Breathing Its Own Magic

Gilian Rappaport with Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo 

“That is our practice, changing people through the lived experience of eating with us, and all of the sensations that they have.”


How do our senses shape the socially engaged artwork? How do the relationships within the collective define its form, and what guides those formational decisions?  

Recently for me, this question has intersected with my interests in queer aesthetics, storytelling, flavor exploration, and frameworks of collaboration. I have been pleased to find a sparkling intersection for these curiosities in Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, a James-Beard nominated restaurant, art installation, and queer mecca in Hudson, New York. The restaurant was founded by chefs and artists Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo and Hannah Black in 2016. 

In 2019, I was love-struck to discover Lil’ Deb’s Oasis through their ‘Gala Extravaganza 2.0: The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (see feature from their first Gala in 2018). I was particularly captivated by their celebration of community art – bringing together the owners, beloved staff, cherished food vendors, local artists, and lively restaurant guests. A multi-course dinner extravaganza in their signature style of ‘tropical comfort’ was flanked by performances from the resounding local 20-person samba band Berkshire Bateria, followed by drag performances from community members Celeste and Davon. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020-2021, the Lil’ Deb’s team temporarily closed their restaurant and instead, incarnated as Fuego 69 in the backyard of a nearby hotel. There, Deb’s offered “zing-zangy frisky-fresh pescatarian hippie food right off the grill,” standing on a promise of reciprocity by donating 69 cents of every item sold to local and national racial justice causes and community organizations amid the George Floyd protests. Each Lil’ Deb’s offering contrasts with the way that many food establishments in the Catskills can feel aesthetically homogenous and exclusive. Doesn’t the familiar look of white walls, pine bars, and exposed brick cue a certain kind of food experience and model of leadership? 

When my friend Seth Caplan asked me to accompany him on a photoshoot of Carla’s home in early 2022, we all spoke about queerness as an uncontainable container, layering as a visual device, and the importance of reciprocity in community care. Carla agreed to continue the conversation as a phone interview a few weeks later. What I found in Carla was their embrace of queer hospitality as a mode of being, including the changing and evolving life of the restaurant itself. I, too, aim to embrace change wholeheartedly, but for me this tendency has often felt scattered. In Carla, I saw the opportunity for this as a generative space from which to build endless inspiration and connection.

Food offered at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis. Image by Heidi’s Bridge. 2019. Courtesy of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis.

February 25, 2022

Gilian Rappaport: Hi Carla! To get started, will you share a little bit about the community around Lil’ Deb’s?

Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo: Hi Gil. Sure. When we opened five years ago, queer community felt disparate in the Hudson Valley. It didn’t feel like we were non-existent, it just felt like there was little infrastructure to support us. 

Opening the restaurant, we never sought to explicitly fill that hole, but as a queer person living and breathing in the Hudson Valley, and had been already for five years by the time the restaurant opened, it was born from this general desire to create community for younger artist types, who didn’t really fit into the spaces that were already existing around us. 

In many ways, I’m applying hindsight to this – seeing this need that was there.  I don’t think I felt as aware of that, specifically, in terms of queerness when we opened. 

Gilian: Do you remember where the project impulse was coming from?

Carla: At the time, we felt that there was no food that had heat and flavor, there was no place that felt young and alive. A lot of the places that were opening around here felt really ‘white wall, exposed brick, Brooklyn-comes-to-Hudson’ kind of energy. And we just felt really clear that we wanted to do something very different from that, and that we would be welcomed for that difference. And that was the main framework of our initial impetus to open the restaurant.

Gilian: Can you talk a little about what that meant aesthetically for you?

Carla: It meant a lot of bright colors, and neon lights. We often talk about an overwhelming sensorial experience, where you’re inundated with light, color, sound, and flavor all at once. Guests upon entering stand at the door and say, “Whoa, I didn’t know this existed here.” We’re a splash of… I hate saying “rainbow” because of its LGBTQIA associations in a very specific way, but a splash of super chromatic energy in the Hudson Valley. The Hudson Valley is such a verdant, vibrant, fertile place, but as it’s been developed, its aesthetic has become this homogenous thing— pine and black paint for the outside of your house, repurposed piping for your lighting— which started having this repetitive, cookie cutter quality all around us. Our aesthetics cut through that. It’s the acid in a dish that needs acid. It brings out so many of the other flavors and accents, everything in a way, which feels really necessary.

