073 – Bill Smith, Crooks Corner
Family Work. With Music. Welcome to Episode 73! In this fabulous conversation, I speak with Chef Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Both Bill and the restaurant are beloved fixtures in this great town of advocates, artists, musicians, and other creative types. Sound familiar? Yes, Chapel Hill is very similar in size and energy to Charlottesville and is going through some of the same growing pains. So this talk hit close to home for me and was a great chance to catch up with someone I consider a dear friend.
I first met Bill, in an extremely “meet cute” way while sitting on a bus during the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium. He was so friendly and put this podcaster at ease during her first solo foray into the world of professional food conferences where small talk is king and networking important. We had talked for a good half hour before I realized he was a chef and a noteworthy one at that!
Chef Bill took over Crook’s from founding owner Bill Neal back in the 1990’s. Bill was a beloved chef who passed way too young and is credited with bringing shrimp and grits to the masses for better or worse. Needless to say, Neal’s version is still the best in my opinion and a must-order.
Chapel Hill’s music subculture is well known, and Bill has been a part of that for decades as part owner of The Cat’s Cradle which opened way back in 1973. In fact, Bill’s collection of concert tee shirts which he has worn in the kitchen since he began, is part of a museum collection profiled in an episode of the Southern Foodways Alliance Gravy podcast.
Musicians were a huge part of Bill’s kitchen for many years because they have what he calls, “…a loose point of view,” an enthusiasm, as well as a need for flexible hours. These days, his kitchen looks very different, comprised mostly of immigrants, some of whom have worked for Bill 15 years or more. He considers them family. How are they coping in this new political climate? How has Bill attempted to ease their way forward? His efforts are beyond admirable and make me so glad to know him. A true Southern gentleman, scholar, and outspoken advocate.
“I trust them completely…they are family…I’m a Godfather…honorary grandfather. I’ve been to weddings, you name it…I love them to death…I’m almost 70 years old…having them in the kitchen helps a lot.”
Having such a dedicated kitchen staff from elsewhere has not only influenced the restaurant’s recipes but has made a sometimes reluctant Southern clientele able to embrace more complex spicier dishes. In fact, he travels to Mexico City quite a bit on the regular.
“When I first came to work here people would complain about things being too spicy. Now that never ever happens. Ever…so the public has come along…they’ve learned…I don’t know if they’re just more adventurous…or been exposed to different stuff…but they’ve become much more receptive.”
Bill grew up in New Bern, North Carolina surrounded by grandmothers and other relatives who were great cooks. His great-grandmother cooked lunch every single day until she was in her 90’s. Folks would leave school and work to eat and enjoy a full mid-day dinner for an hour. With china, silverware, veggies, meats, the whole shebang. This kind of leisurely eating and fellowship is definitely present at Crook’s today where the minute you walk in the door, you feel at home.
Bill has appeared on Vivian Howard’s A Chef’s Life several times, has written many books, and is hard at work on a new one, a second volume of Seasoned in the South. The recipe tester is Sheri Castle of Rhubarb fame, so you can trust every recipe to come out the way it’s supposed to. Can’t wait until it’s published! And yes it will have the recipe for “That Stupid Pie.”
What’s that a reference to? The Atlantic Beach Pie, of course, a creation of Bill’s grandmother and a beloved dessert at Crook’s. A variation on lemon meringue pie with a saltine crust. In fact, if you don’t order it, you’re an idiot. Although I’m partial to his banana pudding, I never leave without taking a slice home. It’s that good.
This was recorded back in February, so it was interesting to hear how the frantic nature of our political sphere was just as anxious back then. Back then meaning 3 months ago! A time capsule for what was to come. Little did we know it would only get worse! What’s the solution? We brainstorm some ideas.
“I think it’s our duty just to keep raising hell. I used to be a polite Southern boy but nuh-uh, not anymore…I get in somebody’s face…Lord help if somebody evangelical gets all over me…it’s easy to make them cry…just challenging what they just told you…it’s sort of funny, but it’s sort of sad…I don’t listen to crap anymore…I’m one of the troublemakers…but I come from a family of them…I’m spoiling for a fight.”
His definition of success? Rent and beer money. Awards and recognitions? Not that important. Despite numerous James Beard nominations and other awards, just having a nice cold can of PBR at the ready is reward enough. Sounds damn good to me. As does this episode. Enjoy.
SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:
- Flora Restaurant – Oaxacan cuisine with a great tequila selection. In Richmond. Thank you so much to Michele Jones and Jason Alley who gave an incredibly generous amount to my recent Big Love Birthday campaign. Their donation helped bring us over the top! Big Love guys!
- Help Scotty Recover – My best friend has Stage 3B Colorectal cancer. Bills are piling up. He can’t work. Can you help? Share! Donate! No amount is too small. Thank you and BIG LOVE to everyone who donated and shared the Big Love Bake Sale and Big Love Birthday! Next up? Tee shirts! Look for them soon.
- Subscribe to This Podcast. Stay Edacious! – Come on, after this episode? You know you want to. Subscribers get new episodes instantly, while non-subscribers have to wait a few hours or days depending on the iTunes gods. Never miss a chance to be edacious!
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