He wanted to be a chef since the age of six, when he would "surprise" his parents with self-taught recipes. Neel's first professional role, however, was at the famous Ninfa's in Houston--as a dishwasher.
After working his way up to a chef's apprentice role, he attended cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. From there, Neel's resume includes such standout kitchens as Tony's Restaurant in Houston, The French Room and Al Biernat's, where he served as opening chef.
Tramontana is his own place--cozy yet creative, New American with a French and, sometimes, Italian flair. And if Neel could have his way, Tony Romo would be a frequent guest...
1. Just what does New American mean, anyway?
Well, it's a blending of different cultures, remnants of what America is--which for me includes Italian and French, old school techniques and local ingredients. But last time I was in Paris, everyone was serving New American. So I think it's just a term we invented because "French" gives the wrong impression. There are no new ideas.
2. Why do people react to the mention of French cuisine?
I think it's from a lack of exposure to what it really is. It sounds stodgy and expensive. And the French always had that attitude that they didn't like Americans. But when you live over there, the ugly American--there are lots of them.
3. Americans tend to act different overseas, don't they?
It always bugged me, the one's who expect waiters to speak English, who don't make a little effort themselves. You know, I love the French. Of course, I'm proud to be an American.
4. You say people tend to consider French cooking stodgy. So Julia Child's efforts didn't pay off?
She went to the school I went to, Le Cordon Bleu. She was part of the problem, according to the school.
5. What's your favorite junk food?
Candy. Chocolate, for sure. I don't do Hershey's, but I have a stash of Cadbury's in the house. I'll get up in the middle of the night and eat a whole bar. I kept thinking I'd get sick of it, but it hasn't happened. And it goes well with beer.
6. Beer or wine?
Wine, these days. But I love them both.
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7. Do chefs really yell like Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen?
I used to. I've mellowed. But when you first open a restaurant, you're such a perfectionist. I've fired waiters for being two minutes late--good waiters. But you think if you don't, the others will start showing up later. I've gotten more like Wade Phillips lately than Bill Parcels. It took five years to put a responsible team together. I've eliminated the need to yell and scream.
8. What do you think of the new Cowboys stadium?
It seems a little extravagant. I won't be there, unless someone buys me a ticket. I'll save my money for dining.
9. Is there a Cowboy you'd like to hang out with?
I'm still a Tony Romo fan. He'd be the man--and it has nothing to do with Jessica. He's just so laid back. Reminds me of me. He seems genuine. I think we'd get along. But, you know, there's a James Neal on the Stars. It's fun to hear your name on the radio.
10. Do you regret owning a restaurant?
No, not at all. I'm broke but happy. Money isn't everything. This is the price of being your own boss.