Bill Smith’s cooking is inspiring–the process and the product. Moving around the colorful kitchen in his Chapel Hill home, a small ranch house surrounded by student apartments off of Columbia Street, Smith peers into a gas oven, stands up and proclaims, “Well, I am sort of fearless.”
He’s telling the truth. In the kitchen, Smith–the head chef at Crook’s Corner for over a decade–is up for anything. Tonight, a small pumpkin–split down the middle and covered on both sides by a heavy black skillet–bakes slowly in the oven. A local farmer brought him a batch of pumpkins, and he’s eager to use them in the restaurant, most likely as a soup.
“I just don’t want it to taste like pumpkin pie. I want something different,” he says, pacing along the kitchen’s small tile countertop. “I’ll put some broth in there. I think I may go with some crab in it at Crook’s, but not tonight.”
Over the next hour, Smith thinks about the soup as he mulls over his career as a chef, his first cookbook, Seasoned in the South (released by Algonquin Books) and his upcoming book tour.
“I asked a bunch of people, ‘I’m not just going to stand there and read recipes, surely?”‘ he says of the tour. “And they say people will just want to talk to me. Clearly I can run my mouth.”
He prepares a gratin, cutting corn from the cob, slicing potatoes, squash, tomatoes and a pepper, pouring cream over the mix into a baking dish. He buries a fresh sprig of rosemary from the plant in his front yard. He would use marjoram, but it’s out of season.
“Peppers are promiscuous, and you never know what you’ll get,” he says, slicing the dark red pepper from his garden in the back. It’s a variety that he doesn’t remember planting. “Oh, but this is good. It doesn’t knock you out, and it’s got this nice sweetness … I like its heat.”
Smith takes occasional swigs from a Budweiser, remarking that his friends lament that this heavyweight of Southern cuisine doesn’t have more discriminating taste when it comes to beer. “I’m in a hot kitchen all day and night, so I’m constantly drinking something. So what? I like something fizzy.”
But, with every step, Smith comes back to the pumpkin and the soup. Eventually, he pulls one half pumpkin from the oven and scoops its warm pulp into a food mill. He mixes in a pint of chicken broth and puts it on the stove, taking samples every few minutes with his finger and, occasionally, a spoon. He’s not satisfied, so he adds chili powder. Minutes later, still not satisfied, he empties the cream left over from making the gratin.
“Well, I sure hope I don’t need any more of that for the gratin,” he says. “This soup may not be worth anything, but you never know.”
Smith is open to invention to find the right recipe. And he takes pleasure in the fact that he doesn’t always find it. That constitutes the adventure. “Oh, I’ve made some dreadful things, but–hopefully–none of them reach the table,” Smith says, snapping asparagus stalks. “Really, I’m more likely to do something dreadful here when I’m by myself. I’ll throw a steak on the grill and get busy and invariably burn the shit out of it.”
But special things sometimes happen. One is his honeysuckle sorbet, a local springtime favorite. Gene Hamer, his boss at Crook’s, was enamored with the smell of the blossom and asked Smith if he could do anything with it. After years of prompting and consideration, it finally happened.
“I found an old Arab recipe from Sicily for jasmine ice, and the secret was that the flowers had to be left in cool water for a long time to pull out the flavor. You can’t cook the blossoms or they’ll fall apart,” Smith remembers, noting that–if he hadn’t stumbled upon the jasmine ice recipe–he was prepared to study French perfuming methods to extract the honeysuckle’s essence. “I would get it to work one year and then forget what I did the next. Finally, I found that recipe.”
In a sense, Smith is an artist, exploring different techniques and others’ successes, fusing disparate elements–the Southern cooking of his great-grandmother, for instance, with experiences from extensive travel in Europe and Latin America–into original ideas. But Smith says the artist comparison is praise that’s almost too high.
“Cooking isn’t as enduring, but they involve the same creative juices. Music is probably the greater art than writing and both are greater than cooking,” Smith says, standing in his kitchen, wearing bright red Chuck Taylors and a tight Piggy Wiggly shirt he bought in Grantsboro, N.C., last weekend.
Perhaps Smith shies away from the artist comparison because he doesn’t convey the vainglory of an artiste. His process–even if a methodic madness built on improvisation and the potential of uncertainty–isn’t mystical at all. He just works with what he has and remembers to pay attention to his own steps (although he never measures anything and rarely records his maneuvers).
Smith knows that everyone can’t be a professional chef and spend hours each day in a kitchen. “I’ve got the leisure of time at work. If it does take five hours to get something done, I’ll be there five hours anyway,” he says.
As such, anyone that wants one of his recipes simply has to ask. Regular patrons at Crook’s will often call him at the restaurant and ask for cooking advice while preparing a meal. That free-exchange philosophy can be attributed, in part, to Smith’s family and the importance it gave to food and sharing it.
“My great-grandmother was a marvelous cook, and she cooked until she was a million years old, which looks like it will happen to me, too,” Smith, 56, says. “I was always aware of the kitchen as a child because everybody came to her house for lunch everyday, and that was the big meal.”
Smith’s humble beginnings in the food business are just as, if not more, important in his willingness to share his work. Smith was an early partner at the Cat’s Cradle in the early ’70s, but it was next to impossible to make money as a young rock club manager.
“When I was working at the Cradle, I decided to go to Europe, and I needed money. One of my roommates was the head waitress at La Residence in Chapel Hill, so I just took a potato peeling job in the kitchen,” he remembers, grateful that they agreed to re-hire him when he returned. “After a while, somehow I was the chef. There’s a lot of attrition in restaurants, so it worked out for me.”
It’s not a career he had imagined. Growing up in New Bern, he pictured a life as an artist or an author, but he says he’s not very good at either.
But the soup is not just good, it’s great. It’s creamy and subtle; the flavors–broth, chili, pumpkin–all tuck together and then unfold.
But his pumpkin flavor isn’t strong, and Smith eventually relents that he may have been looking for the pumpkin pie flavor all along.
“Oh well, you just never know.”
Bill Smith will appear at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 24 and at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 25.