Carla Perez-Gallardo wanted to reopen Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in April 2021, but she had no staff. Across the restaurant industry, workers are hesitant to reenter the environments they faced before the pandemic, and positions are sitting unfilled. But for Perez-Gallardo and her business partner Hannah Black, the exodus of beloved staff wasn’t a sign of some great flaw in their business. Giving employees the resources and space to change and evolve — even when that means outgrowing the restaurant — is as central to Lil’ Deb’s Oasis as the food.
With a “very scrappy” kitchen crew, Perez-Gallardo reopened on May 28, after a year of on-and-off hibernation. Her concern about reopening was more than just logistical: Without the original crew of queer artists and cooks, she questioned if Lil’ Deb’s Oasis would still be Lil’ Deb’s Oasis.
The air of creativity and constant change at Lil’ Deb’s isn’t just a product of Perez-Gallardo’s vision, but of the waiters, managers, and cooks who have been attracted to the space since it opened in 2015. Tucked on a side street in Hudson, New York, the restaurant is beloved for its fried fish, ever-changing design, and a bizarre and wonderful wine list. Tennis balls swing lazily from the ceiling, pineapples and wild floral arrangements line the counter, the walls are painted shades of sunset, and late-night drag shows and revolving art installations make the space feel like a tropical dream. More than the food (always fantastic), or the decor (different on every visit), the restaurant is defined by a sense of queer hospitality.
But for this staff, leaving their jobs doesn’t mean leaving Lil’ Deb’s behind. As they move on to new projects, they’re carrying the same sensibilities of queerness — subverting notions of food service, art, and performance — that make this space so resistant to definition. With its glowing purple lights, drag shows, and cast of boundary-pushing chefs and front-of-house staff, Lil’ Deb’s has created a new sort of institution in the world of queer hospitality. For these cooks, artists, and performers, Lil’ Deb’s is a philosophy as much as four walls and a kitchen. As the group scatters, Lil’ Deb’s isn’t diminishing, it’s multiplying.
In the winter of 2020, when temperatures in Hudson dipped into the single digits, Tray Tepper was at Lil’ Deb’s at 3 a.m., ready to make bagels. Tepper first came to the restaurant in 2017, after stints in New York fine dining kitchens, and worked his way up to sous chef. “When I first came here, I was so used to fine dining kitchens. It kind of blew my mind that you can work in a kitchen and do things in a really nontraditional, nonpatriarchal way, and it can still be this beautiful chaos,” he says.
When he moved from New York City to Hudson to work at Lil’ Deb’s, Tepper noted a lack of good pizza in the area and decided to make his own. He’d throw pies in the restaurant’s kitchen on Monday nights when Lil’ Deb’s was closed, and host a pizza party for friends and family of the restaurant. Tepper named the fledgling baking project Circles, describing it on Instagram as a “postmodern, transgender circular experience.” The concept was nebulous, and the pizza was excellent.
“During COVID we couldn’t have a pizza party because we couldn’t all be with each other inside,” Tepper says. “I had this moment where I was like, ‘I need to be cooking.’ I just felt like I was not occupying that part of my brain. So I started making bagels. I started making them in my house for friends, and trying to make sourdough bagels. Then Hannah and Carla and [Lil’ Deb’s manager] Wheeler were really, really sweet and basically incubated this project. They’ve completely let me use the restaurant. They’ve made it entirely possible for me to do this.”
Incubator kitchens aren’t a new concept; there are many spaces across the country where fledgling businesses can access a shared kitchen, mentorship, and resources. But what was unfolding at Lil’ Deb’s during the pandemic was different. Circles, this postmodern, transgender cooking project, was wholly Tepper’s, but it grew from Lil’ Deb’s ethos. “Circles was born out of my relationship to Deb’s,” says Tepper. “I feel like my identity is very tied to my experience working at Deb’s and working with the people that I’ve worked with here. They’ve really proved that a restaurant can be more than a business that serves food: It can have a dynamic personality and identity and belief system; it can be something that has values. Just as much as it’s an amazing space to eat food, I think it’s a leader in staying true to your values and fighting for your community.”
