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Episode 111: The Preacher Has A New Son A Conversation With Chef Neal Gray

Spread the Ozark love

IANWA - Neal Gray (edited)

IANWA Open [0:11] It's time for another episode of I am Northwest Arkansas, the podcast covering the intersection of business, culture, entrepreneurship and life in general here in the Ozarks. Whether you are considering a move to this area or trying to learn more about the place you call home, we've got something special for you. Here's our host, Randy Wilburn.

Randy Wilburn [0:42] Hey folks, and welcome to another episode of I am Northwest Arkansas. I'm your host, Randy Wilburn and I'm excited to be with you today. It's not often that I get to do a rewind or a reboot of a podcast episode. But this is actually what we're doing today. I'm sitting here in a spacious, absolutely stunning restaurant called The Preacher’s Son and it is located in downtown Bentonville. And for those of you that have been listening to this podcast forever in a day, you know that I sat down with Chef Matt Cooper in the first year of this podcast, and Matt is a personal friend and somebody that I highly respect. He was leading the charge here at The Preacher’s Son, and he was a preacher’s son. When Matt decided to up and leave, not up and leave, but decided to do some new things, because how life is right? We all decided at some point in time to make some new movements and try some different things. And so, Matt decided to leave and the folks at RopeSwing said we have got to find a suitable replacement, and that suitable replacement ended up being Neal Gray, and Neal is a native son of Arkansas, but I'm going to let him tell the story. So, without further ado, Neal Gray, welcome to the I am Northwest Arkansas podcast and welcome to Arkansas. I know you've been here a few months, but welcome.

Neal Gray [2:01] Well, thank you so much. I'm really happy to be here. Thank you for coming out and doing this today. I'm really excited.

Randy Wilburn [2:06] Well, you bribed me with some food. No, just kidding. It was very good. And we will get into that in a minute. I would love for you because everybody that listens to this podcast knows, we always like to go into the backstory, because we think that the story is important. And so, we'd love for you just to kind of give us a cliff note version of your superhero origin story, just your background in general, as well as just a little bit about your culinary experience.

Neal Gray [2:30] I grew up in Malvern, Arkansas, and I started working at a local restaurant there called Western Sizzlin. It's local in the sense that they're actually everywhere. All over the Southwest, I'm sure there's still 1000s and 1000s of them. But I started working there when I was about 15 and I really fell in love with the environment of a restaurant. I fell in love with the cast of characters and the thrill of service and the pressure and the people that you meet. I found the whole thing to just be really enthralling. I worked at that restaurant from the time that I was 15 through my first year of college, so all in all, I worked at the restaurant for four years. Pretty long time. I think once I'd finished that, and I started learning that there was a higher level of cooking, that there was more to it than just steaks on the grill that some people did this for a profession, and they did it as a craft, when I became aware of that, I started looking to go to culinary school. So, I enrolled in culinary school after my first year of college where I was just doing a general study in general academics. And I moved out to Virginia. I went to Johnson & Wells. I was in culinary school for four years, actually and then my first job was in Virginia. I finished college in Rhode Island, came back to Virginia and started working at a restaurant called the Inn at Little Washington, and that was my very first experience. Amazing restaurant- three Michelin stars today and still going strong. Really, really informative and amazing first experience, and from there, I've gone from coast to coast. I went to California after that, and I worked at the French Laundry. From there, I went to Vegas and continued at Thomas Keller’s restaurant called Busan in the Venetian Hotel. And then from there to New York, where I worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns for a while, and then eventually moved into the city and started working for a company called Happy Cooking Hospitality, where I worked at some amazing restaurants and really learned so much. I married my boss's sister and we've moved back to Arkansas. So that's it in a nutshell.

Randy Wilburn [4:19] And so, you've been all over. What was it like? You just fell into being at a Michelin-star-rated restaurant early on, so I would assume that your level of focus when it came to your culinary skills was at a high level because of that.

