If you swung open the screen door to Crook’s Corner kitchen during Bill Smith’s nearly three-decade-long tenure, you were likely to find him smirking at one of the cooks in the middle of some Spanglish inside joke.
Familiar sounds would reverberate through the space like an avant-garde jazz orchestra: cumbia crackling through a small plastic radio speaker; the clank and then sizzle of a basket of chicken dunked into hot oil; a resounding “eyyyyy!” when a woman walks in, and Smith’s subsequent chuckle, followed by “be nice!”
This February, however, a month after he stepped down as chef, I met Smith at the bar on a Friday night. He was wearing a blazer, not his usual, almost iconic baseball cap and well-worn band T-shirt (he donated most of them to UNC Libraries). What hadn’t changed was his signature drink order.
He was already one can of PBR ahead of me.
Susie Williamson, longtime Crook’s front-of-house staff and now general manager, brought Smith his next beer, just as bartender Mark Hullopeter walked over with another open can, this one a gift from a customer. With two open PBR cans sweating on that famous black-and-white tiled bar top, I was reminded of a conversation just days earlier with Crook’s outgoing general manager, Kyle Yamakawa.
“I think Bill is made up of about twenty percent collards, forty percent pork, and forty percent PBR,” he said.
Smith is known for many things beyond an affinity for union-made beer. As a foremost expert on Southern food, his recipes—some featured in his 2005 cookbook Seasoned in the South: Recipes From Crook’s Corner and From Home—are nationally recognized: Atlantic Beach Pie, both Red Hot and honeysuckle sorbets, soft-shell crabs (which he posts on social media every time a fresh new bucket comes in), corned ham, among many more. His varied life experiences range from a highly lauded tabletop dance performance in an off-Broadway show to being arrested during North Carolina’s Moral Monday protests. And he is arguably our state’s most beloved chef.
Smith’s last day as head chef at Crook’s Corner was Monday, January 7.
“In a restaurant, you don’t usually last until age seventy,” says Betsey Elliot, Smith’s longtime friend and a Crook’s server for almost thirty years. “I’m very proud of him.”
Smith marked the occasion with a much-needed respite to Mexico. That Wednesday, he flew to Mexico City. By Friday, he stood atop the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, celebrating his seventieth birthday.
But Smith wasn’t merely another gringo tourist in Mexico. He’s Chule, as the Crook’s cooks christened him decades ago. It’s short for chuleta, or pork chop. Years ago, Smith told me, pointing to his belly, that he thought he’d earned the nickname because of his slightly “porky” persona. But one of his Mexican friends in the kitchen told him it more accurately depicted his pink face, the same color as raw pork. Smith blushed before letting out an appreciative chuckle. “Mean, but it’s true.”
Smith is an avid traveler, from the Southern circuit of food festivals and benefit dinners to globetrotting. But he often finds himself back in Mexico, very deliberately. He ends up in Celaya, Guanajuato, specifically, which is not a tourist destination by a long shot. But it’s where his friend and former Crook’s Corner cook Luis “Rambo” Ortega is from. Ortega returned to Mexico after deciding he couldn’t continue living in the U.S. without the documents he needed to live without fear of deportation. Smith hopped in the car with him on the thirty-six-hour drive back. Naturally, Smith carries hilarious stories from that cross-border journey, which he’s writing about in his next book.
I met Ortega in Celaya in 2014 and 2015, thanks to Smith. Ortega’s mother, Conchita, kept a copy of Seasoned in the South displayed in her dining room armoire. Smith delivered it to her one of his many visits back to Celaya, hand-writing a dedication on the title page for her. At her kitchen table, Ortega grabbed the book and skimmed quickly through the pages to a recipe for blueberry soup.
“Read this,” he said, pointing to Smith’s introduction, which read: “‘I have tasted your blueberry soup. It is terrible.’ So pronounced one of my cooks, Luis Ortega, when I put this soup on the menu.”