When Lil’ Deb’s reopened, Tepper wasn’t in the kitchen firing spicy chorizo larb, garlicky shrimp, or mojo chicken. He shows up mostly after closing to proof bagels now, using Lil’ Deb’s ovens until he finds his own kitchen. “I definitely feel like I’ll always be connected to this space and the restaurant,” says Tepper. “But I think it is sort of a growth moment for me. I’ve never just worked for myself, and that’s something I’ve always really wanted. Now feels like the moment to branch out and be my own boss.”
Bagels weren’t the only labor of love to come out of Lil’ Deb’s during its hibernation. Ále Campos, a server and event producer at Lil’ Deb’s before the pandemic, used the support of Lil’ Deb’s and Perez-Gallardo to build on their vision for Hudson’s queer performance culture. Campos, who came to the restaurant in 2018, after graduating college, says that “Lil’ Deb’s saved my life. Coming out in college, I didn’t have any trans friends — or out trans friends. To me, with the idea of nonbinary-ness or gender nonconformity, [Lil’ Deb’s] was my foundation for all of that.” Working in the space, Campos became close with other people going through gender transitions or reimagining how they presented themselves to the world. “Who would have thought, in this upstate town, there would be this mecca, a blending of people.”
One of the most distinctive elements of Lil’ Deb’s is the queer performance nights, when tables are pushed to the side and the space becomes a strobing neon runway for a drag and art show that stretches late into the night. Campos is responsible for these electric shows, and pre-pandemic, was often on stage, lip-syncing in assless leather chaps or wrapped tight like a present in a red latex dress. Before coming to Lil’ Deb’s, they had never performed like this. “Carla forced me to do a Selena drag number for a New Year’s party,” they remember. The restaurant had an outer-space theme that night, with silver balloons shimmering and bouncing off the walls. “It was the first time I ever put on makeup. Looking back, it was such a dreadful but beautiful moment — dreadful for me because I didn’t know what I was doing, but Carla forced me to do that number, and then the next month or two, we kept having conversations about what to do next.”
Campos fell in love with performing, and with Perez-Gallardo’s encouragement, started hosting Queer Night of Performance in the restaurant regularly. “People were all over the place, on top of the bar, stacked on top of each other,” Campos remembers of the inaugural show. “It was the first time that we converted the space into a tiny stage. It was electric. It was so beautiful. Three years later, it’s still happening.”
Of course, performance has looked quite different during the pandemic. Campos took the show online, livestreaming it from their home. The backdrop wasn’t the signature neon glow of the restaurant, but Campos did borrow some of its most recognizable features. “We basically brought Deb’s to our house. We brought the oil tablecloths, the tennis balls, we brought flowers. We made this gorgeous set,” they say. “Deb’s can be anywhere. The aesthetic, the hustle, and the resilience of Deb’s really transfers. There’s an adaptability that is really remarkable. I remember seeing our house decked out as Deb’s, and thinking, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’”
With Lil’ Deb’s backing, Campos applied for and received a grant from the city of Hudson during the pandemic. That money went toward creating a mobile performance platform called High Beam, complete with glowing stage lights. Since its construction, the stage has popped up in another local restaurant’s backyard, in a park at the center of town, and will host future installments of Queer Night of Performance. Like Tepper’s bagel business, High Beam is tied to Lil’ Deb’s in ways that are more than merely financial or material. “Carla has never once tried to step into how I run the show, what I put into it, what it’s called, what the graphics look like — she just comes to the show and watches,” Campos says. “I’ve had so much creative freedom within the platform that we made together, because we made it together. I think it helped me step back into my own art practice, because I wasn’t making any art for three years after graduating, until I started doing drag here.”