Neal Gray [4:37] I was very motivated to study the craft of cooking from the onset really. I had pinned these restaurants where I wanted to work and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And I knew that I wanted to learn how to cook at a very, very high level before I ever wanted to think about running a kitchen or owning a restaurant. I think I was a little like maybe ahead of my time in that because I think a lot of the young kids that I meet today, especially in New York City, they immediately want to be the sous chef, they want to be a manager, they want to graduate from culinary school, and they think they're ready to do it, right. But I've been very committed, once I got out of culinary school, I knew that I wanted to learn how to cook. And I knew that there was a lot to learn and I was seeking out the restaurants to learn those skills. And it's an ongoing endeavor. It's just like being a musician, the most experienced musician can sit down with an instrument and learn something new after 50 years of playing it. And I think that cooking is something you have to practice with intense focus and dedication if you want to be really, really good at it.

Randy Wilburn [5:35] In the back of my mind, and I know you have kids, I have kids, I'm always thinking about Ratatouille, right? Where they talk about anyone can cook, but not everybody can create. So, you really took your skill levels to, no pun intended, a new level each time you went to a different restaurant.

Neal Gray [5:54] I certainly tried

Randy Wilburn [5:54] And I think that it's the layering effect, right? And you put it beautifully with a musician because even the greatest musicians learn something new. I mean, I've heard Wynton Marsalis talk about how he will hear a note differently and he didn't hear that same note that same way thirty years ago. And it's like, wow, so, there's so much there. And sometimes, for the uninitiated, it's hard for us to grasp that. There is artwork behind the approach to culinary that most chefs take. What has been your inspiration since you've gotten here? Again, a native son, you're back in Arkansas. Did you ever think you'd be back here?

Neal Gray ‘[6:32] Well, I wasn't really 100 percent sure. My wife and I were in quarantine, we just had a baby. It was the very start of the pandemic, we're talking March. By the time we had our child, everything in New York City was shutting down, and we got home with our baby and we basically had a lot of time to become new parents. And then I had a lot of time to sit around and think about what my next step might be in my career. The restaurant was shut down as all the restaurants are shutting down. And it left me with a lot of time to think about what my next move could possibly be. What I wanted out of my career and where I wanted to be, and if it was the right time to make a big change. And I started talking to a lot of people out here in Northwest Arkansas, and thinking about this as a real possibility and putting feelers out there about what the industry was like here, where it was trending, and if I could possibly have a home here. I was introduced to Kurt Berman, our former CEO.

Randy Wilburn [7:25] Kurt has been a guest on the podcast.

Neal Gray [7:27] That’s great. Kurt was the one who originally told me we have a position here at The Preacher’s Son and it could be right for you. And I guess that's how it started.

Randy Wilburn [7:38] So, I guess my simple question to you about that was, I'd love to back up about the New York City piece because New York got hit hard; the city and the State as a whole. I have friends from there and most of the people who listen to this podcast know I'm from outside of New York City in northern New Jersey. Shout out to Bergen County, and I spent most of my time in the city. So, I like a lot of people that are from there really felt bad for how the city was targeted by this virus. It was really rough. You think we got hit with from the service industry perspective here with people being unemployed or underemployed, it was like game over in New York City.

Neal Gray [8:17] They really were. It was a hard shutdown and there are still restaurants that are losing their livelihood. There are still so many people unemployed. They're doing everything they can to get back, but New York City was absolutely ravaged by it. My brother-in-law, he’s respiratory, he formerly owned eight restaurants, he's lost restaurants, and there's going to be a big rebuilding process in New York City. There's no doubt in my mind that it will come back. It's going to come back for sure, but a lot of people were really, really hurt and it was tough and hard to see.

Randy Wilburn [8:49] I think a lot of times for the average person, when they're on the outside looking in at a business, right, you think, oh, well, most businesses that are successful, especially like a restaurant, they must be raking in the dough making so much money. That's like one of the biggest misnomers in the restaurant industry.

Neal Gray [9:08] It’s one of the biggest misnomers for sure. People think that you own a restaurant, I see people in there all the time so you must be wealthy. People don't realize the profit margins in restaurants are very, very small. The goal of a restaurant really is to control your overhead, pay your employees as well as you can possibly pay them, and hopefully you eke out a little profit at the end of the day. I think when people see dining rooms full of guests, and they see people eating and people drinking, oh, you must be making so much money. Well, the food is very expensive for us to buy, and you have to look to maximize your margins at every single turn. That's always been the case, and now with the pandemic, where it's even harder for restaurants to pay rent, that overhead becomes even more laborious to take care of. It's that much harder.