Staff at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis. Image by Heidi’s Bridge. 2019. Courtesy of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis.

Gilian: I love hearing you talk about the word chromatic. That really resonates with my experience being in this space. 

Will you talk a little bit about the role of performance, and food and service as performance?

Carla: When we first opened, it was really literal, because we opened with a team of servers who had no experience serving. And I remember one of our first pitches to them, all of them were artists, or curators, or painters, and our cue to them was, “Imagine what your quintessential idea of a waitress is.” Our space used to be a diner. And I remember referencing that classic 1950s epitome of a server, popping bubblegum, casually talking to guests, running to get the coffee. Very “homegrown, community, knows everyone, knows your neighbors” kind of thing. And we told our first crew of artists-servers “ut yourself in that place! Imagine being that quintessential waitress. What does she look like, what does she feel like? Put yourself into that mindset, and bring that to the table.” That was during our pop-up phase before we even had leased the space. (Read about their beginnings through the Wikipedia page “history”). It was really fun. We all felt like we were role playing in a way. At that point, I had never owned my own restaurant either, or been able to decide what the menu was, and the colors, and the lights. It felt like we were all playing house – we were role playing chefs, they were role playing servers. In a lot of ways, performance has always been at the core of our imaginative work, and has led us to manifest and really bring to life the fantasy. It was an internal dialogue around how to step into the role we wanted to play in the community.

Gilian: Are you still thinking about Lil’ Deb’s as a space of performance? 

Carla: Absolutely. A few years in, we started hosting Queer Night of Performance (QNOP) once a month, which was born from a conversation we had in the restaurant about wanting more queer celebration. Even though the restaurant had started to become an oasis and a mecca for queer people, it still felt like there wasn’t enough in-your-face queerness— total freedom, and being able to be super loud about it. 

We were still a restaurant, so we still had to hit all the points of what a restaurant hits, which in some ways automatically closes in on queerness. We’ve never told our staff to wear uniforms or any of the other ways that restaurants try to mitigate performance of the body. But the function of a restaurant is the function of capitalism in a lot of ways. There are certain things you have to do in order to perform the role of server well that limits the ecstatic exuberance of queerness, which is fundamentally anti-capitalist at its essence. Our staff was craving more expansiveness around their own queerness, apart from the performativity of it, and that’s how this conversation about QNOP started. Now I think QNOP is the most embodied way that we are still performing. 

Ále Campos aka Celeste. Queer Night Of Performance. Image by Leor Miller. Courtesy of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis. 2019.

Gilian: In my experience, everyone at Deb’s is performing in a way that transcends that base level requirement of what you need from your server. There’s a deeper sense of connection and openness starting with the hospitality, the flavors that you’re being introduced to through this person, and the way they are introduced. 

Carla: Yeah, in most cases, it’s that queer liberation coming through! But we still serve a majority of heteronormative, cis white straight people. In hospitality, our job is to be of service to everyone that walks through our doors. Part of the mission is to do it in an inclusive way that is about building community. That’s not always at the core of restaurants, and can also come into conflict with queer identity. 

Just, we run a business. Working at the restaurant is a job. We can’t escape from that. There is joy, and there is also work to be done and capital to be made. And all those things can limit the exuberance you experience while doing your job.

Gilian: Of course, thanks for elaborating on that. I want to talk about collaboration and what it means to really be collaborative in this ongoing art project. How do you navigate it as a mode of creativity? 

Carla: We go in and out of collaboration. The spirit of the project is very collaborative. And when I worked alongside my business partner [Hannah Black], it was definitely a full 50/50 collaboration on almost every element of the menu and design and all of that. But especially in the last seven months [since Carla became the sole owner, and the restaurant reopened following the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic], some elements of that have shifted. For example, I’ve taken a first pass at our reopening menu [for 2022] mostly on my own. I reference that because the word “collaboration” is so much about being in conversation with someone else’s ideas, and so in that sense, I want to say that we are not always 100% collaborative. But collaboration is core in really any restaurant work. It is impossible for it to be an individual’s work, without the erasure of the labor of so many minds and hands before the arrival of the final product or experience. So in that sense, we are 100% built on collaboration. 

