This story was originally printed in the September/October 2014 issue of Chapel Hill Magazine.
Bill Smith has a large, vividly patterned East African tablecloth pinned to the entry of his dining room to hide a mess he’d rather people did not see. He likes his small, art-filled home off Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to be tidy and efficient, just like the tiny kitchen a short bike ride away at Crook’s Corner, where he’s been cooking memorable meals since 1993.
But the papers piled on the table are important; at least, that’s what his alma mater thinks. UNC asked Bill – one of its most beloved dropouts, a man who proudly wore a Carolina Blue-lined suit jacket (custom made by Alexander Julian) to New York City to claim an award from the James Beard Foundation – to donate his writings to its permanent collections.
Not bad for an editor of the New Bern High School newspaper who imagined that his ticket out of his formerly segregated, seaside town would be a career as a crusading journalist. When that dream was dashed, he settled for something that never would have occurred to him back then: becoming one of the most influential chefs in the Southeast.
THE FOOD OF HIS YOUTH
It’s very nice of the university to ask me for my papers,” says the characteristically humble chef as he doffs a ball cap to wipe back wisps of hair. “Though I can’t imagine what they’ll do with them.”
As judged by longtime friends and colleagues, Bill greatly undervalues the impact of his 47-year residence in his adopted hometown. Recently, some 300 rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts, cherished relics of his tenure as a founder of the venerable Cat’s Cradle music hall in Carrboro, were gladly accepted into UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection.
News of the gesture, which Bill downplayed as mere disposal of clothes that no longer flattered his 65-year-old frame, was reported locally and shared globally via the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). The Oxford, Mississippi-based organization, which seeks to preserve and celebrate culinary traditions of the American South, has enjoyed Bill’s service as a member of its distinguished board since 2010. Crook’s and its chef was the topic of the evening keynote address from UNC’s Randall Kenan at SFA’s annual symposium in October 2014. And Bill cooked a “family meal” inspired by the immigrant kitchen, like the one at Crook’s, during the weekend.
After all, it’s great food – inspired broadly by the seafood and farm-grown goods of his childhood in eastern North Carolina, but specifically the meals lovingly cooked by family matriarchs – that makes him a Chapel Hill icon.
While he has no formal culinary training, cooking for others is the most natural job he ever tried.
“Cooking and eating seemed like a big part of my childhood,” says Bill, who grew up in 1950s New Bern surrounded by siblings and cousins and doting aunts and uncles. “The cooking of my aunts and grandmothers is still the most important influence on my cooking today.”
Fixing great feasts to feed loved ones, neighbors and about anyone who stopped by was commonplace. It’s where Bill first savored hard crab stew, a messy meal best enjoyed outdoors, and learned how to cook a perfect corned ham, which yields cracklings that taste like pork candy.
Both dishes remain in his repertoire. In fact, he taught Chef Vivian Howard, of Kinston’s Chef & the Farmer, how to make corned ham for Christmas dinner during an episode of A Chef’s Life, her Peabody Award-winning PBS series.
‘THE WEIRDER, THE BETTER’
While New Bern may have been too conservative for his burgeoning creativity, Bill’s parents instilled in him a sense of self-confidence, a belief that he could do anything to which he set his heart and mind. He left in 1967 with the intention of studying French at UNC. Classes didn’t excite him, but the anything-goes campus culture was intoxicating.
“Coming from a little town where everybody knows your business, Chapel Hill really was a breath of fresh air,” he recalls. “At home, anytime I’d misbehave I’d hear, ‘Your family has been here since forever.’ Here, the weirder you were, the better. I loved it immediately.”
Bill says it was a relief to be surrounded by smart, open-minded people who viewed differences as points of interest. He became active in opposing the Vietnam War and promoting social justice issues. He quickly became a fixture in the community and didn’t mind getting hauled off by police with like-minded protesters.
His father, a veteran of World War II, minded enough for both of them. “My father and I had a bad spell,” Bill says. “We became estranged. He wanted a sort of Leave It to Beaver house, but he didn’t get that from any of us.
“I’m glad we patched it up,” adds Bill. He was by his father’s side when William “Billy” Smith Sr. passed away in November 2012. “I see now that my father was a wonderful man because he wanted everyone to be happy and, hopefully, nearby.”
Bill’s wanderlust has taken him around the globe. He especially loves traveling in Mexico, where many of his longtime cooks are from. He spent time in Nicaragua in 1984, where he learned Spanish at a Sandinista language school. In the early 1990s, at the height of the Bosnian War, he seriously considered moving to Geneva to join UN relief efforts to assist refugees. Today, as the owner of a colorful house always in need of repair that he first rented cheap 30 years ago, he can’t imagine living anywhere but Chapel Hill.
“I have too many friends here to try to start over somewhere else,” he says. “If I’m not at Crook’s, I’m most likely sitting at the bar at Lantern or Glasshalfull or any of the places where my friends cook or hang out. I still love to travel, but I love coming home even more.”
BIG SHOES TO FILL
B ill got his first kitchen job in 1968 at Carolina Coffee Shop, which still operates down the road from Crook’s on Franklin Street. He later waited tables and, in 1975, participated in the off-Broadway in Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James. The musical featured the Durham-based Red Clay Ramblers and got its start at Cat’s Cradle. Bill had a featured tabletop dancing scene which, to his enduring surprise, earned praise from the New York City Ballet’s hottest star, Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Bill returned to Chapel Hill not long after the show’s seven-month run. By 1978, he was working in the kitchen of La Residence, a Chapel Hill institution created by Chef Bill Neal and his then-wife, Moreton. Gene Hamer, who owns Crook’s Corner, was its first bartender.
