Pat Neely entered the restaurant business early on, just 23 when he opened his first Memphis restaurant. As Neely’s bio notes, the next two decades saw that restaurant, Neely’s Bar-B-Que, grow into one of the city’s best-known eateries, earning the title of "Best BBQ in Memphis" in 1997 along with coverage (which featured Neely himself) on NBC’s "Today."
In 2008, he and then-wife Gina Neely were approached by the Food Network to host their own show, with the resulting series — "Down Home with the Neelys" — proving to be an out-of-the-box hit; according to Food Network, the show was the highest-rated series to debut on the network’s weekend "In the Kitchen" block, transforming the couple from regional restaurateurs to Food Network stars.
Viewers were drawn to the Neelys’ easygoing banter and the affection they seemed to display toward each other on camera, not realizing that what they saw on television concealed a far darker reality — which ultimately led to the cancellation of "Down Home with the Neelys" in 2014. Since then, Neely has remained in the spotlight, venturing into different areas while expanding his presence within America’s culinary landscape. To learn more about this popular celebrity chef and television personality, read on to discover the untold truth of Pat Neely.
Pat Neely’s success came from humble beginnings
Pat Neely was definitely not born with a proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. As he told Look to the Stars, his father died when he was just 11, an event that destabilized his young life. "We didn’t have a whole lot. My mother’s home was in foreclosure when I was a senior in high school," he said. "There was never enough money."
However, Neely explained in an interview with Forbes, having the bedrock beneath him crumble so unexpectedly also motivated him to ensure that he never had to experience anything like that again. "That had a huge impact on me as a kid — and still does — because it made me want to make sure I had a secure, stable life," said Neely, "with the security of knowing there was a car to drive, a nice house to go home to, and the knowledge that my daughters could go to college."
When Neely launched his first restaurant, it was with $20,000 he’d borrowed by using his 90-year-old grandmother’s home as collateral. "That was all I had first day I opened the doors. I was dead broke," he told Look to the Stars.
He and Gina were Food Network’s first husband-and-wife hosts
The lives of Pat Neely and now former-wife Gina changed forever when James and Bobby Deen, sons of one-time Food Network star Paula Deen, paid a visit to their Memphis restaurant as part of their series "Road Tasted." As Gina told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, she and her husband hit it off with the brothers, resulting in a compelling episode of their food-travelogue series. "We were laughing and cutting up with Bobby and Jamie," she recalled. While the brothers were used to having the restaurants they profiled in their show "roll out the red carpet for ’em," per Pat, the Neelys took a different approach by putting the brothers to work in the kitchen.
The show’s producer liked what he saw and flew the couple to Georgia so they could film segments with Paula Deen, which attracted the attention of Food Network’s GM/senior VP Bob Tuschman. "When I saw the tape, I was instantly in love," said Tuschman. "With hosts, it starts with personality."
Before long, the Neelys were hosting their own Food Network show, "Down Home With the Neelys," becoming the network’s first husband-and-wife on-air team and laying the foundation for the success that followed.
He’s a big fan of comfort food during the holidays
When it comes to celebrating the holidays, Pat Neely believes Christmas is all about good food and good times — which means doing as much prep as possible ahead of time so he’s not spending the entirety of the holiday in the kitchen. As he wrote in "The Neely’s Celebration Cookbook" (as excerpted by the New York Daily News), he’s been known to "give the Christmas meal a ‘Neely twist,’" with "the majority of dinner … planned and prepared beforehand."
As for what’s served at his Christmas dinners, Neely’s a firm believer in doling out seasonal comfort food, and lots of it. In an interview with NPR, Neely admitted he tries "to break some of the traditions" by putting his own spin on familiar dishes. According to Neely, he’s "really crazy about" his beer-braised brisket chili, which he described as "absolutely incredible."
Neely advised cooks "to try to be unique, but not be overwhelmed by the whole celebration" when preparing a Christmas meal. The key, he reiterated, is to get those dishes prepped well in advance, because "you want to have fun just as much as your guests."
Pat Neely recovered from a devastating divorce
From the outside looking in, Food Network sensations Pat and Gina Neely were sitting on top of the world. The off-camera reality, however, was far different, as was revealed in 2014 when TMZ was the first to report that Gina filed for divorce. In a joint statement, per WMC, they cited "irreconcilable differences" as the reason for the split. "This was a tough decision, but we believe it is the best decision for us," they said in the statement, declaring that they would each pursue "individual brands."
