The Wandering Chef
In the famous Crook’s Corner restaurant, Chapel Hill chef Bill Smith has mashed Eastern North Carolina maritime dishes remembered from his childhood, French cooking techniques he learned in adulthood, and just about everything else he gathered in between—which is a lot
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Bill Smith didn’t set out to be a chef. He wandered into the profession. That might sound a bit strange considering his first place of employment sits right across the street in Chapel Hill from his current restaurant, Crook’s Corner. “I did lots of things between college and this,” says the 64-year-old chef. “I came of age in the ’60s, which should tell you a lot about me.”
The Food IssueBrowse selections from our March 2013 print magazine.
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After college, he booked bands at Cat’s Cradle, a roughly 40-year-old rock club. Then he moved to New York to dance in Off Broadway shows. His career path gets more interesting after that. “I was also a vagrant gypsy,” he says. “I was real good at that—went across Canada once, just hitchhiking, spent three months doing that.”
Smith loved to travel, a passion that often left him short on cash. In between excursions, he waited tables, washed dishes, and lived in houses with no shortage of roommates. In the summer of 1978, he was living in one such house in Chapel Hill. He was broke, but he wanted to visit some friends in Europe. One of his roommates offered an immediate solution, courtesy of the French restaurant where she waitressed. “Well, I think they need someone to peel potatoes,” she said.
Smith took the job, earned enough to travel around Europe for a bit, then returned to Chapel Hill. The restaurant, La Residence, which is just a short walk from Crook’s Corner, hired him back. He hung around the kitchen, sharpened his skills, and moved up to be the head chef by the end of the ’80s. He wasn’t exactly starting from scratch. He grew up in a coastal town called New Bern, North Carolina, in a house surrounded by well-seasoned Southern cooks: his aunts, his grandmothers, and his great grandmother. “My whole life, we would go to her house for lunch every day,” he says. “She had a big dinner table, and a tablecloth, manners, and the whole bit.”
In 1993, the famous Southern chef working at Crook’s Corner, Bill Neal, passed away. The restaurant hired Smith. In the last five years, the James Beard Foundation has named him a finalist for “Best Chef Southeast” twice. He’s made a name for himself by staying put for 20 years, sort of. He still travels a lot, though the destinations have changed.
Now, he mostly ventures to Mexico and Central America to visit the families of his staff. Several years ago, during one such visit, the mother of one of his cook’s gave him an Our Lady of Guadalupe necklace. When that wore out last year, another cook gave him a necklace. His mother had mailed it in an envelope when she heard Smith was without one. “It’s a good luck charm or a blessing, and you’re supposed to wear it until it falls off,” he says. “So, I do.”
Smith fills his kitchen with recent immigrants. Take the pastry chef position. A woman from Tanzania occupies it now. Before that, three consecutive men from Mexico held it. Smith trained all of them in Spanish, because they didn’t speak English. Eventually they moved on—something the chef more than understands. Since Smith spends a lot of his time writing, traveling, and cooking, it would stand to reason that he would consider the turnover of pastry chefs a negative. He flips that logic on its head. “It is hard to keep one,” he says. “But I’ve had to train so many that I’ve gotten good at it.”
We sat down with Smith this winter to hear more about how traveling and hiring a diverse staff have led to a more adventurous Southern cuisine.
Was there something about taking this job that appealed to you?
Well, I don’t know, I guess so. It was 1993, so it’s been a long time. I guess I still wanted to be a chef at that time, although I may not have admitted it to myself. This seemed like a good place to carry on, and, of course, I am from the South. Although my training at that point had been all French, my background was Southern and it made a good fit. This place had a good reputation already, had a good repertoire already. By now, I’ve sort of put my own repertoire in place.
When you took the job, was there a lot of pressure because legendary chef Bill Neal had been here before?
I think there was that expectation. I, however, did not rise to the pressure. I don’t do stuff like that. The main pressure on me may have been the fact that it was a whole lot busier—like 50 times busier—than my previous restaurant. I had to learn different ropes. But as far as living up to someone else’s reputation, I didn’t worry about that.
Did the restaurant change?
It was more than a change in reputation; it was a change in the sophistication of the dining public. In the last 20 or so years, the dining public has become more willing to try something new. It used to be that people were suspicious of things they were unfamiliar with. Now they seem to seek them out. They’ve been brought along slowly by a number of things. Fad and fashion played a part, as did food television and celebrity chefs. Then once people come to see that the unknown can be delicious they become adventurous on their own.
That sort of allowed me to evolve the way I was evolving anyway. Crook’s Corner had this repertoire and this reputation when I came here. I kept a lot of the stuff, and I started working with the things I grew up with, because there’s a lot of good food down there. I had traveled some, and because of my French training, I was looking forward to incorporating some things from New Orleans. In the month around Mardi Gras, we completely switch over to creole cooking here. We do gumbo, gumbo z’herbes, bananas foster, milk punch, and all that kind of food. I just love all that food so much. So I used my French background and that connection to New Orleans to bring that food in full tilt.