Randy Wilburn [9:49] And so what was it like as you were doing your own due diligence and research before you committed to coming here? What was the biggest aha moment or surprise that you had about Northwest Arkansas before you committed to coming to The Preacher’s Son?

Neal Gray [10:04] I think the biggest aha moment I had was actually learning about RopeSwing and learning that there was a Hospitality Group here that was this big and this ambitious.

Randy Wilburn [10:13] It is pretty impressive.

Neal Gray [10:15] There's a lot of resources behind it. I didn't know the extent to which this area has been invested in and there's been so much tremendous investment in this place. I think it makes it very attractive for people to come in and hopefully even open more businesses and really continue to build upon this hospitality culture that RopeSwing has started. I hope that more and more restaurateurs move in and I would really love to see this take off like a Nashville or Austin type way. I think that's really the end goal. It will require talented people to come in and jump into the game, and for us as restaurateurs to engage with our community and hopefully, build that spirit of people wanting to come out and experience a lot and having a lot of different things to experience.

Randy Wilburn [10:57] Speaking of getting people to come here and commit to this area. Did you get anybody to come with you to join you here at The Preacher’s Son or not?

Neal Gray [11:04] Not yet, but I'm working on it. I would really love for all my friends to move out here. I've whispered it into the ears of a few people.

Randy Wilburn [11:13] Just to let them know, hey, we will leave the light on for you.

Neal Gray [11:16] I have a lot of talented friends in this industry.

Randy Wilburn [11:19] In all of your journeys across the country, I know you know people where you could reach out and say, hey, there are some opportunities here.

Neal Gray [11:29] I think first maybe I have to show them. They have to see the success, see the area. I’m inviting friends out already to come and stay. We actually have more space now than we've ever had in our lives.

Randy Wilburn [11:41] That must be a big difference, right? Going from a smaller spot in the city to what you can get here for the amount of money that's available.

Neal Gray [11:48] In New York City, you think like, where am I supposed to store all of my things? And then here, we move into a rental house and we have too much space?

Randy Wilburn [11:58] It helps you to appreciate it more than anything? So, let's talk about this iteration here at The Preacher’s Son, there have been a lot of changes. For those of you that are listening that know The Preacher’s Son was known for gluten-free items. I think Matt himself had celiac, and he had other family members that did as well. So, it was incumbent upon him to create a menu that allowed him to enjoy the lifestyle of eating. So, now, you're coming in and putting your own thumbprint on this, so it will be your culinary DNA. In your mind, what were you thinking about? Because obviously, you're aware of that, you knew the reputation? What were your thoughts about what you wanted to come in and create?

Neal Gray [12:52] That's a great question. Well, first and foremost, I want the food to be delicious and I want it to be hyperlocal, which is something that Matt actually did a great job building here at The Preacher’s, Son. He made a lot of connections with a lot of farmers and that's a really, really beautiful thing and something that's very much a part of my spirit of cooking. And oftentimes people ask me, what inspires you. And really, the easiest way to get inspired, I think, is to take a walk through a farmers’ market, and look at the bounty and look at that particular food item that is at its peak freshness at its peak ripeness. And you look at that, and all of a sudden, you think, what am I going to do with these? I'm going to take them to the restaurant, and then what am I going to do? What am I going to create? I think that oftentimes when I come up with my best ideas is when I'm walking around, and an inspiration just strikes you because of the way that a product looks, feels and the way that it tastes. That is oftentimes the best way to get inspired. It's hard to sit down and force something out of yourself. Inspiration is not always just in a bottle for your disposal. I think oftentimes the best way to get inspired is to walk out, see the food and let it inspire you. And that's always where I'm coming from when I'm trying to create something for the menu. And then, I guess circling back to the gluten-free thing. I think that there has been pushed back from the restaurant moving away from gluten-free. But I think gluten-free was also very unique to Matthew Cooper. And, I think now that Matthew is gone, I think it might be a disservice to Matthew to keep cooking that food. I think that's special and unique to him, more so than it's unique to The Preacher’s Son. So, now we're in this mode of overhauling the menu, which we have been doing and using a lot of the experience and techniques that I've accumulated over the years to take these local products, and basically, start building our new culinary repertoire here. And it's coming to fruition and we're working on it every day. It's a constant battle because cooking is not easy at a high level, so we're all learning new things in the kitchen together. And we're learning how to put new tools into our belt so to speak. And it's been a lot of fun in this winter iteration of the menu, and we're really looking forward to the bounty of this Spring, and getting to see what Arkansas really has to offer in terms of what's coming out of the fields and what's coming out of the pastures, and that's going to be really exciting.