Bill started out peeling potatoes and chopping parsley but quickly advanced through the hierarchy of kitchen duties. It was exciting to learn from Neal, who he says kept Julia Child’s two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking within reach.
“I liked him, and it was cool to be there,” Bill recalls. “He and Moreton went to France and became infatuated with their way of dining – the point of view that it was leisure. It was fun because they were making it up as they went along, but everything was based on the classics.”
When the Neals’ marriage ended, Bill became chef at La Res, and Neal became the founding chef at Crook’s. Between stellar reviews and the 1985 publication of Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking – featuring his legendary recipe for shrimp and grits, still served at Crook’s – Neal became a major name. When he died in 1991 at age 41, people wondered who could possibly fill his shoes.
Several chefs gave it a shot before Gene asked Bill to step up in 1993. It marked the second time that Bill took over what Neal began. He says he never thought about legacy at the time, and he doesn’t dwell on it today.
“Gene said he had a good crew in place and just needed someone to run the kitchen,” Bill says. “It was so busy, and the kitchen was so small. But I discovered that the aesthetic of a little restaurant kitchen, the vibe, suits me. I’ve been here ever since.”
A MORAL COMPASS
Under Bill’s direction, Crook’s Corner went from a great restaurant with a national reputation to a bona fide phenomenon. He was a finalist in 2009 and 2010 for Best Chef – Southeast honors by the James Beard Foundation, which named Crook’s Corner an “America’s Classic” in 2011.
Bill also has earned notice for his writing, most notably his 2005 cookbook, Seasoned in the South. He’s parlayed his passion for seafood, especially the beloved soft-shell crab and all manner of oysters, into a volume that in 2015 will join the single-topic Savor the South series published by UNC Press. His green peach salad, already posted on the Food 52 website as a Genius Recipe, will be included in a 2015 cookbook of recipes similarly hailed for their re-creatable perfection. Additionally, he’s got enough recipes for a second Crook’s-based collection.
Bill’s signature dishes, like the cold fried chicken plate that returned in summer and the honeysuckle sorbet that preceded it in spring, are so popular that folks have come to fisticuffs when the kitchen runs out. Likewise, his printed recipes have a way of capturing the imagination of home cooks in a way that he almost regrets.
For example, his Atlantic Beach Pie – a lemon custard made with sweetened condensed milk baked into in a crushed saltine crust – was a runaway hit when SFA held a field trip in his hometown. A 2013 report on NPR’s All Things Considered described it as “Oh My God” delicious.
“I made it one year for the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, which was a huge mistake,” says Bill, whose sisters often assist him at such events. “I had 60 pies stacked up all over my hotel room, including the edge of the bathtub. Never again.”
He’s bound to eat those words. On July 30, 2014, Atlantic Beach Pie became Bill’s second Genius Recipe on Food 52.
Bill, who has no plans to retire, enjoys being recognized for the food that brings so much pleasure to guests at Crook’s Corner, but he credits his mostly Mexican staff for cooking much of it.
“They say I’m too slow in the kitchen to keep up with them anymore,” he says with a laugh. “I still do my share. I’m here six days a week doing prep with everyone and baking. But when we’re very busy, they’re just as happy if I’m in the dining room talking to people.”
He values his colleagues’ good humor and strong work ethic – he’s had little turnover during his tenure – as well as their commitment to family.
“When I arrived at Crook’s, Chapel Hill was booming. It was hard to find people who were willing to work at the wages we could offer,” he says. “There were rock ‘n’ rollers, which were plentiful but didn’t want to work weekends; there who students, who expected spring break; and there were immigrants, who worked hard and sent all their money home.
“They wanted to work as much as they could, and they were anxious to move up,” adds Bill, who enjoys being an extra uncle to the children who have become part of his extended kitchen family. “You have to respect people who leave their homes in search of a better life. I’ll never look down on a dishwasher as long as I live.” Bill has been outraged in recent years by lack of political will to make it easier for hardworking, tax-paying immigrants to succeed in America. And while many states have adopted marriage equality laws, as a gay man he felt especially provoked by North Carolina’s passage of Amendment One, a ban on same-sex marriage.
On July 9, 2013, Bill joined hundreds of Moral Monday protesters at the General Assembly in downtown Raleigh. He left in a police paddy wagon with his hands bound behind his back with a plastic tie. He remained restrained for five hours before being allowed to go home with a promise to appear in court.
“Because I’m so busy, it took me about six weeks to clear my calendar so I could be arrested,” he says without irony. “I thought, ‘I have a little bit of celebrity. If I have some sway over people because they admire me for other things, they ought to know that I feel strongly about this, too.’”
Bill’s case didn’t stop him from lending his support to similar causes; he also participated in the Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table dinner event in New York City. It was organized by John Currence, who worked at Crook’s early in his career before gaining fame as chef-owner of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi.
Currence was motivated by the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would allow business owners to deny service to customers if doing so would put a “substantial burden” on their religious beliefs. In other words, if homosexuality was an affront to an owner’s religious beliefs, he could refuse service to gays.
“It was a great evening, and I was proud to be part of it,” says Bill, who has been working on a kitchen memoir based on his experiences at Crook’s and abroad. “It makes my resolve even stronger to do what I can to help here at home.”