When Queer Night of Performance returns, Celeste — Campos’s performing alter ego — won’t be strutting down the table-flanked runway. They’re moving soon, to pursue an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Moving away from Deb’s, it’s going to be very bittersweet, but I have to leave. I want to create my own vibe.”
Others are already stepping into new roles as Campos plans their exit, ushering both Queer Night of Performance and the mobile High Beam stage into a new chapter. When Davon Rainey leaves Hudson and takes the train to New York City, she’s often stopped on the streets by strangers — fans, really — who have seen her perform in the space or through a livestream of a Queer Night of Performance on the restaurant’s Instagram account. A classically trained ballet dancer, Rainey leapt through the packed dining room, twirling and extending in every direction. For anyone who ate dinner at the restaurant on a night she performed, Rainey was the face of Lil’ Deb’s. Only, she doesn’t work there.
She met Perez-Gallardo and Black at a friend’s wedding just as the restaurant was opening. Rainey was performing, and Lil’ Deb’s catered the party. In the following weeks and months, Rainey went to the restaurant for dinner often, and became close with the staff. When Queer Night of Performance launched, she was asked to participate. “I remember the first few times, everyone being excited. You can feel the love emulating from everyone,” she says. “There is a moment, or a second, when a song comes on, or there’s a silence before the performance, where I go into my fantasy land and it doesn’t feel like I’m in a restaurant.”
Finding Lil’ Deb’s, Rainey says, has “actually been a godsend to me.” In her work for dance companies, “I just felt like I was always making things for [other people]. As a dancer, there are times where you’re like, ‘I’m not really valued, my body is just being used for someone else.’” Performing at Lil’ Deb’s never felt that way, and became even more important to Rainey as she started her gender transition. “These shows have actually been really, really helpful for me. And, I think, when I started transitioning, almost a year and a half ago, I could feel when we had the shows that people were putting two and two together.” As Rainey transitioned, she felt seen and loved dancing across the tiny restaurant. When Lil’ Deb’s brings Queer Night of Performance back inside, Rainey will return to the dining room runway, but she’s also debuting her very own show in Hudson.
“It’ll be my second year transitioning in August,” Rainey says. “I just have to take every day, every week, and just be like, ‘How am I feeling? What do I want to do next?’ From now on, it has to make me happy.” At Lil’ Deb’s, Rainey says, “They care more about who I really am, instead of what they want me to be. All of my friends there are just very invested in who I am as a person. I’ll always be very supportive and want to do something with them, because I can tell that they really do care about me.”
A sense of unwavering support is core to Lil’ Deb’s, but that can also make it difficult to know when it’s time to move on. Even here, where love and connection is so abundant, there’s a ceiling, a moment when the space can’t offer anything more.
Wheeler Brown, like Campos, came to the restaurant after college, unsure of their identity or their next move. “It feels like I was literally adrift in the ocean, and Deb’s was the life raft that I clung to. And then I slowly learned how to feed myself,” says Brown. “I had no idea about gender, I had no idea about who I was, I had no idea about my worth — personally, professionally, emotionally.”
The restaurant was a shelter for Brown, but more than just protecting them from the harsh realities of life after college, it pushed them in new directions. At Lil’ Deb’s, there’s nothing wrong with being just a waiter, but few people stay in one role for long. Brown started to learn about natural wine, and with the support of Black and Perez-Gallardo, they eventually became the restaurant’s wine buyer. “I built a genuine career for myself. And I think that that’s the ideal that you can get out of [Lil’ Deb’s].”
The wine program Brown developed was fantastically strange, and entirely their own, with wine lists that read like hallucinogenic haiku. The tasting notes for a chenin blanc were whale watching, church shoes, beach cruiser, crescent roll, and, for another wine, lemongrass slap, cornbread batter, close shave, Clarice Lispector. These lists may have seemed nonsensical to some, but the descriptions — equal parts bizarre and hilarious — made them approachable and light for even the most beginning wine drinkers.
With the wine program up and running, Brown started managing the dining room, and eventually became the restaurant’s third business partner. “What I think keeps people coming back to Deb’s, and keeps people in this project, is this idea that all you need to do is have a passion, have a way to make it work, and then the world is yours.”
