Food Network stars Pat and Gina Neely work together, play together, and cook together. Not only have they taped four seasons of their highly rated show “Down Home with the Neelys” and “Road Tasted with the Neelys,” but they run three family restaurants, a catering division, sell their branded products online, and in May they’ll release their first cookbook together. In between their business life, Pat and Gina have figured out how to make their love thrive. The high school sweethearts who went their separate ways were able to find love again at their ten-year reunion. They share their love lessons and recipes with ESSENCE.com just in time for Valentine’s Day.
ESSENCE.COM: You two met in high school. How did you two actually start dating?
PAT: She was just chasing me all over that school!
GINA: Whatever. Anybody that knows the story knows that’s a tale. You know you just had to have me but it’s okay. It happens to the best of us.
PAT: Actually, our mothers went to high school together. I was a sophomore when my mother brought me to school for orientation and we ran into Gina and her mother. They hadn’t seen each other in years but my eyes were just glued on Gina. I mean just absolutely glued. They finally introduced us but by then I couldn’t speak. From there on, I was pretty much lost. I tell people all the time I am so fortunate to have met my true love and to have been able to marry her, because so many people don’t have that opportunity.
ESSENCE.COM: So you were high school sweethearts who went your separate ways after graduation. How did you find your way back to one another?
GINA: That’s what makes our story so unique. Not many people actually get back together after seeing each other at their ten-year high school reunion. You see old classmates and probably somebody that you had a crush on or dated, but you don’t actually get back with your old boyfriend after ten years. People were like you and Pat are acting like ya’ll having your own little reunion, and it was in every sense of the word. But it’s funny because I always told people I would have never guessed in a million years that Pat and I would be married but you just never know who you might fall in love with. Sometimes you should stop looking because it can just hit you on top of your head like, Oh my God this guy is actually for me. I think God knew in the big picture what we didn’t.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you win her back?
PAT: When she came back to Memphis for the reunion, I pulled out all my big daddy moves. I wasn’t holding back. That girl woke up in the morning and I made sure to always have some roses somewhere around. We broke up in senior year of high school and I was heartbroken but I had my whole life to live. I went away to college and Gina went off to California. When she came back, we were both more mature but the feelings were still there and they were totally deep and so rich that I knew that I had to put everything into this, otherwise I’m going to regret it to the rest of my life.
GINA: We were always friends. We stayed in touch and so there was always some kind of history with us. That made a big difference as well.
ESSENCE.COM: When did you two decide to get married?
PAT: After the reunion, Gina moved back to Memphis. We started spending time together and even more remarkable than the physical attraction was the fact that this girl could cook! Gina never tried to cook me a meal in high school but she made braised cabbage with carrots. My mother used to cook cabbage and I just never liked it. Gina threw it in a skillet with some bacon and carrots and some meatloaf and put her foot in it! I thought I was going to rock her world but here she was rocking mine!
GINA: When we decided to get married, our parents were like, What? But we really wanted it to be simple but special and that reflected how we wanted our love to be.
PAT: There are a few times in life when you are 100 percent about something. Usually you ask yourself, Am I making the right decision? But when Gina and I got marriedI had no reservations, no questions, no doubts in my head. I wasn’t nervous. I was excited and ready to do it and ready for her to be my wife. We didn’t want to do a big elaborate wedding so we planned it ourselves and flew to California, got married at the dock, cruised down into Catalina and honeymooned in Baha, Mexico.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you balance your marriage and work relationship?
PAT: We had four brothers running our barbecue restaurant but there was no finesse or style to it. I knew that Gina had good qualities in terms of customer service and she had a huge knack for selling, but I didn’t know she would have the type of impact she has had on our business. But we decided from the beginning that if our business relationship starts to affect our marriage, that’s the end of it and she can go back to banking. We’re not going to let work affect our marriage. She’s one of the most professional people I know. If Gina and I had a spat, she would still come in the next day and take care of business.
GINA: When you go into any family business, naturally everyone looks at you as if you’re the wife coming into work but she’s not really going to work she’s just going to walk around. So I sort of gained their trust and respect. You have to make yourself valuable so people know how much you bring to the table. It’s important for me to make a difference so naturally going into our family business was a great transition.