As Gina subsequently told People, she was ready to end the marriage years earlier, but held back when they unexpectedly became Food Network stars. "I was going to divorce Pat prior to the show. And then all of a sudden the train jumped on the track and I had to hold on for my life," she said.
Pat, in his own interview with People, admitted he was crushed by her request to end their marriage. "At the time, I was hurting. I was devastated," he said of that "challenging time" in his life.
He has never spoken to his ex since their split
Pat Neely confirmed to People that his divorce from Gina came at her request. "She made a decision that she wasn’t happy, and I respected that," he said. "I didn’t give her a hard time." In fact, Neely said that the entire legal proceeding took a mere six hours.
According to Gina, once she made the break it stayed broken. "I remember leaving with my purse and my duffle bag, and I was out of there," she told People several years after their divorce. "I haven’t spoken to Pat in four years," she added, indicating she was totally fine with that. "I don’t wish him any harm, but he’s never reached out to me … I guess he’s well?"
Ironically, she blamed their television success on the implosion of their marriage. "It didn’t feel like a marriage anymore," she said. "I wasn’t sexually attracted to him. He became my business partner, whereas I needed a husband." Sadly, Pat viewed their time together on television very differently, admitting he was thrilled to share the experience "with my high school sweetheart, a woman I truly loved."
His restaurant expansion plans wound up fizzling
Prior to Pat Neely’s divorce, the couple had parlayed their television fame into an expansion plan for their restaurant business. However, that expansion ultimately ended in failure. In late 2012, according to Grub Street, the Neelys shuttered their two Memphis restaurants; the following July, the couple issued a since-deleted Facebook post announcing those restaurants would remain closed "indefinitely."
Meanwhile, in 2011 they decided to expand outside of Tennessee by opening their first restaurant in New York City, Neely’s Barbecue Parlor. As Ebony reported at the time, the eatery was situated within "a stunning replica of a sprawling Southern home," which had been "decked out in carefully selected vintage furniture." Among the eatery’s dishes were such Southern specialties as shrimp and grits, and Pat’s signature fried beer can "Blue Ribbon" chicken.
Four years later, that restaurant also closed its doors for good. As Eater pointed out, the closure was hardly a surprise, given that the food website had placed Neely’s Barbecue Parlor on its restaurant "deathwatch" months after the grand opening, largely due to a rash of "aggressively negative" early reviews on Yelp.
He was brand ambassador for a chain of dollar stores
With the closure of his Memphis restaurants, and then his Manhattan eatery as well, Pat Neely jumped from the hospitality industry into a new gig that was based not on his culinary abilities but on his television fame. As grocery trade publication The Shelby Report reported in 2014, Neely’s next move was joining the Family Dollar chain as a brand ambassador.
According to the report, Neely was responsible for publicizing the chain’s rollout of hundreds of new food items in its stores by heading up a "recipe challenge to make a meal for four for $15." The grand prize for the most creative budget recipe was the opportunity to cook a meal with Neely in his Memphis home. "Good, homemade food that’s made from the heart is what I’m all about," said Neely in a statement, adding that he was "thrilled to team up with Family Dollar as they add even more quality food choices to their store shelves."
He branched out into hosting a game show
Pat Neely’s role with Family Dollar didn’t end with contests and store promotions; it also led him to return to television as host of the Family Dollar-sponsored game show "Save to Win," which debuted in 2016 on The CW network. As Rolling Out explained, "Save to Win" tested contestants’ knowledge of everyday products they would find within a typical supermarket, with the studio set up to resemble a mock Family Dollar store as players go head to head in a variety of "shopping-themed games."
According to Neely, he was "super excited" to expand his horizons beyond being a celebrity chef and enter the realm of game shows. "It’s a fun, fun show," gushed Neely, who was also an executive producer on "Saved to Win." "I’m beyond thrilled to open this new chapter in my career by hosting such an incredible, engaging and just plain fun game show."
For Neely, hosting "Save to Win" represented both "a new adventure in my life and a new, fresh start for me," and he expressed his hope that viewers liked what they saw when they tuned in. But according to IMDB, the show lasted a mere 17 episodes.
Pat Neely remarried and started a new family
Following the self-described devastation from his divorce, Pat Neely understandably felt he was through with matrimony. "I thought that I would never get married again," he told People in 2018. However, while serving as celebrity chef on a 2015 cruise his plans blew up when he met Tamika Parks. "I guess you could say it was love at first sight," he said. "Tamika took me off guard."