As the public began to accept me here—they were pretty skeptical at first—then I was able to try things that occurred to me. I travel a lot, when I have time, and that influences your work as much as anything. I spend a lot of time in Latin America now, because I go to see my guys when they go home. I’m in the Southern Foodways Alliance. I’m on the board. That involves traveling a lot around the South, and that is great because not only do I have colleagues like Sean Brock that I’ve grown to be fond of, but I’ve gotten to see all kinds of cooking influences.
And a lot of times you just come in in the morning and say, “I got to do this.” That sort of governs what I do more than anything.
What were some of the things from Eastern North Carolina that you incorporated?
Eastern North Carolina is maritime. There are lots of rivers, the sea, and the Outer Banks—so we grew up with a lot of seafood. It was important. It was a big deal. We enjoyed it. Plus, my family was Catholic, and in those days you couldn’t have meat on Fridays. You always had fish. So you had a double dose. There’s an old tradition of seafood catching and cooking down there, so that’s a big part of what I do. I do a crab stew from down there—particularly for crowds, all kinds of oysters, softshell crabs. I grew up with those things. I grew up catching fish and crabs and that kind of stuff, so it wasn’t a big deal to look to that.
We used to have barbeques down there, but we don’t do that here, because everyone else in the world does that here. But there’s other good food down there. There’s a kind of ham that we do here called a corn ham that’s specific to Eastern North Carolina. I do that at a lot of festivals and stuff because no one’s ever heard of it and it’s real good. We grew up eating black eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day. A dessert I’m going to show you in a minute is a pie from Eastern North Carolina.
Where does your food come from? How often are you sourcing local ingredients?
As much as is practical. I had the good fortune to go on a chef’s field trip to Eastern Shore, Virginia, where I met a bunch of fishermen. I’ve been using them a lot because they send a trunk down here once a week. That’s been great.
Around this area, I’m not sure how familiar you are with our Farmers’ Market, but we have an amazing system of farmers that have been here, since, well … a couple of them I’ve known since the ’60s. They’re my age. They put their children through college and everything with their farms. They’re small farmers. They grow all kinds of stuff, especially for the Farmer’s Market and all of the restaurants in town. I think at first it was maybe a struggle, but now they make a decent living and there are lots of them. The market is huge and I get a lot of stuff from them.
I go to regular distributors as well, because this food tends to be a little more expensive, so you have to balance it out. You know? I can’t pay $3 for an onion, but if I get a bag of wholesale onions for $6 then I can get homegrown mushrooms. So I have to keep the price point. I don’t want this place to get so expensive that my friends can’t come to it.
But my other source, and my best source, is all of these older ladies and gentlemen that farm around in the county. They’ve been farming in their kitchen gardens since years ago. They show up and say: “Do you want this? Do you want that?” So I get a lot of stuff from people that don’t go to the Farmer’s Market. They’ve always had a garden and they grow more than they need. There’s a woman name Mary Andrews that I’ve been buying from for easily more than 30 years. She just called me up out of the blue one day and said her flowerbeds were just full of mint, and did I want some. She’d give me 100 stems for $6. So I buy everything from her now—pecans, figs, persimmons—her sister Blanche, too, and her neighbor Walter Atwater. I get tomatoes and corn from him. A lot of stuff comes from those people, who are all in their 80s and 90s. My first loyalty is to those people. There are other people, but I always see what they have first.
It sounds like a neighborhood coalition. In a larger regional sense you have the Southern Foodways Alliance. How important is that?
It’s real important. It’s technically a part of the Southern Studies Department at Ole Miss. Ole Miss provides the premises and the funding. The organization celebrates and documents Southern culture through food. We do lots of things. We have all sorts of meetings and conventions and field trips. There are also a whole bunch of oral historians who go out and pretty much do what you’re doing, showing people that have been in the food business or the business of farming forever. Often, they are very old when they talk to them. They do video and oral histories. They also celebrate and publicize these people, give them an economic nudge. It draws attention to them, helps them make a living. They write a lot of stuff down. They collect recipes, social histories in ways that interact with food. There’s been a lot of stuff done about how people fed the civil rights movement workers when people began to object to segregation. There’s been stuff on Katrina, the aftermath of Katrina. They do other stuff that’s fun, like we have a whole film by a guy named Joe York. Joe’s great.
Why is chronicling that history important?
You need to know your history. To me it’s a no brainer. It’s interesting, but it also tells you who you are. And if you’re going to study human society at all, I think the dining room table is the place to focus your study. For one thing, people tend not to fight over dinner. They fight over politics or religion or basketball, but they won’t fight over dinner, so you get different people together in one spot.
You also write a lot. How did you get into writing?