Randy Wilburn [15:08] It is exciting when you think about it. I'm involved in the whole farm-to-table movement here. I'm on the Board of Ozark Natural Foods, so I get to meet a lot of the local farmers. I'm just amazed at what our local farmers provide, say, like, within a 100-mile radius. You've got Bansley’s Berkshire Ridge and all kinds of outstanding small farms that are putting out some amazing, amazing high-quality food. It’s not that it's a limitless supply, but it's a strong supply to fall back on and not have to go other places to find that you need to create something beautiful.

Neal Gray [15:50] Absolutely.

Randy Wilburn [15:52] My wife and I came the other night and you guys put on a show, I must say, and I want to just tell anyone that I had a Bronzino that was out of this world. I have never tasted duck breasts like that before. It was really good. Everything was awesome. The desserts, the wine pairings were excellent. There was a recent and I can't remember the name of the Riesling that was absolutely outstanding with the sea scallops that you guys created. How often are you going to change the menu and update it based on what is available? How are you going to do that?

Neal Gray [16:36] Well, we like to do it very much as the inspiration strikes us. So rather than thinking about the menu in terms of like, being just seasonal change, I always want us to have the flexibility in the kitchen to change it whenever we want to. Not necessarily changing the entire menu but say when asparagus first comes into season, or when peas first coming into the season, this spring, rather than thinking about, we need to overhaul the entire menu so that we can use asparagus. Let's do this organically part by part and piece by piece. So, we are going to be changing the menu constantly. For me, that's always the best way to do it because you don't have to wait to come up with an entirely new menu and then teach an entirely new menu to your staff. You do it part by part and piece by piece as these foodstuffs are coming along. And I think it's exciting for the guests too because they can come in and constantly see something new.

Randy Wilburn [17:22] And I'm just curious. Did most of the staff stayed on that were here from before or was there any overhaul at all?

Neal Gray [17:29] The vast majority of the staff is still here. Full in the front and the back of the house?

Randy Wilburn [17:34] Oh, that's good. I know, when we came, I recognized a few people that I'd seen before because I've been here a few times. Of course, I haven't missed many meals, as you can tell. It's nice to see that the restaurant was busy, and even with everything that's going on with the pandemic, we're still not out of the clear. I think that there's a real opportunity for growth, especially to see what this spring of 2021 brings about in terms of what you guys are able to do and how many people get reacquainted with it because a lot of people have not been back out.

Neal Gray [18:09] I'm sure there are a lot of people that are nervous about dying indoors and for good reason. But I really hope that as this vaccination rollout continues, we continue to see better numbers in this pandemic, that people aren't going to venture back out. I think they will be excited too

Randy Wilburn [18:23] And you guys are doing all the expected things to ensure a safe, clean environment for any diner that's coming in?

Neal Gray [18:31] Absolutely. In terms of masking, social distancing, of course, hygiene, these things all play a role. We want people to come in and know that we're following guidelines that we're going above and beyond to make sure that they're going to be safe when they dine here.

Randy Wilburn [18:44] So, now that you've been here for---. How many months have you been here now?

Neal Gray [18:49] I started here on December 12th and I think we rolled into town maybe like 10 days before that.

Randy Wilburn [18:55] It's been hot and fast. So, what are you learning about your new hometown now?

Neal Gray [19:03] Well, I want to continue to learn more and more and more, but I have been knees deep in this restaurant since I've gotten here. The days are long and I've been very much focused on implementing our new ideas here. But I think I'm really excited to more so than getting to know the town, really excited to start meeting all the people. And it's almost difficult to come up to the table and really engage with people with a mask on, because they can't see that you're smiling. They can't see that you're happy to talk to them and you can't really take the mask off and shake hands. I'm really excited not only for people to come back here and just engage with the restaurant but also for myself and my team to be able to engage with them. Start building that community spirit here at The Preacher’s Son.

