Photo by Mackenzie Brough.
In our January/February issue we talked to Gene Hamer, the quiet but influential owner of Crook’s Corner. He embarked on his Crook’s journey nearly 30 years ago with Bill Neal and brought Bill Smith on board after Neal’s death.
Below are parts of our interview that didn’t make the magazine.
Brief us on the vast history of this place.
In the ’40s, a lady named Rachel Crook had a little cafe, and she called it Crook’s Corner. In 1951, she was brutally murdered. It’s still unsolved. And it went through several transitions, and then Cam Hill, who grew up here in Chapel Hill and was on the town council at one point, felt that Chapel Hill lacked an in-town barbecue joint that most North Carolina towns had. That was his purpose. That’s the reason the pig is on the top. …Cam put [artist] Bob Gaston’s pig on the roof. There was a bit of a flurry with the town council because they thought it was signage. Cam said it was art. Finally, the agreement was: It could go up, but it could never come down. And it could never be lit from the outside – with spotlights. Therefore, Bob cut a hole in the belly and put lights inside. In 1982, Cam was an absentee owner. He had another business – construction cabinet making – doing really well. He called Bill Neal and wanted to know if he’d take it over. Bill contacted me. I worked for Bill and Moreton Neal at La Residence as a bartender. I was the first bartender they had. Bill and I agreed to take it over and be business partners. Bill would be back of the house. I would be front of the house and do the books. Then in ’84, I bought Bill’s share out. And we stayed working partners until he died in ’91.
So you became a restaurant owner at a young age.
I was 32. It wasn’t that much then. I borrowed some money from my dad. It wasn’t that much.
What’s your relationship been like with the chefs? You’re now the sole owner, but these are creative people.
Bill Neal was not only interested in being creative but in making sure the business was a success. You had to pay the bills, and you had to pay payroll. He instilled that creativity and being a good business person could go hand in hand. Bill Smith worked with Moreton Neal at La Res on cost, so he’s pretty familiar with it, too.
How daunting was it to carry on after Bill Neal died?
It was scary. I had a very good sous chef who had worked with Bill. There was enough on the repertoire to continue it for a while without it being dull. But I knew at some point somebody was gonna have to come in here and take Bill Neal’s place. I was really lucky that Bill Smith was looking for a job and he had worked with Bill Neal and Moreton Neal in the past.
Did the two Bills have a lot in common?
They both are Francophiles. They both grew up with large families, so to speak. And I know in both cases their grandmothers were big influences on them.
You must have very loyal diners.
Yes, very. And we try to make sure that they know what we’re doing on the menu. Bill often sends things out to regulars to try. We try to keep them updated through our website and email newsletter. Regulars have been our bread and butter. Our mainstays.
What do you think of Southern food these days? Will it survive its popularity?
There are many really good chefs who are working in Southern food. I think it will continue to grow and evolve. Bill Smith has been bringing in some Latin influence into the cuisine. I see it as just evolving in a positive direction. I’m kind of excited about where Southern food is going.
You don’t think a fatigue will set in?
No, I hear Bill’s stories from when he goes to Southern Foodways Alliance meetings, and all the people are really excited about the culture of Southern cuisine. It sounds like these people are dedicated. They’re being caretakers but also looking at what’s new.
Crook’s has been part of the education of some pretty amazing chefs over the years, right?
Amy Tornquist of Watts Grocery worked here. She was a baker here. She worked with Bill Neal. Then she went to school in Paris and then came back and started Sage and Swift Catering and then Watts Grocery. Amy’s husband worked here. That’s how they met. Robert Stelling of Hominy Grill worked here. John Currence [of City Grocery] worked here.
How much did the publicity from Craig Claiborne of The New York Times in 1985 change the trajectory of this place?
Bill had written this cookbook, and Claiborne had seen a copy. Being from the South, he noticed that there were a couple of places in this area doing Southern cuisine – Magnolia Grill, Fearrington, Mama Dip’s and Crook’s. So he came down and did an article on all those restaurants. And then he did a separate article on Bill Neal. That, coupled with Bill’s Southern cooking, shot us on the way. Phyllis Richman from The Washington Post started coming down. And I remember one night I was managing, and she was here having dinner with Bill Neal. It wasn’t so busy that night. It was a weekday night. As she was walking out. She said, “Gene, you ought to dig this place up and move it to D.C. because I’d have you busy every night.” This is where we want to be. But I thought that was interesting that she would say that.
What’s your proudest moment?
There have been several. The Craig Claiborne recognition. The James Beard [America’s Classics] Award. Bill Smith’s recognition by James Beard [as a Best Chef – Southeast nominee] those two years. Those are very proud moments. And being here for 30 years. CHM