F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Neal’s Deli (Carrboro, North Carolina)
Experience: Restaurant La Residence, Crook’s Corner (Chapel Hill, NC)
Education: North Carolina School of the Arts (Winston-Salem, NC), Savannah College of Art and Design (Savannah, Georgia)
What kinds of dishes define you as a chef?
Large, slow-cooked, smoked hunks of meat, and other things that take at least a whole day to make, like hot sauce and pickles. Sauté is not my specialty.
What recipe are you most famous for?
Pastrami biscuits. If you really want to make this dish, you have to plan ahead because you need thick buttermilk biscuits from scratch and you need good smoky pastrami. I make my pastrami myself over a 10-day period. For a week, the pastrami is curing in brine in the fridge. Then I dry it out, smoke it and cool it. I slice it the next day.
What was the first thing you ever cooked?
The first dish I ever made from scratch was macaroni and cheese. I was in high school and I called my dad [Bill Neal] at the restaurant where he was a chef, Crook’s Corner, and I told him I was thinking of making it. He told me first I had to make a roux. I didn’t even know what a roux was. He walked me through it on the phone, and I made a béchamel, sautéed some onions and eventually baked the macaroni and cheese. It turned out pretty good.
Who do you think of as your food mentors?
My late father and my wife, Sheila. Sheila, who owns the restaurant with me, went to cooking school, so she’s been formally trained—unlike myself. I lean on her a lot, and any recipe of mine is at least half hers. From my dad, I learned to enjoy life and to enjoy simple things. He was someone who didn’t take shortcuts. He said if you’re going to do it, do it right. Any mundane thing, even slicing onions, should be done correctly.
Do you have a favorite cookbook?
I’m a sucker for old cookbooks. My favorites include my dad’s Southern Cooking and also his Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie. Along those same lines, I love our family friend John Martin Taylor’s Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking. When I was young, I also used Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen.
What’s your secret-weapon ingredient?
Salt. You can pick weeds and turn them into a salad or hunt something and roast it, but if you don’t add salt, it won’t taste like much.
What’s your current food obsession?
My current obsession is grits, and my go-to lunch is a bowl of them. I’ll throw eggs on the steamer and drop those on the grits, and add onions, hot sauce and bacon bits. I also love roasted brussels sprouts with garlic and hot sauce over grits.
What would your ideal restaurant serve?
It wouldn’t have any white meat. It would have a lot of dishes that your average American might be squeamish about, like organ meat and crustaceans. Americans are such squeamish little wussies when it comes to food.
What ingredient will people will be talking about in five years?
In five years, I think people will be talking about how good stuff used to taste. Nostalgia is the ingredient they’ll be talking about.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.