There are certain conversations that leave us feeling a millions pounds lighter. It’s in a stranger’s openness to sharing their life experiences, a friend’s advice on heartache, and even in one’s nonchalant reaction to chaos that consumes a room. It’s gotten too easy to forget that inspiration can come from anyone regardless of how successful they’re perceived. We’d venture to say the most enriching conversations are the ones from people least expected. You’d be surprised that the girl next door (you know the one who’s an open book but equally a mystery) has some rather surprising nuggets of wisdom to offer.
That’s the kind of aura I sensed in Amy Foster Neill the first time our toddlers met for play time at our local Children’s Museum. It can be a trying feat, rounding up a herd of busy moms for a play date, but Amy’s immediate response was and is always an enthusiastic ‘let’s do it,’ despite her busy schedule. As our toddlers dominated the play room, Amy never lost her cool (I can’t say the same for myself). It almost seemed as if chaos and background noise relaxed her. It was her ability to let the little things roll off her back, like her daughter quickly eating a snack that fell on the floor to hosting friends at any give moment all the while always smiling and positive that had me wondering: what’s her secret?
Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Has that influenced your lifestyle today?
I grew up in Baltimore County, Maryland. I’m the second of four children and the daughter of two parents with six siblings each – so I have a big family and grew up with a lot of time around family. I have a deep appreciation for family and home life. My parents traveled with us a fair amount, to Europe, mainly, which encouraged me to view the world in a bigger sense, and to appreciate the finer things in life, like dining and art. I went to an all-girls school my whole life, and subsequently find myself working in female-driven companies. I feel like I’m really well-suited working with the dynamic of other women – if you can survive middle school girls, a passive aggressive email is nothing!
Where do you live now? What do you love most and like least about it? What does this city mean to you?
We live in the Lower Garden District [of] New Orleans. I’m a really proud resident of this neighborhood, and you’ll never hear me trying to pass it off as the Garden District, even though our home is only one block away. It’s a totally different vibe and community. Since I was a student at Tulane, I’ve felt this neighborhood, sandwiched between conservative uptown and funky downtown, was a cool, creative nook with a quintessential New Orleans vibe with an oak-lined park in the center of it to boot. I always knew if I ended up living in New Orleans, this is where I’d live. There’s not much I don’t like about it – I do wish we had more “big city” conveniences though, and better streets. New Orleans to me is such a reprieve-as dangerous as this city may seem to outsiders, I feel safe here, in our own little world. I think New Orleans gets a hall pass from having to “progress,” it’s a bit of a relic of times past and I love it. I love that people come to New Orleans to escape and that on any given day my home is someone else’s vacation.
What do you do for a living? If you didn’t have to work, what would you be doing?
I’m the Marketing Manager for Neill, my husband’s third generation family business. We are the Aveda distributors for the South, and we own the Paris Parker Salons, among other businesses that support the beauty industry. My day to day is running social media, communications with our network, and strategy. I get to do creative work, but also strategic business thinking. I’ve always had a passion for the beauty industry and have worked in fragrances, cosmetics, and now hair. I work alongside my husband, which is great. We’re used to working together – we went to college together and both studied business. Working for a family business – that’s now my family – is interesting – work is life and life is work, and your boss is your mother-
in-law and brother-in-law. There is a lot of flexibility and purpose in working for a family business. I feel really fortunate to have a unique opportunity like this. If I didn’t have to work, I’d probably still be helping my husband on the side! But I’d definitely be spending more time doing art, and cooking, which is my favorite hobby.
Tell us about your beautiful gumbo!
Hah! Well, it started when we moved back to New Orleans – I became committed to learning the classic creole/Cajun dishes. We were throwing a Mardi Gras party at our house for the first time. I was unemployed at the time so I was looking for a real project of a dish. I found John Besh’s Duck and Oyster Gumbo recipe online and made it from scratch. It took 3 days (roasting the ducks, making the stock from their bones, making the roux and then cooking the gumbo), but the results were amazing and my Louisiana family and friends said it was the best ever. That was the most intense way you can make it – I don’t really have three days to cook one dish anymore. Now I make a much simpler one, probably closer to how real Cajuns do it. I use my own stock if I have it on hand, a combination of andouille sausages, chicken, shrimp, a ham hock if we have it – kind of whatever is in the freezer. It’s different every time.
