For Erik Niel, chef and owner of Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, Tennessee, there’s no better place to kick back and relax than Alys Beach. Niel’s parents, Bren Niel and Bill Sudderth are currently building a home in Alys Beach, but he’s been able to enjoy vacations there for years.
“I love the aesthetic and the way Alys Beach makes you feel,” says Erik. “It’s a great place to allow your mind and body to relax. I can feel myself letting go of everyday pressures as soon as I get out of the car. It’s is the kind of place that allows you to stop and enjoy life.
Erik, a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast in 2016 and 2017, understands what daily pressures can be like as he runs two successful restaurants in Chattanooga. Erik was raised in south Louisiana and grew up fishing and chasing ducks through the bayou. He explains that food became a foundational aspect of his childhood experience. “Louisiana has a great relationship with food and cooking – it’s just so palpable down there,” says Erik. “When I left, I was shocked to find it was different in other places.”
Erik graduated from culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, Colorado. He then moved to Chattanooga, where his mother had relocated, to determine his next steps. While he was there, he met and fell in love with Amanda, who is now his wife. They decided to make Chattanooga their home, and over fourteen years ago opened Easy Bistro & Bar when Erik was just 27-years-old. “I poured all my hopes and dreams into this one thing,” says Erik. Lucky for him, and for all of Chattanooga, it worked.
Easy Bistro & Bar has its roots in New Orleans cuisine. Erik began studying creole history and went back to the French techniques he had studied in culinary school. Today, he mixes these techniques with his love of fresh gulf seafood and seasonal local ingredients to form the menu of Easy Bistro & Bar. Erik also runs the wine and cocktail programs for the restaurant. He describes himself as a “whole house kind of guy,” and says it’s important to him to have curated wine and cocktail lists that complement the food.
Ten years after opening his first restaurant, he got involved with Main Street Meats, a local butcher shop. He started consulting before eventually taking over and opening a kitchen and bar.
“It was a total departure from Easy Bistro & Bar,” he says. “It’s hyper-locally driven, working with trusted local farmers to procure animals. We work hard to stick to the local aesthetic with well-tended, hormone-free, antibiotic-free animals.” He explains that his entire philosophy of cooking begins with using high-quality ingredients.
When discussing plans for the future, Erik envisions holidays and big meals with his family at Alys Beach. He knows cooking for family while on vacation can be difficult but offers advice to others to stay focused on what’s most important: time together. “There’s an anxiety about cooking for the holidays that is overwhelming. I have discovered that when you cook for people, they find it relaxing. Whether it’s grilled cheese or a big Thanksgiving meal, they’ll love it. We’re not saving the world – we’re just making Thanksgiving dinner,” says Erik. The key, he explains, is to keep it simple. Find four to five dishes that you love and that are easy to make. Then make sure to have an organized grocery list.
And he urges you not to put too much pressure on yourself to make all of those prized heirloom family recipes that tend to be more difficult when you’re not in your regular kitchen. “Let go of the idea that you need to do everything, and just enjoy the process,” says Erik.