As People reported, Neely proposed on Christmas Eve 2016, and the two tied the knot the following October. News of Neely’s remarriage, however, was kept well hidden; it wasn’t until June of 2018 that reports began to emerge that he had remarried in secret. In fact, The Blast reported that not only was Neely married, he and his new bride were expecting their first child together.
With the cat out of the bag, Neely opened up about his new life to People. He discussed becoming a father all over again (their daughter Eriel was born in July 2018). He also considered himself father to his wife’s son from a previous relationship, Eijah. "I don’t believe in stepchildren," Neely declared. "The only steps in this house are the ones that go upstairs and downstairs."
He launched a new career promoting a Southern restaurant chain
In 2019, Pat Neely expanded his influence even further when he was approached by the Atlanta-based This Is It! Southern Kitchen & BBQ chain to offer his guidance — and, of course, his platform as a celebrity — to assist with the restaurant’s plans for a national expansion. As Neely told the Memphis Business Journal, he was immediately intrigued, but first had one key condition. "I said after meeting them, ‘Well, I gotta taste the food.’ If this is crap then I can’t be involved regardless of how great the people were," Neely explained. Luckily, the food exceeded expectations, and Neely took on the task of leading the chain’s marketing efforts while also working with franchisees to ensure they correctly followed the recipes.
Neely was bullish about the popularity of Southern cooking throughout the U.S. "Southern cuisine, to me, is not regional," Neely said. "People all over the country love good Southern food, whether you’re in Portland, Oregon, or Birmingham, Alabama." Neely was also confident that the chain had assembled the right team. "Collectively, we have a group of people who has more than 100 years of restaurant experience," he said. "We really know what we are doing."
His connection with Memphis remained strong even after he left the city
With his Memphis restaurants having closed down, Pat Neely subsequently moved to Georgia with second wife Tamika Parks. Despite no longer being a resident of Memphis, he maintained a close connection with his former home. That was evident when he made a return — of sorts — in December 2020 to virtually headline a holiday-themed fundraising event for Memphis-based Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, where his mother attended services.
As Neely told the Daily Memphian, the ball got rolling when the church’s senior pastor, Jason Turner, reached out. "I was real excited when Pastor Turner called me," Neely said. "One of his first questions was, ‘What are you doing in the pandemic to entertain yourself?’ And I told him that we’re cooking a lot."
Neely had also been recording those cooking sessions, and offered to share some of those videos with Turner’s congregation. The result was the church’s virtual Advent at Home with the Boulevard. For Neely, participating in the church’s event offered a chance to give back to the city in which he established himself as a celebrity chef. "I miss my Memphis community so much," he told the Memphis Business Journal.
Pat Neely’s secret ingredient is far from healthy
There’s no denying that Southern cuisine is downright delicious; however, as a 2015 study made clear, the preponderance of deep-fried dishes has also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. In a Food Network roundup of celebrity chefs’ "secret ingredients," Pat Neely revealed his secret culinary weapon wasn’t exactly one that could be termed heart-healthy, and did nothing to diminish the artery-clogging reputation of Southern food. "Bacon fat, baby! Who doesn’t love that smoky, hearty flavor?" Neely said, noting his tendency to sauté vegetables in leftover bacon grease.
That affection for bacon was evident on the menu of Neely’s now-defunct New York City restaurant Neely’s Barbecue Parlor, with Ebony describing such menu items as "candied thick-slab bacon, coated in brown sugar and served in a little Mason jar."
Even after the restaurant shut down and Food Network cancelled "Down Home with the Neelys," the Southern chef’s love affair with bacon continued unabated. This was evident in a bacon-wrapped hot dogs recipe he created for his partnership with Family Dollar.
Pat Neely was ‘glad’ to be out of the restaurant business
Within the span of just a few years, Pat Neely lost both of his Memphis restaurants, his New York eatery, and his marriage. "It was a devastating time for me," Neely told the Daily Memphian of that low point in his life. "Neely’s Bar-B-Que was my baby," he added. "I thought I was going to be doing it for the rest of my life, then television came along."
However, he explained, the passage of time had ultimately led him to an epiphany. "I hated to close [the restaurants], but for the first time in my life, I’m glad I’m not in the restaurant business," he said, remembering how the grueling schedule of operating a high-profile restaurant impacted his relationship with his daughters during his first marriage. "I’d leave home before they woke up and get home when they were in bed."
Now that he’s started anew, with a new wife and new children, not having the responsibilities of running a restaurant have allowed him to take more of a "hands on" approach to parenting. "I tell people this has added years to my life," he said.