Well, I was sort of nudged into writing the first cookbook. My boss said, “Why don’t you write a cookbook like everybody else does?” It’s very hard to fit it in around a job. I’m very busy here. I don’t have much time off. For me, some people are probably better at it than others. I need to have the laundry done and the desk clean and all of that other stuff. And my life is not like that. It was really hard at first, but once I signed the contract I had to do it, after working at night and stuff. The cookbook almost did me in. I was so sick of it when I got through—just get this thing out of here. Now, however, I’ve been persuaded to write more.
I like writing, and for a long time I had a blog, and I’m going to try and revive that now. I used it mainly when I traveled and made observations about culture and food together. It was in Canada, Mexico, and Japan. And I had too much to do and I kind of let it drop. But I enjoyed that, and I wrote a lot on that, and I learned how to write better, and I sort of developed a style and stuff. People saw that and asked me to write stuff. CNN asked me to write on immigration for their online blog, which caused a huge dustup and threats and all kinds of stuff.
Well, if you ever want hate mail, just stand up for human rights. Amazing, actually. I wrote for their blog, Five at Five. You can find it online. But read the comments, not me. Because of that, I got known as a spokesman for humane treatment of immigrants, and so I’ve been asked to do several pieces for the Southern Foodways Alliance. For The Last Cornbread Nation I have a piece about going down there to a pork rind factory. I’m sort of associated with that sort of thing now. And I’m writing a new cookbook for UNC press. They’re doing a series on Southern ingredients. I’ll be doing crabs and oysters. It will be out in a year or so. And then, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m sort of thinking it’s time for volume two of my cookbook. Then I’m also working on a kitchen memoir with an immigrant slant, but that’s taking me forever, and I really just need an editor to come in and take it. Then I have a piece coming out in our state magazine. I’m supposed to turn it in on the 28th of this month. It’s on church picnics. We’ll see. I haven’t had time to work on it. I hope it’s good.
Wow. You have a ton of stuff.
Well, I’m getting old. I can’t stand at these stoves much longer. I need to get a second source of income.
Is there something about desserts that you like? I know that you do everything from sorbets to pastries to….
Pretty much every single thing. It’s funny. When I go out to eat—which is pretty much all the time that I’m not working here, because I don’t cook at home—I almost never get dessert. But I like making them. And I like seeing people eat them.
When you’re making a new dessert, is there anything you’re looking to do?
For some, I try to use up things that would otherwise go to waste. On the bread pudding I’m making, I was trying to reference New Orleans. I actually like bread pudding, so I wanted to make sure it was good. Also, I like it to be pretty. Desserts need to be pretty. It’s the last thing people see when they come to dinner. If it’s not pretty, it at least needs to be imposing, giant, silencing.
Why do you think desserts are important?
It’s the last thing people have. We send a lot of desserts out to people when they come to eat here and even when they don’t order them. It’s a real treat. People see it as sort of naughty, that you shouldn’t be eating all that sugar and butter, but they will if we put it in front of them. That’s why. It gives people permission to misbehave.
Do you have a favorite story about any one recipe?
Well, the most notorious is the honey suckle sorbet. That pretty much says it all. It took a long time to do that. There was a huge honeysuckle bush out back and it would just knock you over it was so strong. People kept saying: “Well, gosh, can’t you make something to eat out of that? Wouldn’t it be wonderful?”
But I didn’t have an idea of what to do and my limited experience with flowers had not been very successful. A lot of things that smell nice actually don’t taste very good. And, of course, in the South, I grew up sucking on honeysuckle. So I knew they tasted good, but of course there’s only one little speck in each one. It’s just a drop. I was like, “I ain’t squeezing that out.”
So, just by accident, I came upon a recipe in a Sicilian cookbook that mentioned an old Saracin recipe for Jasmine ice. Actually, it didn’t give the recipe—it just mentioned that the flowers were allowed to sit in water overnight. I was always trying to cook ‘em. It wrecks ‘em. It didn’t work. So we left the honeysuckle in water overnight and we mixed that with sugar syrup, and we were like, “Oh my God.”
So that’s probably the most extenuated, exotic example of coming up with some other stuff. You have something to go on. You have something in mind. You see that someone else has done something. That was completely out of left field, but it was amazingly delicious. It was so good you can’t believe it. It started a riot the first few years. We would run out and people would get really mad. They’d threaten you.
Really? Over a dessert?
Yeah. They’d get real mad. “You said it was going to be here,” they said.
“Well, some people got here before you did. I don’t know,” I said.
After my book came out, I put the recipe in there. A lot of people make it themselves now, which is sort of neat. I can’t tell you how many people have come up and said, “Oh, I took my grandchildren out to pick honeysuckle and we made your sorbet.”
They only do it once a year, but it’s sort of neat to think about that. They make it for themselves.
You could have kept that recipe to yourself.
Oh, I don’t believe in that. I consider it flattering if somebody wants a recipe.