Randy Wilburn [19:43] I’ll be honest with you. I missed that more than anything else. I'm a hugger. I like to hug folks. I have a lot of chef friends and I give them hugs and high fives and all that and it's hard not to be able to do that in this current environment. That's why I can't wait to get on the other side of this thing.

Neal Gray [20:01] I think we are all excited. I want everyone who's ever been to this restaurant to come and experience it again. If anyone who's never been here, I'm really excited to start making new fans.

Randy Wilburn [20:14 I think that's important and I think there are a lot of opportunities. That's the one thing I will say about Northwest Arkansas is that those of us who live here and I include myself among that in the sense that I've been here six years now so I feel like I'm a homer. We get excited when there's something new, to celebrate the businesses and organizations around us that are doing well. And so, we want to certainly see you guys succeed and really make the most of it. Have you had a chance to connect with any of your peer chefs in the area that is part of RopeSwing?

Neal Gray [20:51] I've got to be honest, I have not. I've met a few of our chefs. I had a chance to sit down with Simon at Blake Street just the other day. We did a little demo for the members of Blake street House and it was a lot of fun. I did two different food demos for a nice group of people there. And we showed off two dishes and they're going to run those two dishes as additions to their menu over the coming week. And then he's going to have a whole series of guest chefs coming in and people in the industry will do a nice little presentation and demos for their guests. I think that's really nice. Simon is a great guy with a lot of worldly experience, so there was a lot of fun to meet him.

Randy Wilburn [21:29] I don't know him personally. He has a great reputation. I know a little bit about Blake Street House and I think that's a really interesting concept, and so, I want to learn more about that. RopeSwing has so many balls up their sleeves and there are so many cool things happening. This is your domain so this is where the magic is going to happen for you. What are you hoping to roll out, as a preview, in the next three to six months? As we get into spring and into the summertime and hopefully into space where people are getting a little bit more comfortable about coming back out and doing things, what are you hoping to accomplish?

Neal Gray [22:08] Well, right now in the winter iteration of this menu, where we basically just started really, the food feels very wintery. We have a lot of things that are brothy on the menu. A lot of things that are maybe a little buttery and a little heavy and the things that you enjoy eating unlike this warming sort of spirit in the winter. As the spring rolls around, I'm really excited to take that menu and make it feel like spring so that it's lighter, it feels sunnier, bright, fresh. So that's where the menu is going to be trending in the coming months. And I think what I'm really excited for people to learn about The Preacher’s Son, this isn't just a special occasion restaurant. This is going to be a restaurant where you can come every day of the week, any day of the week. I would love to see our regulars in here once a week, not celebrating birthdays so much, although I do still want people to celebrate birthdays. But rather than thinking about it as a place to celebrate, think about it as a place to come here where you can always just have great food in a really comfortable atmosphere. I'm really excited to show people what we can do in this kitchen. A small kitchen and a small team, but we're going to be constantly pushing the boundaries of what that kitchen is capable of and really stretching that to the max.

Randy Wilburn [23:18] I got to recommend anybody that's listening to this. It's hard to describe, but the beauty of this building and the stained-glass windows. They have a little nook that I actually sat in. It's really quaint and very private. There were several people celebrating birthdays, and so, it can be a special occasion place. But you're absolutely right, just coming here on a regular evening during the weeknight and getting a nice meal is certainly appropriate. And if nothing else, outside of having an outstanding meal, there's something about the ambiance of this room. This is an award-winning room and so, that's the other piece of it that makes it special.

Neal Gray [24:03] It does feel very special. It feels like a celebratory place.

Randy Wilburn [24:07] I encourage folks that are listening to the podcast to come out and support with Chef Neal Gray and his team is doing here at The Preacher’s Son and what they're going to continue to do. I think like with everything that I've said recently, we have to support our restaurants and that's why I always use the hashtag save our restaurant as much as possible. There are actually several restaurants here in Northwest Arkansas that have closed and there's no prospect of them opening again, and that means lost jobs for people lost opportunities for owners. There's a lot that we can do to help stem that tide.