I taught my neighbors and their friends from Chicago how to make it one night. It was really fun and it was my first time I ever taught someone how to cook, but we had a good time. I didn’t have a pot big enough so we had to use two, and after the dinner they sent me the biggest le creuset pot [that] I’ve ever seen as a Thank You. It’s really amazing how many servings you can fit in it!
What are your essential kitchen items (equipment or tools)?
A dutch oven is a must – for stews, stocks, roasted chicken. And amazing knives. I don’t like knife sets – they’re never the best, and if they are, they’re prohibitively expensive. I prefer a super-sharp Japanese chef knife. I also can’t live without my Vitamix. I asked a friend recently – what comes first, a good cook or good tools? I think the tools. It’s difficult to develop a love of cooking when it’s a chore because your knives are dull and you don’t have decent equipment.
Any frozen food hacks or essential ingredients you always leave in your fridge?
I usually make a roast chicken and then use the bones to slow cook a broth, which I’ll freeze to keep on hand. I’ve started to freeze little things for my daughter, like white beans in cupcake lining, that we can defrost in a pinch. I always keep deveined and peeled frozen shrimp for last minute dinners, usually we make Goop’s shrimp tacos . I do like to take a day to make something big when I have time– like burritos, or dumplings, to freeze as well because there are frequently nights where its like, what’s for dinner? Essentials always in the fridge – carrots, celery, spinach, chicken, almond milk, fresh herbs, good butter, eggs, and plenty of champagne.
What is your secret weapon in the kitchen?
My husband says its salt! Haha. We keep salt for cooking (kosher salt) and salt for finishing (Maldon salt). I’ve been taking Thomas Keller’s Master Class and he’s very particular about the salt, it’s simple but important to use the right kinds and to use them properly. Everything tastes better with salt flakes sprinkled on top. But if we’re really talking weapons, then I’d have to say my Shun Chef Knife .
Favorite kitchen or home stores?
Williams Sonoma for the basics, Food52 for specialty, Heath Ceramics for dishware.
Describe your home. What do you want family, friends, and visitors to feel in your space?
Inviting, eclectic, cozy. I want people who come here to feel relaxed, inspired, and at home. We always keep a stocked bar and snacks because we tend to be homebodies and invite people over on a whim.
How involved are you in its design?
Garrison and I have been sharing spaces for almost 10 years – so our style has pretty much evolved together and we are equally involved. He has great taste in interiors, but I always try to bring in the experience and usage of a space. I have to give him credit for the renovations,– he had a vision for what he wanted to do with the house and has done a really good job at making it happen.
What’s your favorite part of your home?
That’s hard because I love so much! The outdoor space is just finishing up a renovation and I think that is going to be my new favorite, but I’d have to go with my bathroom. It’s really a dream space. Our last house had a modest bathroom, but it had a tub, shower, and double vanity. This one had a shower/tub combo, and a single vanity in a small area – the bathroom felt really underwhelming for the size of the house. We ended up knocking down the wall from our master and turning the neighboring bedroom into a bathroom and closet combo. It makes the Master more of a suite-type retreat, and it’s perfect.
Best advice for new moms?
Trust your instincts, and try to relax. Be easy and forgiving on yourself. Know that every phase is short and babies are always changing, so enjoy them while they’re tiny, and don’t fret when they misbehave. Hire help or enlist family so you can do you. Take care of yourself!
How do you and your husband Garrison maintain your pre-baby identity?
Throughout my pregnancy I was pretty committed to not acting “pregnant” – I was fortunate to have a relatively easy pregnancy so I tried to enjoy my last months as a baby-free woman and do the things I would normally do. My grandmother says “being pregnant is not a disability,” and she’s right. I always told myself that when I was feeling like throwing in the towel. After I had Ivy, I was laid up with c-section recovery which was really frustrating because I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do, and I felt really unlike my old self. Getting back to doing the things we did pre-baby, like hanging out with friends, entertaining, and having alone time has been critical. Garrison and I do make a point to try to socialize because that’s what keeps us connected and happy. But we love staying in, cooking and watching a movie and going to bed early too!