Even so, Brown is clear-eyed about their departure from the restaurant. “In the role that was available to me, I hit my ceiling. And I think that the beautiful thing about Deb’s is that there isn’t a toxic energy around people who do hit their ceilings,” they say. “Me being at Deb’s was the equivalent of me doing college all over again: Learning how to be a person, learning who I was, what I needed, what I was worth. And now I know who I am.”
The reality of Lil’ Deb’s — including understanding when it’s time to leave — is more complicated, and often, mundane, than what people see from the outside. There are times when the trash company doesn’t come and the stinking bags need to be dragged back inside. There are days when people don’t want to work, but they still have to show up for their shifts. And of course, there’s the inevitable clashing of personalities. “There’s so much beauty, and it can’t be truly appreciated if you’re not also understanding the reality of it,” says Brown. “I think that the people who have the most fertile relationships with Deb’s are the people that understand reality.”
The reality is that the business is changing; it’s not the scrappy underdog it was when Perez-Gallardo and Black took over the tiny building. The recently renovated space is nearly twice as big now, the media coverage is continuously glowing, and the journalists and award committees have taken note. Lil’ Deb’s may not be a utopia — what business run by living, breathing humans who need to make money possibly could be? — but it’s also not just another restaurant that’s found its groove. Even calling it a restaurant feels like a disservice because the space does so much more. It is a restaurant, an excellent one, but also an incubator for fledgling queer visionaries; it’s a mentorship program, a model for how to move through the world without losing sight of the weirdness and creativity at the heart of queer culture. It is a life raft for queer people who are adrift.
“As Deb’s reopens, I don’t want people to be comparing the reopening to this one airtight, solid idea of Deb’s, because Deb’s has been 400 different things,” says Brown. “If the beauty is that it’s moving and unpredictable, but there’s an energy that you can identify, then that’s all you need, and that’s not going away — Carla is the beating heart of Deb’s, but it’s walking on its own legs now.”
Tepper will go on making their bagels, Campos will create new art in Chicago, and Brown has decided to go to massage school and do wine consulting for restaurants on the side. Perez-Gallardo spends nearly every waking moment at one of Lil’ Deb’s tables, sending emails and planning menus.
“When I dream big, I’m like, ‘Maybe one day we could have an incubator kitchen where anyone can come and we could train them.’ And then I’m like… it’s already happening,” says Perez-Gallardo. As she watches her staff — who are also her friends and her community — move away from the restaurant, it’s not a matter of trying to negotiate who runs Queer Night of Performance, whether Lil’ Deb’s has first dibs on Tepper’s bagel recipe, or who can claim ownership of Brown’s wine list. “Every single person that has come to the restaurant has given so much of themselves that I could never look at them and be like, ‘I’m disappointed because you’re leaving,’’’ says Perez-Gallardo. “And every single person that left is leaving for reasons that make so much sense. Maybe the restaurant is the godmother of these projects, but they have full, rich identities.”
When she was in her first year of college, Perez-Gallardo journaled about what she wanted to do in life. Maybe, she thought, she’d become a teacher. Like so many teenage dreams, she cast that away as life took her in other directions. Recently, though, she came across that old journal and flipped through. I want to start a high school or university, she wrote. College should be where you learn how to be a good person, a whole human being… The school would be a place where change is born, where positive ideas can grow. As she says goodbye to the family that made Lil’ Deb’s what it’s been since opening, and welcomes a new class of cooks, waiters, and something-in-betweens to her little corner of Hudson, Perez-Gallardo hasn’t strayed so far from that dream.
“I’ve had five years of being like, ‘We’ve done things this way,’’’ she says of Lil’ Deb’s up until this point. Now, she’s asking herself a question she’s posed so many times before: “What can we do differently?”
Simon Forbes Keough is a photographer and editor of the art and food magazine Put A Egg On It.