Neal Gray [24:47] There's certainly a ripple effect when restaurants close because restaurants are supporting things like small farms. There's definitely a ripple effect of the people that become affected by restaurants closing. My heart goes out to farmers that rely on us to buy their products and rely on all of their resources in terms of the clients and customers that they had. They're hurting now, too. We hear stories about farmers in New York and Wisconsin dumping their milk because they can't sell the milk. Cheesemakers have a surplus, so there's nothing to do but take it on the field and just let it go. How sad is that? We're talking about food scarcity. And we talk about people that are food insecure. We have farmers that can't sell a product, and basically can't even give it away, so restaurant closing is a terrible thing.

Randy Wilburn [25:37] It has a really profound effect on the communities where they're closing. So, I mean, you put it perfectly. So, as we get to the close, I know your nose is going to be to the grindstone, but I wanted to get an idea. Say we get to the summer months, and you're creating some of your dessert creations, is there anything that you have a proclivity towards, that you tend to focus on because you really enjoy doing that? I know, as a chef, some chefs tend to shade towards the things that they enjoy the most doing. So, I'd be curious from a dessert perspective, because the desserts that we had the other night were just outstanding. There was, I can't remember the name of it, but it was a custard-like dessert. It almost reminded me of creme brulee, without the burnt topping.

Neal Gray [26:30] Was it a panna cotta?

Randy Wilburn [26:31] It was a panna cotta with the granola on top and that was ridiculous. I'm just curious, what do you skew towards when you are creating some new items on the menu?

Neal Gray [26:43] Well, I think in the summer months stone fruits are always a lot of fun to look at. We have a peach orchard called Vinzenz that I've always been a fan of and every time I would come home to see my parents in the summer, they live really, really close to the orchard, I would always be at Vinzenz buying peach. So, whenever you think of the summer, I think of peach and plum and all the amazing things that can be done with that. Whether it be cristata as well, or buckles or cobblers, whatever it may be, stone fruit is definitely something that I would gravitate towards in the world of dessert.

Randy Wilburn [27:14] In the world of dessert. What about like main entrees?

Neal Gray [27:17] It's all about tomato, and corn and all those amazing things that are coming around in the summer- peppers, eggplant and cucumber. Summer is really like the bounty, the big harvest, so I really get excited when the markets are rolling all these things out, and you almost can't stop the ideas. They're unstoppable because you have so much at your disposal. So, the summer is always a really exciting time. It's really a matter of reining it in and figuring out okay, we can't do all of this, what are we going to do?

Randy Wilburn [27:48] So, I guess it's always more of an idea you had that there are more options in the summertime than you do in the wintertime? Here's the other issue that I struggled with moving here and anybody that's recently moved here from one of the coasts will appreciate this good seafood.

Neal Gray [28:05] It’s difficult?

Randy Wilburn [28:06] It is difficult. How are you guys going to address that?

Neal Gray [28:09] Well, we have a supplier and our suppliers are coming out of Tennessee, I believe. So, I think the struggle with seafood here in Arkansas is that there's really no such thing as local seafood markets. Obviously, we're landlocked.

Randy Wilburn [28:23] Unless you’re getting catfish.

Neal Gray [28:24] Which is not seafood. That is one option, you could turn to fresh fish. But most people when they want to eat fish at a restaurant, they don't want freshwater fish, they want seafood. So, we have to find through trial and error, what's coming in the freshest, which varieties of fish are coming in the very, very freshest, and you have to get those fish in while they're fresh. You have to promote it and sell it as soon as possible so that you can keep it coming in and keep it very fresh. And of course, you have to handle it really, really well but that goes for any place. So, obviously, we put a premium on really, really taking care of our fish when it comes in. And that's all the proper handling and the icing and everything like that. But really what we've been doing and we've served three or four different varieties of fishes since I came here. We're always looking for which ones are coming in the best, and you examine that fish when it comes in. You want to see that the flesh is firm. The smell is obviously very neutral and very fresh. And a lot of people say that like when salmon comes in fresh, it's a little bit like cucumber. I think it's true and fish should never smell like this.