There are always times where we’re trying to highlight someone else’s vision. Right now, we’ve been working on a dish specific to one of our line cook’s childhood memories, of their mom’s broccoli salad. Then there are pop ups with other queer or POC owned businesses. And QNOP, which was really born from a collective conversation, but also was executed by individuals that took it on. A lot of how we work is, “Oh, I have an idea! Who wants to make it come to life?” And for me, being willing to acknowledge and let go of the times when I cannot execute a project from start to finish. And to know that it’s okay to not.

Gilian: Can you speak a little more to those examples? 

Carla: A lot of that is born through alignment and expression of desire. We are really good at catching that in someone and saying, “Oh, you just said something that sounds like you want to make that happen. Let’s make that happen! How can we support you in making that happen? That feels right.” I have a couple of examples. The wine menu is definitely a good example. 

Most recently, I had this moment when our cookbook announcement was made (Please Wait To Be Tasted, 2022). We were working with our graphic designer [Ryan McDermott] on different elements of the book, but he didn’t know what the title was. I sent him the book cover to upload to our website, and he said, “Oh my God, you guys named it ‘Please Wait To Be Tasted’! I put that on your menu board years ago.” ‘Please Wait To Be Tasted’ is a sign that’s been on the entryway to the restaurant for four years now, maybe five. It originally said “Please Wait To Be Seated,” and I assumed that it had been a customer who, bored while waiting, changed the letters to “Please Wait To Be Taste.”. We all laughed and riffed on that. It had totally left my consciousness, if it even was ever there, that one of our own servers and friends had done that. And so that phrase entered the lexicon of the restaurant, and took on a life of its own, and then eventually, it became the title for our book. 

I love that example because we often talk about the “hive mind mentality,” when you’re working closely with a group of people. You enter the space where you start finishing each other’s sentences, not knowing which influences came from the other, being able to pick an idea for fun, expand on it, and take it somewhere exciting. And you do that together. And that just feels like such a prime example of it. I’m sure Ryan, the graphic designer, laughed to himself about it and thought it was a cute, funny inside joke six years ago, and now it is the title of our cookbook, which we didn’t even recall having come from him. There’s ways where that could become territorial, like who said it first, but I think in a lot of ways, with us, we try to celebrate the ways we’ve rubbed off on each other, inspired each other, and how those moments have led to the creation of something else entirely new.

Please Wait To Be Tasted: The Lil’ Deb’s Oasis Cookbook. 2022. Image courtesy of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis.

Carla continued: This also speaks to what can be complicated about these relationships. We’ve definitely had some challenging conversations around ownership of ideas, and how intellectual property operates when you work so closely with a team of people; when there is this brand of restaurant with this specificity, housing a lot of other creative people within it, and how the ideas that are born under that are treated afterwards. The joyful side is all this synchronicity and what blossoms out of that, and the challenges are how to treat those ideas as they take on a life of their own. QNOP is a direct example of that, and so is the wine list. 

The wine list was developed in tandem with Wheeler, who was our general manager for the first three or four years that the restaurant was open. The list got better and better throughout that time. After a while, we developed the language of writing these wine poems, and expanding how we talk about wine because it felt really important to create an accessible language around wine, which wasn’t much of a conversation happening in the restaurant industry. That meant building our own dictionary of words, which are free associative references, memories, and cultural moments that we think of and are drawn to as we taste any bottle of wine. We developed that wine poem language together, and Wheeler took it even further and developed this idea of the “wine journey,” and started giving customers wine journeys. They would lead customers through a series of different questions, like choosing your own adventure, as a way of picking a glass of wine. They were super fun. Then Wheeler started getting asked to do pop-ups elsewhere, where they would do wine journeys at someone else’s wine bar or flower shop. When Wheeler left the business a year ago, that became a question between us: How do we treat the wine journey? Does the wine journey die when Wheeler leaves? Does it live on in the restaurant? Does Wheeler have the right to use the wine journey outside of the restaurant? And the answer is yes, Wheeler has every right to use the wine journey outside of the restaurant. And we can also use the wine journey if and when we choose to. It is this way that creativity blossoms out of something. Seeds are planted in soil, the soil is already fertile, and then out of that grows something bigger, more beautiful, and stronger, which leads to a better, more diverse crop. 