Easiest thing about motherhood? Most difficult? Most humorous?
I feel like being a mom actually comes pretty naturally for me, it’s like you have these instincts on exactly what to do, how she’s feeling, when she’s tired or in pain, etc. The most difficult thing is explaining that to her caretakers- I think of myself as a laid-back mom but I’m actually super anal and controlling over her schedule and her activities. It’s difficult for me to leave her in other people’s hands because I try to bite my tongue and not lay too many rules on them. But I remind myself that she is being loved and cared for even if someone doesn’t make her bottle right or keeps her up too late! The most humorous part is Ivy. She’s becoming such a little human with her own quirky likes and dislikes – like a crazy enthusiasm for Mardi Gras beads. I can’t wait for her to start speaking and saying the most ridiculous things.
How would you describe your American upbringing?
I think I had a pretty classic American upbringing. My parents built their own wealth, and are an example to me of the American Dream. My dad is a dentist and my mom manages his office, and they’ve done a great job of growing the business to support our family. I was fortunate to go to
an all-girls school growing up, which was a sheltered but nurturing experience. The motto there was “To be and not to Seem.” They drilled in this message of being authentic and true, and I feel like that has shaped who I am and who I surround myself with in a big way. At home, we had a pretty normal American life with two parents who were home for dinner every night, tons of MTV music videos, PB&J, sports teams, etc.
Was there anything your family did well? Not so well?
My mom did a really good job of making family traditions, and making us each feel really special and loved. She maintains that she doesn’t have a favorite, but we will probably all agree my youngest brother Owen is her “most special” one. I think that is important when you’re raising kids, especially four of them – to give them all the time and love equally. Dinners were kind of questionable, I feel like – I remember a lot of mac n cheese and hamburger helper.
What do you wish Americans would do more of? Less of?
I wish more Americans would learn to cook and appreciate quality food. For some reason, our culture has made it almost glamorous that women don’t cook. I don’t think there’s anything cool about not being able to take care of yourself and your family by [not] knowing how to prepare food. This goes for men as well – especially men raised with the message that a woman should do it all for him – that’s not cool either! I wish we’d do less of the “busy” culture, this idea that you have to be super busy to be successful, and also using being busy as an excuse for things. I’m guilty of it too. I think we could all benefit from slowing down and looking up from our phones to participate in our life.
What about American women inspires you? International women?
American women have a belief that they can do anything – and they go out and do it. The resources to be an entrepreneur and start your own business are amazing and I love the “girl boss” culture happening right now, it’s super inspiring. International women – French women in particular – seem to not be ashamed of embracing a more feminine role as a mother, lover, nurturer. I feel like they embrace the feminine, and American women embrace the masculine. I think of Mimi Thorrison, as an example. She’s a mom to too many beautiful children to count, lives in a chateau in the French countryside, and spends her days foraging for mushrooms and making feasts for lunch. She has an incredible food blog, several cookbooks, and makes a living off of her provincial lifestyle. When I grow up I want to be her!
What do you think we could adopt from other cultures?
Appreciation for our resources. We live in such abundance here that it’s hard to fathom things like water and electricity are luxuries in other parts of the world. Simple awareness and courtesy for the planet-like our electrical, water, and product consumption would go far. I think other cultures are more aware and tuned in to this, whether due to their regions lack of certain resources or their government’s policies. I’m thinking specifically about Costa Rica – they have rolling blackouts throughout the country to conserve energy usage. And Switzerland, where my sister in law lives, you pay for your garbage based on weight. It makes you think twice about the footprint you leave and how that can compound when everyone is doing it too.
What does your best life look like tomorrow? In five years?
I like to think I’m living my best life now. I feel like I’m going to look back at this chapter in my life and feel like it was some of the best days. In five years, who knows, I’m open to whatever the universe has in store for me. There will probably be another baby, who will probably not be a baby anymore, more dogs, hopefully more free time for cooking and taking care of my family and maybe a side business.
Photographer: Nina Celie Angelo
Composed by: Juley Le