Randy Wilburn [29:28] Not at all. Not at all.

Neal Gray [29:31] So, that's the way that we address it. It's a little bit through trial and error and I'm getting the best of what we can get for the price that makes sense. And what I mean by the price that makes sense, is getting the very, very best seafood that we can offer to our guests at the very best price. So, that we're not necessarily having to fly fish in overnight, which is not really great for the environment, that's a big carbon footprint. And then it's not really great for our customers in terms of price because it's very expensive for us to fly that in. So, what we have to do is we have to look for the very, very best choices for our customers. And, we look at that in terms of sustainability, and we look at it in terms of offering the best value for our guests.

Randy Wilburn [30:12] Well, you certainly have your work cut out for you, but I'm sure you will figure something out with your skillset and your background and experience. You mentioned your parents, are they still down in Melbourne?

Neal Gray [30:23] No, they're up here. They've probably moved up here around 2006.

Neal Gray [30:31] So, how did they react when they heard the news?

Neal Gray [30:35] Oh, I mean they were over the moon. I didn't tell them for a long time, because I didn't want to give my mother any wind of this because I knew she would flip out. And then if it didn't happen, it would just be the biggest disappointment. So, I didn't even let them in on this until it was a done deal. I was talking to Kurt long before I was talking to mom and dad.

Randy Wilburn [30:54] I've held things close to the vest and I didn't tell my mom until it materialized because I know how that is.

Neal Gray [31:00] I think that's the best way.

Randy Wilburn [31:02] So, forgive me, mom, and forgive Neal’s mom too for that. That's just how it has to be sometimes.

Neal Gray [31:09] She has a new grandson now so, she's I think as much over the moon, about me being here. She's so excited to always come out and see the baby and see the baby and the baby and the baby.

Randy Wilburn [31:21] Nothing like that. So, you are now not just a blessing to your parents, but a blessing to Northwest Arkansas that you here with your culinary skills. We want to support you and we want to make sure that you're successful in your endeavor.

Neal Gray [31:39] I really appreciate that. On my end, I want to make sure that we're going to keep it interesting for everyone that comes in here. And we're going to constantly push ourselves to make this a great experience and make this a restaurant that everyone here can be really proud of.

Randy Wilburn [31:49] And we want to make sure if you guys come here to visit The Preacher’s Son, and you were inspired by this episode, please let the hostess know you heard about it through The Preacher’s Son. You can connect or just say hey, we'd like to say hi to the chef. If he's available or if it's not one of his days off, right because I know that's few and far between. But if it's not one of his days off, say hello to him. And then also I want to just give a big shout out to Kevin Weatherly. Kevin is amazing. Kevin is an outstanding executive General Manager. He spent so much time with us the other night just chatting and talking and we actually have a lot of commonalities in the foodservice business. I used to work at Houston's and he worked at Houston and so we had that in common. And we talked about that what it was like growing up in that type of atmosphere where there was just a high level of regard for, not just the culinary aspect, but just in service in general, and how important that is. But certainly, you're in good hands with him here watching over everything that's going on so I'm sure it will free you up to focus on creating.

Neal Gray [32:58] Kevin is my partner here for sure.

Randy Wilburn [33:01] That's great. Well, thank you so much, and any last thoughts that you'd like to share with our audience? Anything you want to share before we close out?

Neal Gray [33:09] I just want people to know as I said, we're going to be working really hard for them. And we're going to be pushing the boundaries, keeping things fresh and keeping things exciting. This is going to be a restaurant for everyone. If you're a gluten-free person, if you're celiac, I want you to come to this restaurant because we still have the food here for you. Any dietary restrictions, we're obviously we're ready to handle. And we're going to keep things fun and exciting. I can’t wait to see this dining room packed and see everyone having a great time and enjoying delicious food and really warm, friendly hospitality.

Randy Wilburn [33:45] Well, there you have it, folks. Chef Neal Gray, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and spending some time with us. And we'll certainly have to come back later on and revisit this and maybe even get you on our video show, What's New NWA and so people can see you and see your enthusiasm for what's happening here in Northwest Arkansas. And more importantly, what's happening right here at The Preacher’s Son. So, thank you so much for coming on.

