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Richard Neal laughs into his coffee cup, remembering his days as a fry guy down at the local family grill. "I started working in kitchens up in Virginia years before I went to culinary school," he says, "and for the longest time, I hated it."
Currently, Neal is a sous chef at a little place on the Westside called Bacchanalia, taking cues from some of the best chefs in the Southeast. His passion for the culinary arts is undeniable, but Neal admits that his attitude toward cooking hasn't always been a positive one. "I really didn't care back then," he says, "as soon as I got to work, I couldn't wait to be off again." In those days, cooking was a chore; something he did to pay the rent.
Even his decision to attend culinary school was half-hearted and heavily influenced by familial pressure. "When I turned 20, I realized that I needed get my life together," Neal says. "My mom was pressuring me to do something, anything at the time. I'd been working in kitchens forever, so I thought, 'Why not go to culinary school?'"
Nothing about cooking had particularly resonated with Neal before studying at the Art Institute of Atlanta. "Culinary school is where I really fell in love with food," he says. "One day, something inside of me just clicked and I've been on this ride ever since."
A ride is an excellent way to describe Neal's career. Before accepting the sous position at Bacchanalia, Neal worked all over the city, building his résumé and learning all he could from Atlanta's top chefs. In the fall of 2010, Neal decided it was time for a change. "I was about to buy a plane ticket to Portland when the opportunity came up for me to work at Bacc."
At Bacchanalia, Neal is one of three sous chefs. "It is definitely intense," he says. "It's such a big machine with a lot of gears turning all day every day." Neal says working at Bacchanalia is unlike any other kitchen he's worked for. "Everyone there is super professional and focused on the goal of being the best in the city." But despite being one of Atlanta's most highly respected restaurants, Neal says that he and the rest of the staff are looking for ways to improve. "With this comes a ton of stressful days, but at the end of it, we're proud of what we do."
Stylistically, Neal describes his cooking as rustic and traditional. "If we get a whole animal in, or a terrine needs to be made, I'm all over it," he says. "I love butchering and making homemade charcuterie."
"I like real food," he says, "pure, ingredient-driven food with the least amount of manipulation."
If he were to open his own restaurant, Neal says he would focus on the most neglected meal in the city: breakfast. "The hardest meal for me to find is a chef-driven breakfast," he says. "I've always wanted to do something like that, and not just during normal breakfast hours but late night especially."
Neal says he's not quite sure where he'll be five years from now. "I know I'll still be cooking," he says. "Right now I'm really focusing on the present — my fundamentals and just getting better."
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