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Interview with Celebrity Chef, Author and Restaurateur, Pat Neely

Pat and Gina Neely are the real deal, folks. They are as authentic in their everyday lives as they appear to be on the hit Food Network television show, Down Home with the Neelys. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a husband and wife team that manages their fast-paced celebrity lifestyle with more ease, confidence and grace than Pat and Gina. Successful parents, business owners, authors and television personalities, the Neelys remain humble and are quick to pay their tremendous blessings forward by sharing their time and talents with so many.

Need a bit of inspiration or advice on becoming a restaurateur? No problem, Pat’s got that for you. Looking for tips on how to make a healthy yet decadent dessert? Gina’s the one. Talking with—and learning from—the Neelys feels easy… like sitting around the kitchen table with old friends who can effortlessly prepare the most satisfying, mouth-watering meal you’ll ever taste. We should all be so lucky to have friends like the Neelys!

Read my Q & A with Pat Neely below:

LeslieWrites: Pat, you and Gina literally light up the screen on your wildly popular Food Network television show, “Down Home with the Neelys.” Please share a little of your backstory. You and Gina are both from Memphis, right? How did you meet?

Pat: Yes, Gina and I were both raised in Memphis. You know, back in the 50s a lot of African American families wanted to go north. My father and mother moved to Detroit and I was born there. By the early 70s they were ready to move back home so I ended up spending [most of] my life here in Memphis. Gina and I actually met in high school. We dated a while and then we broke up. We got back together at our ten-year high school reunion.

Over the years not only did we marry and have two lovely daughters, we saw fit for Gina to work with me in the business. We felt like we could give ourselves a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of vacationing and spending time with our kids. If there was a school program and I had to work, Gina could go over to the school without the hassle of a boss telling her, “You can’t be off today.” It worked and we’re proud of it. Hopefully our story is encouraging to others. Like you and Ed, I try to encourage married couples to work together on all levels whether it’s maintaining a household, raising children or maybe joining in on a career together.

LeslieWrites: You have two beautiful daughters named Spenser and Shelbi, right?

Pat: Yes, they are my gorgeous babies. People often ask, “Well, you’ve had successful cookbooks and television shows but what’s the thing you’re most proud of?” I always say my girls. In the midst of my busy, busy career, my girls stay grounded. We’ve never had teenage pregnancy issues or alcoholism. We didn’t have them breaking curfew. Spenser has graduated from college and Shelbi is entering into her second year of college. They are outstanding young ladies. I know everybody says that about their children but to have two kids who never had to go juvenile court and never had any disciplinary issues whatsoever, you know they have their heads on right. So they are my biggest accomplishment.

LeslieWrites: How old are your girls now?

Pat: Spenser is twenty-five and Shelbi is nineteen.

LeslieWrites: Pat, what kind of dad are you? What would your daughters tell me and how do you see yourself as a father?

Pat: Fathers have a massive responsibility because the first introduction a daughter has to a man should be her father. I take this responsibility very seriously in terms of the way I carried myself and the way I treated their mother. I have always been involved in their lives from helping with homework to giving them advice from a male perspective. There are certain things they will discuss with me that they won’t discuss with their mother and vice versa. I set the example for when they became young ladies about what to look for in a man. I took my daughters on a cruise when they were in grade school and middle school. My whole objective was to expose them to something like that first so when they meet a young man and he says, “Oh honey, I want to take you on a cruise,” they can say, “You can take me but don’t expect me to go crazy because my daddy has already taken me on one.” [Laughter] I could do for them anything their mother could do whether it was cooking meals, giving them baths when they were younger or having conversations about sex and drugs because to me [fatherhood] is very, very important.

LeslieWrites: What kind of mother is Gina? What would your daughters tell me?

Pat: You know, I think they have a great deal of respect and admiration for their mother. They look up to her. She was very nurturing and she carries herself so well. You can tell what kind of mother a woman is to her daughters if the children want to emulate her. The girls hold her in such high regard that they want to grow up and be just like their mom, which is a huge compliment to her.

LeslieWrites: Will Spenser and Shelbi become involved in the family business someday?

Pat: Both of my girls cook and Shelbi, the 19-year-old, is an outstanding cook. They both worked in the family business in junior high and high school. Gina and I have never tried to pressure them. If they want it, it will be here and we continue to try to make it attractive enough. If not, we will always tell them, “Go do what you want to do.” Hopefully I have created enough income for them to do whatever it is they want to do and at least get them the education they need and deserve. I have a great deal of passion for food, family and entertainment, so I’ve been successful at it. I tell my girls, do what you want to do because you’ve got to have a passion for it. In order to be successful at anything you’ve got to enjoy it.

LeslieWrites: How did you get your start?

Pat: My mother and father had six kids and in the 60’s my mother was what you’d consider a housewife. She stayed home, took care of us, got us off to school, prepared three square meals a day and maintained the house. My father, who came from humble beginnings, worked hard and was the provider. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia and struggled with it all his life. At age 40, he had a heart attack and died. My mother had very little work experience [outside of the home] but she had to go out and get a job. It was an extremely tough time, and my four brothers, one sister and I decided it was time to go to work to pitch in and help mom out.