Neal Gray [34:07] It's been my pleasure. Thank you, Randy. Really appreciate it.

Randy Wilburn [34:09] Well, there you have it, folks. Another episode of I am Northwest Arkansas. We hope you enjoyed that. Please, please, please come out and support The Preacher’s Son. They are right downtown Bentonville right around the corner from the five and 10 and right around the corner from Bentonville Square. It's easy to get to. If you're coming from 49, you can just shoot over to Second Street and come straight up. You shouldn't have any problems getting here. I definitely want to encourage you because they're currently open in the evenings right now. You should make a reservation. You should give them a call and reach out to them. We will put all of their information as well as contact information for Chef Neal Gray in our Show Notes so that you guys know how to get in contact with them or to make a reservation to bring your family out and come enjoy the wonderful food that Gray is cooking up here at The Preacher’s Son, so I appreciate you taking time to listen to this particular episode of I am Northwest Arkansas. As always, we come out every Monday with a new episode of the show, and more importantly, we'd like for you to do two things for us. One, subscribe to the podcast wherever you find this podcast, whether you're on Android. So, if you're listening, you can listen on Spotify. If you're on Apple. If you're on an iOS device, you can certainly subscribe to us through Apple podcasts. And as I've always said, you can also say hey, Alexa, play the latest episode of I am Northwest Arkansas and Alexa will oblige. So, we're everywhere you want us to be when it comes to podcasting. And we'd also love for you to rate and review the podcast on whatever platform you listen to us on, but especially on Apple podcasts. Those ratings and those reviews help our algorithm help us rise to the top. We're actually one of the top podcasts in the Travel and Leisure section of podcasting. So, we want to continue that momentum and movement forward and we really appreciate that. As I've said we're working on a number of new opportunities here at I'm Northwest Arkansas. We've got some new sponsors coming on board. I just heard from Signature Bank; they're going to be a sponsor for the I am Northwest Arkansas podcast. I can't wait to talk more about that, but just stay tuned. This spring and summer of 2021 as we come out of this pandemic, it's going to be pure fire. Listen, I appreciate and love you guys so much. Thank you for listening to I am Northwest Arkansas. We will see you next week. Peace.

IANWA Open [36:28] We hope you enjoyed this episode of I am Northwest Arkansas. Check us out each and every week available anywhere that great podcast can be found. For Show Notes or more information on becoming a guest, visit We will see you next week on I am Northwest Arkansas.

About the Show: 

We recently sat down with Chef Neal Gray from The Preachers Son in Bentonville, AR. This episode is our second podcast with this signature restaurant from the Ropeswing Hospitality Group Family.  We initially met with Chef Matt Cooper more than a year and a half ago.  Since Chef Matt left in December of 2020, the restaurant has been in the more than capable hands of Chef Gray.  

With a career encapsulating both fine dining and approachable, everyday cuisine, Chef Grayl has extensive experience working at world-class restaurants, including The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, the highly prestigious French Laundry in Northern California, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York.

The Malvern native is doing quick work to redefine the menu at The Preacher’s Son while honoring its gluten-free roots by consistently offering various GF options on each menu. 

Overall, guests can expect a showcase of seasonal ingredients that allow the food to shine without feeling manipulated or overworked. 

When we published these show notes, The Preachers Son was still observing all Pandemic protocols for dining. We ate there and enjoyed our meal, the wine pairings, and the overall atmosphere in the award-winning restaurant.   

All of this and more on this episode of the I am Northwest Arkansas podcast. 

Important Links and Mentions on the Show*:

The Preachers Son

201 NW A St.

Bentonville, AR 72712

(479) 445-6065

This episode is sponsored by*:

The Exclusive Real Estate Group – Serving all of Northwest Arkansas from Dickson St. to Bentonville Square, Broker Chris Dinwiddie, and his agents are ready to provide first-class representation for any of your real estate needs. 

Chris’ team has expanded to include in-house designers and architects.  They can facilitate everything from design services to turnkey new construction.  Click Here to contact them, and be sure to mention that you heard about them from IANWA. 

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We use Brian’s training here at I am Northwest Arkansas, and it has transformed how we do business.  Get the FREE Course today! Or visit

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