That feels very much like what happened with QNOP, as well. Out of QNOP, Ale (Ale Campos) / Celeste, who would run them, took off completely. They had never done drag before doing the first QNOP at the restaurant. Now they are an immensely talented performance artist-at-large, in their final year at SAIC. In 2020, they built a stage with grant money that they received, and hosted performances all around town. Our involvement was only that we were the fiscal sponsor, but besides that, we weren’t involved. Our name was involved, but that was it. They were also the person who first had the conversation with us about wanting to do QNOP. Out of that one conversation, so much newness was created, so much life.

Those are all ways that we have directly collaborated with people in conscious and unconscious ways, and that ideas have really taken off and developed and grown even further as a result of those little seedlings.

The Wine List. Image courtesy of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis.

Gilian: I’m wondering about the role of design, specifically your clarity around the foundation of Lil’ Deb’s—  your values, your tone— and how that allows for a more seamless and inspiring process for collaboration to naturally occur.

Carla: I’m probably going to digress before I come back to that, so feel free to bring me back! I think for the longest time, the restaurant industry has tried really hard to meet a certain set of standards that are really about respectability— white linens, rules about manners, where to put the fork, and all these things that have always seemed really outdated and arbitrary to me. In a lot of ways, our design aesthetic was in direct opposition to that. We said, “We can be as loud as we want, we can be as bright as we want, we can have people eat with their hands, our forks don’t match!” All these things that felt alarming to a lot of our peers when we first opened, and I’m sure disrespectful to some of them as well. But for us, it was really important to break some of those norms, and say you can still provide exceptional hospitality, you can still make incredible food, and you can still be inviting and welcoming and make people comfortable, even if these so-called “standards” aren’t in place. 

To circle back to how that makes collaboration more inviting, to me, the more traditional restaurant models feel like closed loops. Yes, there’s immense creativity that happens in those spaces. But it’s a specific kind with a specific goal in mind— of “excellence.” And I think queerness is eternally and infinitely open ended. It just goes on. And so in that way, it’s an open door, it is a constant invitation for more— for more people, for being louder, and for not quieting yourself down. And not asking others to change themselves to be accepted. 

Gilian: That feels like a really direct relationship to this idea of the role of plants and living ecosystems as an inspiration for queer aesthetics. Having been in your home, I’ve seen plants and fish tanks around the space, and it just feels very alive. I’m curious to hear you talk about the connection that you see between plants, and living ecosystems, and the queer aesthetic that you’re putting forward through Lil’ Deb’s.

Carla: Plants are a living example of reciprocal care. You water them, you nurture them, and they give you so much through simply being. And they’re not doing anything, they’re not actively giving you money, or actively giving you a hug, or whatever other ways we have learned to tokenize exchanges. There is a very sensorial, experiential exchange that happens with plants, which operates on a different level. In the ways that queerness is about community, accepting the other, nourishing the other through holding each other up, those are the ways that I relate plant life to queerness and community care.

Gilian: I love that idea of reciprocity, and a model of care. What’s the relationship between your own studio practice and what feeds into this space, which is a living, breathing participatory artwork 24/7, all the time?

Carla: I think unfortunately, the living breathing studio of all the time running a business, has, in many ways, eclipsed my own studio practice. I could see that glass half empty, and be sad about it. And I can also see it as glass half full, in the sense that I also get to live and breathe in my studio every day through the restaurant. So it’s twofold. There have been times throughout the years where I have made more time for working on my own practice. And my own practice centers a lot around food, and ritual. And giving and receiving. Those have all been central to my work for a long time. But you know, I haven’t afforded myself that opportunity recently. I’m actually really getting the craving to do that right now. So far, it’s been a little bit of a slower thing. 

