Erik Niel is a product of New Orleans, a community that dances to its own beat in almost every facet of life, from its language to its appetite for fun and food.
Although he was born in Texas, he spent his formative years growing up in Mandeville, La., on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain near the Crescent City, soaking up the flavors of Cajun country. It's with this foundation that he embarked on a career as a chef, graduating with a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University in Vail, Colo.
"Growing up in and around New Orleans defined the way I think about food in every way possible," he says. "The cuisine and people of New Orleans and South Louisiana are passionate about food. It permeates every bit of their culture. Growing up in that culture made me love food and hospitality in a deep and soulful way."
In May 2005, Niel opened Easy Bistro & Bar in the old Coca-Cola Bottling Plant in downtown Chattanooga. Ten years after opening Easy, he made his mark on the opposite side of town with the opening of Main Street Meats, a neighborhood butcher shop that provides top-quality meats to restaurants including Easy, Alleia, St. John's, 212 Market, The Flying Squirrel and Dorato Kitchen + Bar at the newly opened Westin.
Q: Did you grow up in a family that cooked?
A: Absolutely. My mother is a great cook and can improvise a meal in a hurry. My grandmother was a lovely cook as well. There was so much warmth in her cooking, and she always made food that gave satiety beyond the great flavors she was able to put together.
Q: Do you feel that getting a culinary degree was a necessary part of your development as a chef, or did you learn more from hands-on education?
A: Culinary school, like any school, is what you make of it. I found it to be very helpful in expediting my training as a cook because I worked full-time in a beautiful kitchen in Vail Village while I was going to school in the mornings. Learning in the classroom and then applying it practically every night was exactly what I needed to jump-start my training.
Q: What brought you to Chattanooga?
A: I moved to Chattanooga in the fall of 2000 to watch my brother play football at Baylor. He and my sister had moved here with my mother in the late '90s, and I had never seen him play or my sister cheerlead for the team. I needed a place to go after culinary school in Vail and thought I'd be gone in six to nine months, but turns out 17 years later, I'm still here.
Q: How has the menu at Easy evolved since you opened?
A: In so many ways that it's hard to quantify. I've grown so much as a chef, and the restaurant business has changed a lot in the last 12 years, so much so that opening menus would be barely recognizable. We have adopted a lot more small plates and reduced portion sizes over the years. The menu has adopted more local suppliers of all types and has focused more on our kitchen creations and less on typical standard bistro fare.
Q: How do you think Main Street Meats fits into the restaurant scene on Main Street?
A: It's a fun piece of the scene that has developed on Main Street. It's far and away the smallest restaurant down there, but it has so much going on between the restaurant, bar and the retail and butcher shop. There's always a great vibe in the dining room, and I love that people wait with drinks in front of the butcher counter at night. I hope it can continue to be an integral part of the Main Street restaurant scene.
Q: Who has influenced your cooking the most?
A: I've always soaked in the ideas and techniques of the cooks around me. I've learned a lot from other line cooks early in my career, and now I learn more from the sous chefs who I work with at Easy and Main Street Meats. I love helping to create dishes with other chefs. It's so much more fun for me than just creating what is in my head. I like having to listen to and understand other cooks' creativity. It's surprising what you can find in the minds of even the most novice of cooks.
Q: Any trends you feel are overrated?
A: The commercialization of "local" is really frustrating me. I see a lot of restaurants and chains using "local" as a part of their branding and identities but not following through on the menu. It's really obvious when they are trying to capitalize on the trend but have no intention of spending the extra money it requires to actually buy local.
Q: You have two restaurants now. When do you find time for family?
A: I'm very fortunate that I have great chefs and managers at both restaurants, so I do get to leave them to spend time with my family. I still work a lot, but I've been able to work a schedule that allows me to work more days and less nights, which is ideal for finding family time.
Q: What's your greatest achievement as a chef?
A: Being nominated as a James Beard semifinalist in the Southeast in 2016 and 2017. It's an amazing acknowledgment of a whole lot of work by a whole lot of talented people.
Q: You're known for your mastery at blending cooking techniques. Do you have a recipe you'd be willing to share?
A: This pan-roasted rainbow trout is cooked in a pan and served over kale and green beans cooked on the grill. I like it because it's easy to prepare at home. It's loosely based on some dishes we've done at Easy over the years but toned down for the home cook.
Pan-Roasted Rainbow Trout With Charred Kale and Green Bean Salad
2 pounds kale, cleaned, large ribs removed
2 pounds green beans, snap off tips
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
4 boneless rainbow trout
Salt and black pepper
Prepare gas or charcoal grill, heating to high heat.
For the salad: Place kale and green beans in two separate mixing bowls, and drizzle each with coconut oil. Season each with salt and pepper. Place green beans in grilling basket or directly on grill, and grill until they start to become tender. Be careful as some beans may fall through the grate. When almost tender, place beans back in the bowl and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Place bowl over indirect heat to steam and keep warm.
Place the kale leaves in a grilling basket or directly on the grill, and let char for 1-2 minutes, then turn and char the other side for a minute or two. Return kale to the bowl, and season with apple cider vinegar, then cover with plastic wrap. Let rest in a warm place while trout is cooking
For the trout: Season liberally with salt and pepper. Place a cast-iron pan on the grill, and heat well. Add 2-3 tablespoons coconut oil to the pan, and add 2 trout pieces, skin side down, in the pan. Cook for 2-3 minutes on the skin side, then turn and cook for another couple of minutes. Repeat with remaining fish.
To serve: Divide the salad between four plates, and place a piece of trout on top. Drizzle with lemon juice, and serve immediately.
Contact Anne Braly at email@example.com.