NHS Alum, Neal Brown, Owns Four Popular Indy Restaurants
Writer: Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer: Jamie Sangar
Even as an adult, it’s wise to listen to your mother. Just ask Neal Brown, who began working in restaurants when he was 14 years old. A 1989 graduate of Noblesville High School, Brown attended Indiana University for a few years, pursuing a degree in marketing with a minor in biology. Though he learned a lot, he wasn’t satisfied with the trajectory of where his career was headed.
“One day I was complaining to my mom about my lack of direction and she said to me, ‘Why don’t you go to cooking school? You’ve always loved to cook,’” recalls Brown, who days later enrolled in Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts. It was a great fit for Brown, who had first developed a taste for flavorful cuisine when he spent time in Louisiana as a child where he was exposed to some exceptional chefs who made elaborate meals. “That was the first time I remember thinking, ‘Wow! Cooking is awesome!’”
Following culinary school, his initial plan was to move to either Chicago or New York, but after working in downtown Indy at the California Café, he realized that maybe he’d be better off staying in Indianapolis.
In 2009, Brown opened Pizzology, a craft pizzeria with a farm-to-table concept where all ingredients are made in-house, including their dough, sausage and cheese. A year later, he launched the Libertine Liquor Bar —Indy’s first cocktail-centric bar and restaurant that focuses on local and seasonal American food.
“I loved the idea that cocktails were being elevated to this place where chefs had been toiling for a long time,” Brown says. “People started to take interest in this idea that a cocktail didn’t just have to be a two-ingredient thing you pour into a glass. It could offer nuance with some real thought behind it.”
Brown has been nominated two times for the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest Region. In addition, Esquire Magazine named the Libertine one of the 25 best bars in America.
Never one to rest on his laurels, last year Brown opened Stella, a Mediterranean bistro inspired by the wine regions of Southern Europe.
“It’s really wine-friendly food — braised meat with lots of vegetables and seafood,” Brown says. “I love the idea of sitting seaside and drinking wine while enjoying delicious old-world food. It’s such a vivid, romantic image.”
At Stella, the food Brown is most proud of is something he suspects the vast majority take for granted — the half chicken they cook for 15 minutes in an open-wood fired oven.
“It comes out perfect, and that’s not easy to do,” Brown says. “In fact, there are a lot of great chefs who, when hiring a new cook, will put them to the test by asking them to roast a chicken because it’s a very technically challenging thing to do.”
In January 2018, Brown launched a fourth venture — this one a Japanese-inspired restaurant called Ukiyo that relies heavily on area farmers, foragers, beekeepers and artisans.
“I spent five and a half years working as a sushi chef,” Brown says. “Ukiyo is rekindling interest in Japanese culture and cuisine.”
His favorite thing is doing reservation-only Omakase, which is a meal consisting of dishes selected by the chef. In Japanese, “omakase” means “I’ll leave it to you.”
Customers can go online to the restaurant’s website, sign up for omakase, then come in and sit at the sushi bar where Brown will prepare nine or 10 courses.
“I pair the meals with wine, saké or cocktails,” Brown says. “It’s a very intimate experience — just me and the guest across from the sushi bar.”
Brown had fun naming his establishments. Stella, which means “star” in Italian, is located on a five-way intersection. Ukiyo in its traditional sense in Zen Buddhism means “to be mindful,” and since this restaurant is all about mindful cooking, the name seemed appropriate.
“The libertines were very educated people who liked to party,” Brown says. “I chose the name “The Libertine Liquor Bar” because I liked the idea that there was sophistication coupled with this wild mentality.”
As for Pizzology?
“I chose that because all the other pizza names were taken,” Brown says with a chuckle.
Though Brown says he occasionally contemplates what might have been had he followed through with his original plan of moving to the Windy City or the Big Apple, he has no regrets.
“I have a great group of people who have been with me for a long time,” Brown says. “And honestly, watching them mature as professionals is so rewarding.”
Brown and his wife Lindy (who does most of the cooking at home) have two children: Isabelle (17) and Greyson (10) and a hound dog named Duke. Brown adores his home life but admits that he doesn’t live a balanced lifestyle.
“Being a chef and a restaurateur is both challenging and exhausting as there are times when I work 15 or 16-hour days,” says Brown, who notes that in his free time he likes to go to the gym to work out, play basketball with his son and search for new recipes on his phone.
As for future plans, Brown, the “consummate entrepreneur,” struggles to say no when someone asks him to look at a new restaurant site or consider another restaurant concept.
“I’ve always got stuff in the pipeline,” he says. “Whether it’s a viable option is another question.”
If in doubt, he can always ask his mother for her sage opinion.
Stella is located on 611 East Street. The Libertine Liquor Bar is at 608 Mass Ave. Ukiyo is at 4907 N. College Ave. Pizzology has two locations: 608 Mass Avenue in Indy and 13190 Hazel Dell Parkway in Carmel.