in the business that is wholeheartedly dedicated to what they are doing on a daily basis. It’s high time someone said that I wanna know what really happens.
Yeah, people have tried to do that but I’m not sure what happens to those shows. I feel like the networks meddle with it, or it’s the Rocco DiSpirito effect [read: The Restaurant].
That’s the thing, the producer will always get involved. They’ll whisper one thing to the other guys and they want to create conflict. That’s such a hard thing I tried to convey to the producer and the networks, or the the “net-wits”, as Tony refers to them. The conflicts are there, that isn’t something we have to put in. There’s something every single day in the restaurant. Like when I got my first executive chef job, the guy who was hiring me said, ‘Why should I hire you?’ and I said ‘because I’m a great cook,’ and he said ‘I don’t care if you’re a great chef. I’m hiring you because of your decision-making skills.’
And that’s really what it comes down to on a daily basis. Top Chef is really “Top Cook.” If you had to see them hire a crew, keep their labor in order, do all the administration on a daily basis and maintain quality and put out 200 dishes — not just one or five. It goes so much further than that, and nobody has a grasp about what goes on behind the swinging doors.
Or the patience to really follow through, from a network point of view.
I was talking to a producer and he said the same thing, that he didn’t really get it. We were sitting at a table and I said, come back [to the kitchen for] a second, I have about seven tickets I need to pick up. He stood there and watched us bang out 25 dinners in under five minutes. And stood there, a little flabbergasted, and said, ‘I get it.’ And you have to see it because nobody knows. And if there at a place with an open kitchen, the open kitchen is designed to be very cool, calm and collected. Otherwise it’s like a mosh pit back there, but a very elegant moshpit…
It’s unfortunate, because TV is totally driven around the trainwreck. When I would go to the network guys, I wanna show how they achieve, I wanna show people who are highly skilled, like a basketball game. If you were to do a reality show about basketball, they wouldn’t want that elegance. They want to see the Harlem Globetrotters, but the bad side: people tripping over themselves and not scoring baskets. I don’t understand why it has to be like that. It’s amazing to watch people succeed and be really good at what they do. But [the networks] want trainwrecks. I think it’s, not to start sounding like Fran Lebowitz, but it’s really lowering the bar on the culture.
I wonder if movies would have the same effect on the food culture.
They’re starting to break into that, more movies are starting to come out.
I feel like there’s a more positive reaction to movies than culinary television.
Television, at this point, is huge business. There’s 14 million people in the industry and that doesn’t even count the people who just love food. Food these days is what partying and cocaine was in the ’80s. It really is. I hear these kids in the neighborhood saying how they had this great tartare last night. I might have been talking about it because it was my business, but my friends weren’t talk about the newest restaurant, or the newest trend, or the newest pickles. Now it’s gonna save the economy because although people don’t have a lot of money, they are willing to spend $12 on a bag of homemade jerky from Brooklyn…It’s a totally different focus. And I don’t understand why someone isn’t telling what it’s really like. I would find it interesting.
That’s our entire mission. We cover a lot of culinary television, though we can’t get all the Bravo shows.
Oh God. I met with Andy Cohen. It was pretty funny.
Oh really? What’d he do?
It was a big meeting. Tom and Tony were there, our agents and production company was there. And he leaned over and said — [leans in intimately, folds his hands, and makes his eyes sparkle] — ‘So tell me about you.’ After I went through my whole story of New Orleans and Brooklyn, the whole pirate lifestyle thing, and then he said, ‘OK, thanks’ and he left after about 20 minutes and after gathering everybody together. I turned to Tony and said that I don’t think he like me very much and I shouldn’t have said anything about throwing TVs out of windows and said, ‘No, no, you did good. Fuck him.’
I figured “throwing TVs out of windows” would be Andy Cohen’s bread and butter.
Everyone thinks they have this formula about what culinary TV should be. There’s a shimmering around everything happening and everyone is sick of it, because it doesn’t represent us. That’s why The Ramones couldn’t handle arena rock. They couldn’t take another stick song. So they picked up their instruments and said, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I don’t wanna do Supertramp again.’ And that’s kinda what I’m dealing with: a broadcast Supertramp that’s telling everybody what my life’s work is.