Ortega couldn’t stop laughing. “Have you had it? It sucks,” he said, drawing out the uhhh like a Southern teenager.
Ortega’s limited English bore a slight Eastern North Carolina twang. And Smith’s broken Spanish sang through Mexican vocabulary. The two friends are mirrors reflecting the natural metamorphosis that happens after decades of working in a Southern restaurant kitchen.
In Seasoned in the South, Smith writes: “Southern cooking, like the South, has evolved. Traditions persist, but new ingredients and techniques have fueled change.” The same can be said for the South’s people. The book’s recipes reflect Crook’s menu under Smith’s direction. Each dish is a playful nod to a personal experience: early culinary trips to New York, his great-grandmother Inez’s big weekday lunches, strolls through a maze of global street food carts.
Take the mango salad specked with cayenne and dressed in lime juice, a tribute to a whole peeled mango on a stick found in Mexico.
“It’s straight from his friends in the kitchen, that direct influence on his Southern cuisine,” Williamson says. “It’s not decidedly Southern. But putting it on the menu at Crook’s made it Southern. It’s not just his family’s recipes. They’re on the same menu side by side.”
In describing the stories behind his food (and, really, anything), the chef is as eloquent as he is succinct, with an often clipped delivery that gets straight to the point. His writing mirrors his conversational style. Here’s how he introduces the tomato tart, for example: “This recipe, like so many others, was born of the constant torment provided by being forced to come up with vegetarian main courses on an otherwise sensible menu.”
It’s Elliott’s favorite entrée. She’s worked as a server at Crook’s for thirty years but also sells vegetables to the kitchen.
“Tomatoes are what I’m known for,” she says. Smith “occasionally lets me know what I’m missing.”
She and Smith met in the late seventies; he was working his first kitchen job at Carolina Coffee Shop beginning in 1968, where he baked bread and waited tables.
“He’s one of the most admirable people, certainly in my world,” she says. “I think most people would say that.”
You’re not going to get Smith to brag about anything—he’s too humble for that. He helped start the Cat’s Cradle music venue but rarely mentions it. He’s been nominated twice for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast and has been honored at dozens of events throughout the country, dinners at which he’ll often bring his sisters and a couple of cooks. Apart from writing, much of his retirement is already being spent sorting through “his papers”—recipe notes and travel journals, mementos from a life hard-earned and well-fed. He laughs about it: “UNC wants my papers for some reason.”
At La Residence, the French-inspired restaurant run by the late chef Bill Neal and his then-wife Moreton Neal, Smith cut his teeth as a cook under Neal’s tutelage. In 1982, he followed Neal to Crook’s along with owner Gene Hamer, and took over the kitchen after Neal’s death in 1991. Late last year, Hamer announced that he was selling Crook’s to a group that includes Gary Crunkleton of The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill and Shannon Healy of Alley Twenty Six in Durham. Smith will still be a consultant and cook for special events. Justin Burdett, formerly a chef of the now-closed Local Provisions in Asheville, has taken over the kitchen.
Like Elliott, most of the Crook’s crew are “lifers,” even after Smith and Hamer have left. It speaks to the culture they’ve cultivated.
“It’s the sense that you can be who you are in a place, it continues, it is what it is,” says Williamson. “It becomes more of an identity, a place where you feel locked in and able to be you. You’re making a living. It’s not just a job, it’s a place where you can just be.”
It also speaks to the relationships Smith has developed with his employees, many of whom are Mexican. Smith walks the walk: He’s been outspoken about his views on immigration and sponsored three immigrant families from Mexico (when it was legally possible to do so). He’s also godfather to many of his Mexican staffers’ children, and Seasoned in the South’s dedication is a bilingual tribute to his chosen family in the “land of blood, meat, and fire.”
Many of his cooks have known him half their lives. One recently described Smith as a “great human being.” But above all, the cook continued, Smith is “un excelente amigo.”