When I first met Chef Neill Howell at a preview dinner at The Corner Pantry, I was immediately impressed. From the moment I walked in, Neill, his wife Emily and their staff were warm, engaging and excited to have us there and after that first visit, I was anxious to come back. And I did. Again and again. Lunch, espressos, take out dinner on the way home, cooking classes and more. The decor, the vibe, the people – it all works. (Do NOT miss their Friday special – Fish & Chips…with the most delicious mushy peas in all of the land.) In just over a year, they have cultivated a great little following by making approachable, creative, tasty food, all with housemade ingredients. Seriously, you need the fish & chips in your life. #friday
Neill grew up in Colchester, England, which is about 45 minutes outside of London. His dad was in the Army and the family also spent time in Hong Kong. Mom is Irish, from Belfast. Neill’s first kitchen job was as a weekend dishwasher and later, he took his first job as a cook at a place called Sloppy Joe’s. They served sort of a combo of American and Tex-Mex cuisine. He learned a lot about how to work fast, that’s for sure. At 18 he entered culinary school, then he moved to London. At first, cooking was more of a vocation than a passion, but that was okay.
Neill tells me, “My first real job in London was at the Rubens Hotel. That was awful.” (Smiles, laughs…) It was near Buckingham Palace. Then, he had a two year stint at Michael Caine’s restaurant, Langan’s Brasserie working under Michelin Star chef Richard Sheppard. At Langan’s, he learned a ton, really got to work in each part of the kitchen. Then, onto Asia de Cuba in the St. Martins Lane Hotel, a 5-star Ian Schrager property – very schwank and cool. He spent time working at the Grove Hotel and then…he moved to New York City. When a 24 yr old chef gets offered a job (and a work visa) in NYC, he goes! Duh.
Once in NYC, Neill worked at Stanton Social and Soho House, where he met his lovely wife Emily with whom he has two children now, Annabelle and Clive. The couple decided to move to Baltimore (Emily is a Bmore girl) and he opened Bond Street Social in Fell’s Point, which ended up not being a great fit for him as a chef. So, they heard about the space at Lake Avenue & Falls Road and took a look. The cafe had been several things, including Glasz Cafe and most recently, Banksy’s. Neill and Emily thought the space was a manageable size, location was great and they decided to take a chance. They remodeled the space, hired their crew and opened in February of 2014.
Was food a big part of your upbringing? Did you cook when you were a kid?
NH: No, not really. Cooking wasn’t really something I ever thought I’d pursue. Washing dishes opened my eyes to the whole restaurant business. I was drawn to the camaraderie in the kitchen. You know, having a laugh, a joke. It was fun. But also, it’s a tough business, so eventually having the desire and drive to be successful is key.
Lots of kids get to choose the meal on their birthday…anything they want to a point, I suppose. What would be your birthday meal now? What did you ask for as a kid?
NH: Now, simple stuff like roast chicken and vegetables. Also, I really like going out for my birthday now. It just seems more fun now that I’m constantly in the kitchen. When I was a kid? McDonald’s! As a little kid, it just seemed fun and special.
How did you choose your location? You seem to have filled a niche there.
NH: Well, there is a family connection to the shop next door to the cafe and we live in Rodgers Forge, so the location seemed to work to us. We visited Banksy’s and when it became available we were definitely interested. When we were in NYC, Emily and I talked about having our own place. It all just worked out – timing, logistics, etc – everything worked.
Any food trends you can’t stand?
NH: Vegans! (laughs…) I’m just kidding. No, not really. I’m a pretty open person and not a lot bothers me.
How do you balance home and work? You guys have two little kids – that can’t be easy. Guess days off are big when they happen?
NH: Well, we’re closed on Sundays. So, that’s always family day. We try to go out to a new place every Sunday. Balance? No, there really isn’t any. Emily is here most mornings, so that’s great. Also, my mother-in-law is amazing. We would be lost without her. Also, we go to the gym and work out when we can. That helps a lot.
Do you have any time to watch any food tv? If so, are there any celebrity chefs you like? Any you’d like to work with?
NH: TV? No, not really. My old boss, Chris Santos, is a judge on Chopped, so maybe that sometimes, but really not too much. I kind of find food tv a little annoying. As for celebrity chefs, I admire Fergus Henderson very much. I worked with him in NYC and he’s amazing. I really admire his food philosophy. Also, Jamie Oliver is great. When I was at Soho House, we had a lot of guest chefs and I liked Jamie a lot. Also, Neil Perry is one chef I admire.
What do you like about Baltimore?
NH: Originally, moving here was more Emily’s idea, but I really do like it a lot. It’s nice to be a few hours from the beach, we love going downtown to Fell’s Point and the Harbor with the kids. Also, there are so many farms nearby, that’s great. Baltimore definitely has a lot of charm and character. It’s real, the people are real, too.
What do you love about food?
NH: Working as a chef, I love the rush of a busy service. It’s thrilling and also rewarding, having people enjoy your food. Seeing the joy in your guests’ faces, that’s so gratifying. The pay, hours, work are tough, so getting to make people happy is a shining light. It’s great. Also, being creative feels good. Bouncing ideas around…that’s fun.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Baltimore? And where would you take Emily for date night? No kids…
NH: Linwood’s for sure. They catered our wedding, so we always go there for our anniversary. Also, The Ambassador is so great – we love Indian food. That space is beautiful, too. Love the udon noodles at Sushi Hana, duck fat fries at Salt, Vito’s for pizza with the kids and The Prime Rib with the in-laws. Also, The Food Market. In Baltimore, that is the closest thing to a NYC restaurant – the vibe, the decor. And the food is always, always good.
Okay, obligatory…when you cook at home, what do you make? Do you cook with your kids? Any favorite ‘go to’ meals at home?
NH: I don’t cook at home as much as I’d like. Before we opened, we tested tons of recipes at home but now that we are so busy and have the kids, we do a lot of takeout, but at home roast chicken is always a favorite at our house.
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