It would suck to be reduced down to, ‘This is a guy who threw a TV out of a window! Isn’t he crazy?’
‘Ooh, the rock ‘n roll bad guy.’ And yeah — I have quite a past and quite a story, but now I have business, my kids, so I wouldn’t want to be classified as a bad boy, because I’m not that guy anymore. But I definitely have something to say from what’s been said. I don’t think it needs to be said nasty, and I don’t think it needs to be derogatory towards anyone else, and I don’t need to be a curmudgeon about it. Or snarky about it, as they say. It can be very straightforward. I don’t need to get angry about it, although I probably will.
Speaking of angry, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you anything to do about the Paula Deen scandal.<
I’m not that guy who’s gonna pick on somebody’s grandmother. To me that’s not a scandal. JFK bedding Marilyn Monroe is a scandal. I would read that article.
Do you think JFK bedded Marilyn Monroe?
God, I hope so…but [in regards to Paula Deen], I don’t care. I’ve read a couple headlines but I have so much to do and so many good books I haven’t read. So many things that, if I had ten minutes to read, I would. I don’t care. The woman is a multimillionaire. Go home and play with your grandkids. I don’t get why everyone’s picking on her. I don’t even know what happened, so it doesn’t matter to me.
There was a legal deposition involving Paula Deen and her brother in which this woman who worked for the restaurants alleged that they harassed her and frequently used the N-word.
Oh really? I didn’t even know that.
And Paula Deen, in the deposition that leaked online, admitted to using the N-word.
I mean, is that shocking? She’s from how many generations of Georgia? It’s prevalent down there and I don’t put that past her or anybody from Georgia. It’s still Georgia. It’s sad.
Sad but true. The entire world freaked about it collectively, then she didn’t apologize adequately enough and all her sponsors dropped her. The Food Network fired her.
If she’s actually racist and treating people like that, then she deserves it.
It’s one of those scandals you had to watch unfold in real time. You had better things to do, I think.
Kinda glad I wasn’t… I saw something the Dalai Lama said on Facebook recently. You’ll see press about one person that treats their child poorly or one kid that gets abused, but there has never been press on the millions of people that show up everyday and love their kids and give them a really great childhood. And I think that’s a shame that’s how our whole culture is focused. There’s enough shit going on. That’s why I’m such a big fan of the whole “eat, drink, and be merry” thing. We have today, and that’s it. I’m not gonna spend my time watching Mob Wives pull out hair, or Paula Deen being a bigot. That stuff’s out there but I don’t need it in my life. I don’t want it in my life.
True, but I forget which Russian said every family is similar, but every unhappy is different in their own way. I guess people like to watch the unhappy family. Not to say your point is completely invalid, because I think it’s a much better way to go about life, but I guess it kinda explains why…
Well it makes people feel better about themselves. If I watch a family that is a total trainwreck, I’m gonna say, ‘wow, at least I’m not that bad.’ Some sort of soothing, I guess. I just don’t subscribe to that.
This turned into a really philosophical interview. I just realized that.
Well, you know it all ties in… They say religion is for people who are afraid of hell and spirituality is for people who have been there. I’ve been there. I’ve gone through some horrible things in life and I’ve put myself into half of them. It’s just not how I wanna live today. I wanna have a nice restaurant. I wanna have my family and friends around me, and I want to focus on making things better, not tearing them down.
It comes down to interactions on a daily basis. Smile. Being nicer. And I’m trying. I’m not saying I don’t want to put my fist through a wall sometimes, because I do, but it’s not gonna make anything better. You talked earlier about maturity. Even five years ago, I would have stood next to a wall, punching it, broke the bones in my hand. Now I have the sensibility to at least say, look there’s a door.
Haha, not every door needs to be punched.
That’s where I am. It’s what keeps me going. They say if you do what you love, you don’t work a day in your life. I work my ass off, but I love it. It’s a better fuel.
Paul Gerard On Being A Pirate And Bringing The Big Easy To The Big Apple
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This interview has been edited and condensed for length.