Ask Me Anything: Neal Brown

Dishing on Yelp reviewers, feuds, and James Beard aspirations.
Indianapolis chef Neal Brown

Photography by Mary McClung

The tastemaker’s sense for what’s new and what’s next has led to two James Beard Award nominations and a string of ventures like Stella, Libertine, Pizzology, and the upcoming Ukiyo. Brown’s success, however, has come with a side dish of grief from foes (real and perceived) and friends like Peter Dunn (aka Pete the Planner), who conducted this interview/roast:

Short of a few Yelp reviewers, most people in this city think you’re part of the solution to our food scene. But at some point, were you part of the problem?
I think a lot of people would say I’m still part of the problem, if we’re being honest. Of course I was part of the problem very early in my cooking career. I did plenty of crap food when I was in college. I dumped frozen food into fryers. The problem we have with food in America is that everything has to be fast. Everything has become about convenience. That’s why things are processed so they can be faster to the end user. Convincing people to slow down on someone else’s terms is a very, very difficult thing, because slowing down can feel a helluva lot like waiting.

Neal, you’re one of the most impatient people I’ve ever met.
I’m an incredibly impatient person, but I can slow down and take my time.

How has Yelp changed customer expectations?
One could argue that it makes them better, but I would not be the person to argue that. I don’t think everyone needs to have an opinion. I’m sorry. I know that’s really shitty. The reality of it is most people have no idea how to operate a restaurant, yet most people think they do because it’s a common experience. So they say stuff to justify their rating, and when they do that, they make themselves and the platform weaker because they can’t just admit a restaurant’s not for them.

What’s the climate of how people treat the front-of-the-house staff at restaurants? Has it gotten better or worse?
It’s worse. We had a situation recently where a patron made a server cry, and in turn, the patron started crying. Can you imagine what was going on? It was insane. Insanity. They didn’t get along, and they both started crying. For some, dining out is something they don’t get to do very often, and they take it personally when something goes wrong. Then there are people who dine out all the time and who are too sensitive and should just take some manners classes or something. People take it as a personal affront when things don’t go the way they expect.

So do you. You feuded with a napkin salesperson late last year.
I did feud with a napkin salesperson.

And a t-shirt salesperson, a fried- chicken salesperson, a burger salesperson …
I see injustices in the world, man! And they need to be called out.

Your feuds haven’t slowed down over the last few years.
Yes they have, haven’t they?

They’re just a little less public.
True. But I did have a feud the other day on Facebook with a food critic.

I love it.
I know. Me, too. But, look—I ideate publicly, therefore I’m a target for criticism. I do it to test the reaction. I do it for me. People tell me there’s risk in this, but I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve ever thrown an idea out into the ether and had it come back to bite me.

You have “hospitality” in the name of your company, Neal Brown Hospitality Group. Cute or purposeful?
It’s very purposeful. The definition of hospitality is treating a stranger with grace. Every business is founded in hospitality, but many don’t realize it. Anywhere you have an interaction between two or more people, there is an opportunity for hospitality.

You seem driven by hospitality, but I also think you have a chip on your shoulder.
I like when people tell me I can’t do something. It’s my favorite fuel. In fact, there’s a Japanese word that means “I told you so,” and I considered naming Ukiyo that. Instead I chose the name Ukiyo, which means “in the moment.” In Buddhism, it’s used, but not often. It’s a bit of an obscure word, to redirect you to be in the moment.

How many languages do you pretend to know?
I don’t like you.

You’ve said publicly that your goal is to win a James Beard Award at Ukiyo.
That may be a really bad goal. It’s certainly no reason to open a restaurant. However, I do believe if you’re able to achieve that goal, then you’ve done the right things to make a restaurant successful. The food has to be perfect, the staff has to be really well-trained, and all the other things that make restaurants challenging have to work. I kinda wish I hadn’t said that, but I’m okay with it. Would I like to be the first person in Indianapolis to win a James Beard award? Nothing would make me happier.

You were nominated for a James Beard award when you opened Libertine, but you were a much different person back then.
I’m no longer the tyrannical guy walking around yelling at everyone. It almost cost me everything. I had so much pressure, and it got to me. I wanted to win, and I was hard on everyone. Opening a restaurant is very stressful. Everything else goes to the wayside. If you’ve ever opened a business, everything gets put on the back burner, and that includes your well-being. My job these days is to put together a good team. I’m kind of a coach—and cheerleader.

Success in the restaurant business seems so ephemeral, and Indy has seen food trends quickly rise and die off, like froyo and food trucks. What’s going to die next?
Restaurants. We are rapidly reaching a critical mass of restaurants, if we haven’t already. There will be a tipping point very soon where some aren’t going to survive. That’s why I transitioned the downtown Pizzology (to Stella). There’s so much pizza coming to downtown. We had to do something before we became just another pizzeria. Eight pizza restaurants on and around Mass Ave aren’t going to survive.

What about a meal-delivery service delivered on rollerblades called “Neal’s on Wheels”?

A dessert-only restaurant called “Brownies”?

A frozen-food company called “Hot Brown Things”?
Likely the best so far.

A farm-to-table restaurant called “Pig-Feetsology”?
Not viable. This interview is really more about you being funny, isn’t it?