Erik Niel was raised in Mandeville, South Louisiana, a community where men cooked just as much as the women did and people cared deeply about food. Niel spent many an afternoon fishing with his dad and brother and serving their catches in various ways. This instilled in him an appreciation for the process that revolves around preparing food and influences his cooking to this day.
Niel attended The University of Texas as a Psychology major and Business minor. However his love and appreciation for food and restaurants persisted, eventually leading him to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Vail, Colorado. During his first week of classes Niel applied to work at Sweet Basil, a restaurant notoriously resistant to hiring students. He ended up landing the job, and credits the experience with cultivating his appreciation for a formal kitchen and his respect for ingredients. Family brought Niel to Chattanooga but a love for the town and his wife, Amanda, has kept him there. In fact, the Niels have worked together in the same restaurants for the past 16 years, including Chattanooga mainstay St. John’s and the now-closed Southside Grill.
In May of 2005, the couple opened Easy Bistro & Bar in downtown Chattanooga, named after his laidback nature and nickname, “Easy”. Niel is inspired by the instant gratification cooking provides, and sees each dish as a new opportunity to improve or try something different. “Food is meant to be destroyed. The biggest compliment I can receive is that there is nothing left.” He describes his food as minimalist, letting the ingredients stand for themselves with little manipulation. While his style of cooking is a direct product of growing up in Louisiana, he tends to stay away from the rich sauces and rouxes of traditional Creole cuisine.
Niel also spearheads the wine program at Easy Bistro & Bar. He feels strongly that wine and other beverages are an integral part of the meal and experience, a belief passed down from his father, a connoisseur and avid wine collector.
When he has a moment outside the kitchen, he can usually be found playing with his son, Cade.