On television, Pat and Gina Neely come across as friendly, casual home cooks. You wouldn’t peg them for highfalutin New York City restaurateurs. Their Neely’s Barbecue Parlor opened a few weeks ago, with Wade Burch at the helm. You would think the chef already had enough on his plate with SouthWest NY, Merchants Riverhouse, and Merchants Market. But, apparently, he has a pretty big plate.
Barbecue and Southern food are still so hot these days. Any guesses as to why?
I’ve eaten it my whole life growing up in the South, so I just think the rest of the world is finally catching on to a good thing. It seems kind of odd, actually. It’s in the middle of summer and people are worried about how they look in swimsuits, but they seem to love eating Southern-style food, which is typically not dietetic. It’s heavier portions, heavier ingredients. To me, it’s kind of shocking that it’s taken on the life it has.
Were you a fan of the Neelys before you started working with them?
I wouldn’t say fan is the right word. I knew they were extremely popular. I like to be around people who are at the top of their game. Being affiliated with people who are extremely successful makes you more successful. And if you aren’t, it makes you try harder. But I had actually never seen the show until I met them.
Do you watch food TV at all?
I watch some. I’ll catch Iron Chef. I know Marc Forgione; I used to work for his father. I’ve watched Ming Tsai; I’ve known Ming for a few years now. I watch Alton Brown a little bit. I think he’s a pretty interesting guy. At night, you’re trying to go to sleep and his show happens to be on at 11:30. I’d rather watch that than reruns of Seinfeld.
You have Memphis, Texas, and Kansas City barbecue on the menu. What’s the difference between them?
In a nutshell, Texas is smoke, salt, pepper, and meat. Memphis adds a couple of little spices like paprika, onion powder, and sugar; and Kansas City is for someone who has a sweet tooth, with lots of brown sugar and molasses and tons of sauce.
You’re from Texas; is that your favorite?
I wouldn’t necessary say it’s my favorite. It’s what I grew up with. But I think all of the styles have their place. I think having different regions gives people a reason to come in more than once a month or once a week.
Are all the Neelys’ restaurants different?
This is meant to be a New York version of what the Neely’s restaurants are: Family-centric restaurants run by a very close-knit family. Everything goes back to family. But it’s done with a New York décor and grandeur. It’s just a little bit bigger and better, which is what New York is for everything. New York is a food mecca.
What other personal touches did you bring to the menu?
Both of my grandmothers were extremely good cooks, as well as my mother and father. Having worked under Emeril, shrimp and grits is very much an East Coast thing, but they do it in Texas, as well. I grew up in Houston and we had gulf shrimp three times a week. I just didn’t see a menu without something non-pork in New York. I felt that it was important to have something that wasn’t just barbecue, but was still Southern, rich and satisfying.
More on that …
The blackberry cobbler is my mother’s recipe. The sauces are all Neelys, with the exception of the spicy. That’s my introduction. Our spicy sauce has some chipotle in it and a few other flavors they allowed me to contribute. And techniques like using the smoker.
Are you working with any seasonal ingredients?
We’re actually working on a new salad. I’m going to do an heirloom tomato and pickled Vidalia onion salad. It’s my version of tomato and mozzarella without the mozzarella. I’ll stack it up and do a New York presentation and put a little fried okra with it and some black-eyed pea and corn relish. Give people something a little different.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our interview with Wade Burch of Neely’s.