My father’s brother felt a huge sense of responsibility. He said, “Oh my God, my brother’s got all these boys. I have to keep them out of trouble.” He opened a little corner grocery store and I didn’t realize until years later he kept the store open until two o’clock in the morning on Fridays and Saturdays so my brothers and I wouldn’t get into trouble. He figured that by the time we closed, everything else would be closed. We did that for years. Ultimately he bought the building, put a barbecue pit in the back of it and started a restaurant he called Jim Neely’s Interstate.

I started working for my uncle when I was about thirteen-years-old and continued through high school. Most of my check came home to help mama. When I graduated from high school I had the opportunity to play college football. Well, the first summer I went away to college I came home to find that my mother’s home was in foreclosure. She had lost the house. I said to myself, “You’re not big enough to make a career out of football. Come back home and help mama.” I helped find her an apartment. I got my old job back at my uncle’s place and decided to go to school around my work schedule. It was at that point I realized along with my brother that food was in our blood. It’s what we wanted to do and my uncle was a great example.

Looking at my uncle I said to myself, “Shoot, if Uncle Jim can do it, I can do it.” So by age 20, McDonald’s was hiring managers and I must admit I told a few tales in the interview about all of my [managerial] experience. I felt that if they hired me they were going to train me, and my sole purpose for doing this was because I knew how my uncle ran his small family business but I wanted to know how the big boys did it. At age 22, I said to myself, “I could open up a restaurant.” My brother, Tony, and I talked about it and talked about it. We didn’t have a dime to our name. We found a location and I figured there was no harm in exploring this idea. My grandmother was in her nineties and she agreed to put her house up for collateral so we could open our first restaurant, Neely’s Bar-B-Que. I’ll tell you, Leslie, we opened up on a shoestring budget with only tables, chairs and a barbecue pit. I didn’t even have a cash register. I had a cigar box and lo and behold, the first day we opened, we earned $800. Within two years I repaid my grandmother her $20,000 and my brother and I saved $35,000. We moved the restaurant to a 3,500 square foot space. Two years later the banks had faith in us. I borrowed $150,000 and went to East Memphis to open my second location.

I guess about eight years after the second location, my brother and I decided it was time to branch out so he went to Nashville and opened another restaurant. In the midst of that, for over ten years I ran several locations in NBA arenas. Business was booming. Twenty-five percent of our business was catering and we did a bunch of big, big parties. We really did well for two young African American boys not yet 30 years old. Food Network came knocking on the door and that changed my life forever. Gina and I had so much success when our show debuted. It was the highest rated show to ever debut in Food Network’s history in daytime television.

LeslieWrites: What is it about the chemistry between you and Gina that works so well on-screen?

Pat: Some of it was, quite frankly, inexperience. We were not TV personalities and some of the best advice ever given to us was: Be yourselves. I think the African American community was hungry for something fantastic, wholesome and real where there was a positive family that had a certain amount of success they could be proud of. Our show was never scripted other than the recipes we were going to develop. Most of the time Gina and I never discussed what we were going to say to each other because we wanted that “wow” effect. You know, that spontaneous response to whatever we may talk about. We included family members and it was just real. To this day, I get myself completely relaxed and I say I’m just going to be myself. If they like it, they like it and if they don’t, I need to find another career.

LeslieWrites: Paula Deen and her sons Bobby and Jamie were instrumental in getting you and Gina the attention of Food Network producers. What was it like working with Paula? Is there any truth, in your opinion, to the allegations of racism?

Pat: When the news of her being racist broke obviously I was disappointed. There are some things that could have been handled differently including her choice of words, but the only thing I can say about Paula Deen is how she treated us. She, like most other Food Network celebrities, was very warm and very kind. She wrote the forward for our first cookbook. She always welcomed us into her home. There was never a racial slur or anything of that nature ever displayed because I wouldn’t have tolerated it.

The day our show debuted we were all sitting at home with our family waiting for it to air. The doorbell rang and a huge vase full of flowers was delivered. The bouquet was so big we couldn’t even see the deliveryman. There was a card from Paula Deen that read, Congratulations and welcome to the family of television. You guys stay grounded, stay humble and you will succeed. I share this story because I can only speak on how she treated us.

LeslieWrites: Let’s talk about your new cookbook, Back Home with the Neelys: Comfort Food from Our Southern Kitchen to Yours. What can your fans expect from this, your third cookbook?

Pat: Gina and I discussed doing a book that takes us back to when we were kids and tells how we became the chefs we are today. The first thing that came to mind was our parents and our grandparents. I have to tell you Leslie; this was probably the most emotional project I have ever worked on because all of my grandparents have passed on. Working on this book brought back so many memories of my grandmother frying catfish or my grandfather taking me fishing. When I was a kid, my grandfather would go to the country and get fresh meat from the land and on the third of July he’d get his smoker together and barbecue all night. I had a grandmother who was a fantastic baker. In today’s time she would be a pastry chef and I’ve tried to duplicate her triple layer chocolate cake.