I’ve performed in one QNOP in all four years that it has existed. It’s kind of funny, given my background in performance, that I haven’t performed at our own events. I think that also speaks to the ways that when something has a life of its own, and that life is so strong and pulsating, is so living and breathing its own magic, I tend to be pretty good at being like, That is already doing its thing, it doesn’t need me to do more. And it’s not as if the invitation wasn’t there, or that my participation would change the dynamic, but I think especially in a delicate infrastructure in which there is hierarchy, even though there is a lot of community-oriented, egalitarian idea sharing, fair and equal wages, etc., at the end of the day, I’m still the boss. And things shift when the boss is like, “I’m performing tonight.” So I’ve been intentionally really aware of that and have held back throughout the years. 

Gilian: What forms of documentation around Lil’ Deb’s have you found compelling? How do you archive that experience? How do you share that experience with people who aren’t there? 

Carla: Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve arrived at a “way” yet, but it feels really complicated any time we’re doing it. I think because there are so many characters and facets, and most documentation wants to focus on me as the chef, or me and Hannah as the creative people, and what that means about who is left out of that story feels always complicated to navigate. And even if we talk about inclusion, what is being perceived is still this idea of the celebrity chef. The best form of documentation is people coming in to experience it themselves. I don’t know if that’s a cheap way to get out of answering your question! It is documented by lived experience. Some painting that you’ve always wanted to see, you can see it in so many art books, and you’re never going to feel what it is, or really understand it for what it is, until you see it in person. And I feel like that rings really true for me about the experience of the restaurant. It is 4D! I do think our Wikipedia page did a really good job of documenting us though! That is because it’s actually researched and about the whole journey of Lil’ Deb’s from start to finish, with references to all the conversations we’ve had throughout the years. A lot of documentation we’ve had has been specific to “The 10 Best Towns to Visit in the Hudson Valley,” which can really dilute what we’re about or only see it from a certain angle. Obviously, there have been other pieces that have been more successful. One of the reasons why The Wikipedia article felt so nice was that it really tried to understand us in totality.

Gilian: Are there any other thoughts that you want to share around this intersection of Lil’ Deb’s and socially engaged art or participatory art or community art? 

Carla: You have to just come and be it, and be in it. That is our practice, changing people through the lived experience of eating with us, and all of the sensations that they have. The number of men I watch in the restaurant totally lose themselves and become immersed in this tiny television we have in the corner that has an ongoing loop of QNOP throughout the years— several of them have half naked people or fully naked people, and children and fully grown adults will stare at that TV and fully become one with it. I sometimes laugh because I’ll see a straight couple out to dinner, and the guy is fascinated by the screen. In a way, I’m like, “Come here and be challenged and be turned on by what you’re seeing. Have this experience.” And some people come and have disgust or feel uncomfortable. I think that what we are setting out to do is to have this very tactile sense of feeling held and challenged, and feeling desire and feeling hunger, and all of these super human emotions through being in our space with us. 

Raised by three Ecuadorian women in Queens, New York, Carla Kaya Perez-Gallardo [she/they] was born into a home with a kitchen that was always busy. In seventh grade, they started Saborines, a pie company named after her grandmother. After graduating from Bard College with a degree in studio arts, they found a place for herself cooking and managing kitchens. Following a brief pause from cooking and a strained attempt to navigate the traditional art world, in 2016 she became co-founder of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis and is now chef-owner of the James-Beard nominated restaurant and community hub in Hudson, NY.

Gilian Rappaport [she/they] is an artist, researcher, writer, and naturalist. In their practice, she explores the relationships between sensuality, co-authorship, and personal mythologies to understand what we can learn from closeness with nature (rather than being more detached), and the paths to get there. Their cultural strategy and facilitation practice allows her to ask similar questions at a different scale, and support the vision for projects aiming to renew, restore and nurture our world. The granddaughter of Ashkenazi immigrants by way of Russia and Poland, she was born and raised in New York between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. They are openly queer, and live and work in Rockaway Beach, Queens. Follow them @gilnotjill. 

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