3rd December 2015
Words: Adam Park
Photographs: Martin L Vargas
3rd December 2015
Words: Adam Park
Photographs: Martin L Vargas
This is our second interview of the day. With Bill Kearney of Galatoire’s, just an hour earlier, we very conscientiously turned down a second Bloody Mary to maintain our focus. At Neal’s place, which we reach by taking a streetcar from the French Quarter along St Charles Avenue – a quintessential New Orleans experience – it doesn’t take long for us to loosen our resolve. Neal, carrying a miniature Yorkshire terrier called Fonzi under his arm, welcomes us in, apologising for any signs of redecoration (the small, elegantly furnished house looks immaculate to us). We say hi to his wife Kea and their 13-month-old daughter Hayden, and almost immediately find ourselves with a sazerac in hand.
Neal takes this kind of thing very seriously. As he fixes us our second drink, a Ramos gin fizz, we talk about the fine details of cocktail-making: the levels of precision required, picking the right components – he’s a big fan of Beefeater gin – and the theatrical elements of bartending, which, as Neal explains it, are almost always grounded in technique. By the time we sit down to lunch we are three cocktails in, though we can report with clarity that the Louisiana BBQ shrimp – buttery and intensely spiced – were perfectly offset by angel-hair pasta and a crab and olive salad.
Afterwards Neal takes us to his original bar Cure, in the Freret Corridor neighbourhood of Uptown, for more drinks. As we watch a series of clever, intricate cocktails being shaken up and pushed in our direction, it’s clear the fight is over. Relinquishing all claims on journalistic clarity, we surrender ourselves to the New Orleans evening.
Yes. I worked in my first bar down here when I was in my late teens and again after a brief stint at college in Arizona. I was working on a beer truck making $5.50 an hour carrying crates. It was backbreaking work, 12 hours a day. A friend of mine said that his cousin was looking for a host at this nice restaurant in the French Quarter and I was like, “I’ll do it! I don’t know what I’m doing but it’s got to be better than this”. That’s how it started, really, but it was in New York where I upped my game.
I was working at a restaurant called Atlantic Grill on the Upper East Side and got into bartending. The guy there, Eben Klemm, was was a molecular mixologist before that was even a thing. I wasn’t that drawn to the molecular side of stuff to start with but I really loved drinks and I just took to it.
Katrina. I came back after the hurricane. I think a lot of people thought to themselves, “If we don’t come back and rebuild the city, who is going to do it?” I looked for a place to open with my partner, Matt [Kohnke] and we found a great location on Freret Street, but it was in a run-down area. We were a little gun-shy about it at the beginning, but the more we thought about it the more we realised the area was going to change. And the reality was, we just couldn’t afford to be anywhere else.
I came back after the hurricane. I think a lot of people thought to themselves, “If we don’t come back and rebuild the city, who is going to do it?”
Yeah. Matt is a builder and designer and he loved the building. He said it too good to pass.
Kea: I saw it before they started working on it – it was pretty awful. It was an old fire house with these gorgeous arched windows, and there was shit everywhere, weird 70’s porn, kids toys. I just couldn’t see how it would work.
Neal starts preparing the Louisiana BBQ shrimp for lunch.
Firstly I love it, and secondly it calls for sherry. You are also going to see one of the hallmarks of New Orleans cooking – butter. It’s in every dish. This recipe calls for a pound of butter, but I don’t think we need it so we’ll do half olive oil and half butter.
I hate to admit it but I am – I’m not sure what that says about me.
Kea: This the only place we really argue.
Neal: It’s very true. Before the baby we would fight to cook and now it’s like, “No, no, please, by all means”.
Kea: Until literally last week we would cook probably about four days a week, then we finally just hit a wall. Hayden goes to bed at 8pm and we’d cook and eat at 9:30 and I would fall asleep about 10 minutes after that. I was like: “We don’t have to cook every single night, let’s just cut ourselves some slack”. So I think we are going to just cook on the weekends and when we have more time.
Neal: I make a lot of soups – I love making chicken soup. We make crab salad a lot and I make red beans and rice, which is a really famous New Orleans dish.
It generally has pork. We do a lot of grilling as well, we do steaks. We make fish all the time. All sorts of stuff. Kea is probably the better cook in a lot of ways. I’m more the veggie guy. I love roasting vegetables for some reason.
I feel like this place is quietly one of the best restaurants in town
Neal on his favourite places to eat in New Orleans – see Address Book
Not so confident that I’d invite my chef friends over. I’d make them drinks all day long though.
My mom cooked a lot when we were younger, but as was typical in the South, she had a lot of help in the house. We had a housekeeper who would make red beans and rice. I had a nanny who made, to this day, the best creamed potatoes I have ever eaten in my life. So we had the real Southern stuff but my mom would also cook – healthy stuff and Louisiana food and even though she is from Memphis.
No they were not big drinkers, they did not like particularly good booze or wine. I’m not a particularly big drinker either. I think I just liked the taste.
We opened Cure in 2009. It was the first craft cocktail bar in town and the reviews were mostly positive but some were mixed. Craft cocktails, not without justification, have the label of being pretentious. New Orleans isn’t really a pretentious town and we really had to work on our service. As a bartender, you spend so much time out in the open doing something that is really production heavy. In kitchens, at least, they can be behind closed doors so they can focus, whereas bartenders have to focus in front of customers, and so trying to be hospitable at the same time can be difficult. Some people just loved what we were doing and some people were like, “Man these guys are so pretentious, what’s going on?” Sometimes it was because they were concentrating so much that they couldn’t be as engaging as a normal bartender.
We opened Bellocq at the very end of 2011. We were approached by a hotelier to do a project for them and we thought it would be a great way for us to expand. It takes a long time for bars and restaurants to have cash flow and we were ready to do something else.
It was easier in some ways – you like to believe you don’t make the same mistakes twice but we made a few mistakes along the way. Anyway we asked ourselves what we were interested in, and we decided on to focus on fortified wines.
There’s an Irish whiskey that I love called Yellow Spot; Diplomatico rum from Venezuela; Highland Park 18-year-old whisky; Beefeater gin [see Pantry].
That’s the beauty of gin: it’s meant to be mixed. I do like the taste but I much prefer it in cocktails. Take martinis: they have to be the right ratio – equal parts gin and dry vermouth – and the right ingredients. The martini was originally meant to be a drink that was a bit wine-like. I think because of the vodka martini, the martini started to be thought of as a drink that was all booze. It went away from wine and I’m glad to say we are getting back.
Beefeater gin, Noilly Prat and lemon peel.
There are some good American gins but I’ll be honest, the English make better gin. They’ve been doing it a long time and it always tastes better, maybe not some of the new ones but the true old-style ones. Beefeater to me is the best gin ever, it’s just perfect.
Not much. I’m still creating cocktails, I still do events where I am making drinks for a thousand people but I’m not back behind the stick all the time. A lot of bartenders have gotten into the business side, they’re kind of struggling with their identity.
It doesn’t say anything. It’s the easiest way.
Cure is at 4905 Freret St, New Orleans, LA 70115; +1 504-302-2357, www.curenola.com. For more info on Neal’s other bars, go to www.thehotelmodern.com and www.caneandtablenola.com. Follow Neal on Twitter
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Roger Phillips – The horticulturalist and food writer takes us around his secret London garden, discusses his deep-rooted love of mushrooms and explains why he sleeps in his kitchen
Erwin Gegenbauer – The master vinegar brewer takes us on a tour of his Vienna factory, explains why local produce is “boring” and makes us breakfast featuring his own honey, oil, coffee, beer and cider