A young man would drive down from the country and on the back of his pickup truck were fresh greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon and so many vegetables. So, instead of the farmer’s markets you see now, this guy came from the country and my grandmother would grab her coin purse and down the steps she would go to purchase produce from him. Those were amazing stories and in all of our cookbooks including the first one, Down Home with the Neely’s, which became a New York Times bestseller, and our second book, The Neely’s Celebration Cookbook, Gina and I like to tell stories about the dishes we create. We couldn’t just say, “Well, I’m going to give readers this braised cabbage and bacon recipe.” Instead, we felt we had to share a story that brings people in and makes them think about their past, their history.

Gina and I like to say we “Neely-tized” these incredible dishes passed down to us by adding our own spin to them. I like to tell the story that my grandmother fried everything. Catfish… everything. But in our cookbook we do a blackened catfish recipe instead. “Mama, we can’t fry like you, baby.” [Laughter] It is amazing that our grandmothers fried food three or four days a week and lived long, healthy lives. They ate whatever they wanted because they were active, they had fresh ingredients and they didn’t sit around and watch TV all day. Both of my grandmothers lived into their nineties.

Back Home with the Neely's: Comfort Food from Our Southern Kitchen to Yours is a book I’m really proud of. Not only are there fantastic recipes in the book, it will bring you back home and make you think about spending time with your grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and your parents. It will give you a moment to reflect on your childhood. It brings a smile to my face just talking about it because it was such an amazing time in my life.

LeslieWrites: In addition to your television shows and promoting your new book, what else are you involved in right now?

Pat: I’m involved in this incredible partnership with Family Dollar. I am the national spokesperson for Family Dollar and they have launched a campaign for food in their stores. They are doing an incredible job. They have aisles and aisles of quality brands like Kraft, Hellman’s and Ragu brands and their own brand, Family Gourmet. You can go in and get bottles of seasonings for a dollar. They have a frozen section and can you believe Family Dollar is offering shrimp, chicken, ground beef and a dairy section? The great thing about Family Dollar is they have value, convenience and quality. They’re opening one around the corner from me. That was one of the things I paid attention to. I don’t even live in Memphis! I’m way out on four-acres of land but they are here and they are very convenient. You can pop in and get some diced tomatoes or if you need some Alfredo sauce, they have that too. So, we’re trying to educate people that you can go to Family Dollar and cut costs.

I am working with Family Dollar to give away 1,200 to 1,500 backpacks to school children with lunches and breakfast items. That really pumped me up because they understand that many of our kids don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. They’re passionate about giving back and that means a lot to me.

LeslieWrites: Pat, what advice do you have for aspiring chefs or restaurateurs?

Pat: First, enjoy what you do and have a passion for it. Second, gain experience. When I was working for my uncle I felt like Cinderella. He would work me seven days a week. There were no excuses for missing work or being sick. He didn’t want to hear it. I thought to myself, this man is nuts. I can’t wait to get out of here. But I was gathering experience without even realizing it. I was gaining a work ethic. I was gaining knowledge.

I tell people to absorb as much information as they can. Be like a sponge. If you have to, work for free. Just be around it. You can go to culinary school and get your knife skills down. You can probably earn a pretty good living and thank God being a chef is becoming such a popular career that so many young kids are interested in. But if you want to be a restaurateur, that’s a whole different ballgame. I don’t care how good of a cook you are, that’s only about fifteen percent of the level you’re going to need to know to be successful. You have to know your numbers, food costs, how to train your staff, when and where to pick your facility, marketing, the tax system and how to pay taxes, and the laws of the health department and health codes. There is so much more to running a great restaurant than being a great cook. And be ready to put in fifteen hours a day. If you think you’re going to go in and work a 40-hour work week, don’t go into the restaurant business.

LeslieWrites: Who influences and inspires you?

Pat: That’s such a tough question because so many people have had an impact on my life. I’ve had so many fantastic mentors including my mother, who lost her husband at age 39. She was still a beautiful woman who refused to date and marry because she put her kids first. Then there is my uncle who sold insurance but was determined to run his own business. He created an empire and has become a millionaire. He is a man with tremendous drive and determination and he is a man of his word. I’m standing on their shoulders and the shoulders of so many others.

Hopefully I’m inspiring, encouraging and supporting someone. Hopefully I’m sending the message that all you have to do is work hard and believe. Most of the people that have been a mentor to me told me to go be a mentor or example for someone else. I want my legacy to be that I impacted, developed or encouraged someone. That’s very important to me.

Visit Neelys Barbecue Parlor - New York:

http://neelysbbqparlor.com

1125 First Avenue
New York, NY 10065

P: 212.832.1551

To purchase Back Home with the Neelys: Comfort Food from Our Southern Kitchen to Yours, visit: Amazon

You can find Pat and Gina Neely online:

- Website: http://ginaandpat.com

- Twitter: @ginaandpatneely

- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theneelys

- Pat Neely’s Family Dollar Blog: http://blog.familydollar.com/the-family-dollar-more-for-less-recipe-challenge-featuring-celebrity-chef-pat-neely/

 

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