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Alabama chef finds New York home, James Beard voters notice

March 15, 2019

MOUNTAIN BROOK, Ala. (AP) — Hannah Black was on her way back from a trip to New York City when a friend texted her with the news.

Black, an Alabama native who grew up in Mountain Brook, learned that she and her business partner, Carla Perez-Gallardo, had just been named James Beard Foundation Award semifinalists for best chef in the Northeast.

“It was total shock,” Black recalls several days later. “A bunch of people in our community started sending us positive texts and emails. That’s how amazing and special it was.”

Black and Perez-Gallardo are chefs and co-owners of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, an eclectic art project/restaurant that they opened about three years ago in Hudson, N.Y,, a town of about 6,500 people on the Hudson River, a couple of hours north of New York City.

Not long after she found out about her James Beard Award recognition, Black texted her parents, Philip and Susan Black, in Mountain Brook.

“They, of course, were freaking out,” the 31-year-old chef Black says. “Birmingham has had its share of James Beard Award winners, so they knew of the awards and were really excited.”

Black and Perez-Gallardo are among 20 semifinalists for the best chef in the Northeast, and the five finalists from that region will be announced March 27. The winner will be revealed at the 29th annual James Beard Foundation Awards on May 6 in Chicago.

Semifinalists from Alabama include chefs David Bancroft of Acre in Auburn, Bill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach, and Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, all of whom are up for best chef in the South. The Atomic Lounge in Birmingham is also a semifinalist for outstanding bar program.

In a tourist town teeming with art galleries, antique shops and restaurants, Black and Perez-Gallardo’s Lil’ Deb’s Oasis has fast become a Hudson hot spot that has been featured in such national publications as Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure.

Black, who graduated from Mountain Brook High School and studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, met Perez-Gallardo, who studied performance art at Bard College, while working on a Vietnamese food truck in Catskill, N.Y, across the river from Hudson.

Their restaurant started about four years ago as a weekly pop-up art show and dinner they hosted on Tuesday nights at a local diner called Debbie’s Lil’ Restaurant, which was open for breakfast only.

“We were walking around on a Tuesday and we were thinking about how it would be really fun to do a locals-only Tuesday night pop-up,” Black recalls. “We reached out to the woman, Debbie, who owns the diner. She was super-excited and wanted to help.

“We just came in, took down her decorations, put up ours, changed the lighting,” Black says. “It was really fun. We made it a cool space. Then when (the owner) was ready to retire, she reached out to us and asked us if we wanted to take over, and we said OK. We didn’t even have to think about it twice.”

With little capital but plenty of passion, they re-opened the space as Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in 2016.

“We opened with no investors,” Black says. “We had a little bit of money saved up, and we just kind of did it. It’s been working ever since.”

The menu at the cozy, 30-seat restaurant includes sweet plantains, hot tamales, ceviche, mojo chicken and whole fried fish.

“Our cuisine, we call it tropical comfort food,” Black says. ”(Perez-Gallardo) was raised in Queens but she’s Ecuadoran and Argentinian, and I’m from Alabama but I lived in Mexico for a while and I’ve traveled all over South America. And then we met while cooking Vietnamese food. . . .

“So, it’s tropical comfort,” Black adds. “It’s food from warm places — from Alabama to Ecuador and then all the way across the globe on those lines of latitude.”

The restaurant, though, is as much an expression of their artistic vision as it is their culinary influences.

“To me, this is my work, and it involves every part of my brain,” Black says. “We don’t run our business like a normal restaurant. We do a performance night. We do gallery installations. We are constantly painting and changing the space and making it our own.”

While in high school in Mountain Brook, Black worked as a hostess at Satterfield’s Restaurant in Cahaba Heights, where she also painted the artwork for the dining room. She later came home from college to work as a hostess at Bottega restaurant for a summer.

After she graduated from Rhode Island School of Design, Black got more interested in cooking while she working as a painter in Brooklyn.

“I was living in Brooklyn, doing backdrops for films and theaters to make money,” she says. “I would be working all day long and whenever I would come home, I didn’t have the energy to go to my studio and work on my personal paintings.

“But no matter how tired I was, I did have the energy to have dinner with my roommates. Even if I worked a 10-hour day, I would end up inviting 10 people over and having a dinner party.”

Black saved her money and later traveled through South America, where she worked on farms, and then came back to work at Mission Chinese Food in New York City.

Then, about a year and a half later, Black got a job as a chef at Hartwood, a destination restaurant in the picturesque beach town of Tulum on Mexico’s Caribbean coastline.

“I knew I wanted to live someplace beautiful and cook food,” she recalled. “I emailed them and asked if they ever hired American chefs. They were hiring at the time, so it worked out perfectly.”

After a year in Mexico, Black came back to New York, but this time, she moved a couple of hours up the Hudson River, where she met her kindred spirit Perez-Gallardo and set the wheels in motion to open a restaurant of her own.

For a young artist and chef, Hudson has turned out to be the ideal setting.

“It’s a small town, but it’s in the Hudson River Valley, so there are mountains and a river,” Black says. “It fits exactly what I wanted, which is a beautiful place where I could cook food.”

Occasionally, a stranger will wander into Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, and Black will notice a familiar accent that reminds her of home.

“You can tell a Southerner by just how they speak,” she says. “I usually like to ask where they’re from.”

And when they tell her Alabama, Black replies, “Me, too.”