PATERSON, NJ - Paterson has had several acts over the years since its founding in 1792 as an incubator of the industrial transformation that would reshape the New World for the next two centuries.  The city’s next act, perhaps unexpectedly, is as a culinary destination.  

Just 40 minutes west of New York City, a global gastronomic destination, Paterson doesn’t typically evoke an association with food, but on Wednesday, walking into the sturdy stone-faced building that stands at 32 Church St., you might have thought you were standing at the center of the culinary universe.

Just through the heavy wood and glass doors at the Hamilton Club, the First Annual Paterson Plates event was in full swing. As you entered, the well appointed vestibule was awash in live music and the din of conversation. The smell of a rich tapestry of cuisines permeated the air. Greeting guests at the door was an animated Councilman Andre Sayegh. 

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Sayegh sees in food what Hamilton saw in the power of Great Falls; the potential for transformation. “Paterson can be a foodie destination,” declared the councilman. As he rattled off a list of Paterson’s assets, the Great Falls among them, his words only told half of the story. There was a spark of unabated excitement and hope in his gestures, as he pointed like a conductor at the various tables of food, enterprising chefs and satisfied guests. Already, Sayegh was prepared for next year. 

“We’re going to do this next year. It’s going to be even bigger,” the councilman proclaimed. “The Great Falls is now a national park. We have food from all over the globe here today.  There is no reason we can’t be a foodie destination.” 

As you moved deeper into the historic Hamilton Club, a building whose walls and pillars have borne witness to the last 115 years in the Silk City, it became increasingly evident that Sayegh and the organizers of the event, the Paterson OIC, were on to something. The old marble floors and rich wood trim of the Hamilton Club might again be witnessing the beginning of something big. 

Ascending to the second floor on gently curving staircase, you were embraced by a pleasant cacophony of aromas emanating from the tables. Guests were circulating with plates stacked to capacity. Roughly 15 restaurants, chefs and bakers participated. Even the most persnickety eaters would have found something to please their pallet. 

In one corner of the room, young chefs in training at Passaic County College offered up mini-cheesecakes. The next table over featured a local baker, Lindsay Lovely, whose beach bellini cupcakes caught more than one attendee’s attention. She runs a business, Sa Michael’s Bakery (an amalgam of her children’s names) from home, but hopes to soon find a commercial space from which to expand. 

On the same side of the room, On the Go Empanadas was handing small plates to guests as they passed by. Their dishes followed both familiar and unfamiliar scripts. The proprietor recommended the Philly cheese steak empanada. They did not disappoint. Just a few tables down, falafel was on offer, while across the room a young entrepreneur, personal chef and caterer, Kassanda Gutierrez, spoke to guests about her food and culinary range. 

While their food and interpretations of it differed, they all shared a common optimism and derived the same joy from feeding people, from telling a story through taste, and also, a love of their city.  Much like the stone from which the Hamilton Club was rebuilt in the early 20th century after the Great Paterson Fire, these people are what food’s future in Paterson will be built upon.

You’ll want to mark you calendars for next year.