Born in New Bern, North Carolina, chef Bill Smith grew up appreciating the simple yet elegant food cooked by his great grandmother. Family tradition has played a central role in his more than 20-year career at Chapel Hill’s revered Crook’s Corner. A member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Bill expanded the scope of Southern food with a respectful eye and an appreciation for seasonality. He has worked for over 30 years with local farmers and purveyors, making a point to keep Crook’s Corner current while supporting the local economy.
Smith has become known for some signature dishes, like his Green Peach Salad, Honeysuckle Sorbet, and perhaps most notably, the Atlantic Beach Pie—as he jokingly calls it “that stupid pie.” He has written a cookbook, Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and From Home, and has a couple of James Beard Award nominations under his belt, plus one win for America’s Classics in 2011.
As he told the Bitter Southerner, “[Southern cooking is] approached with earnestness, and everyone that does it wants it to be the best that they can. I think that’s the way one approaches art, generally. There’s a craft and skill involved in it that makes things turn out better. I do see it as art, but I don’t think of myself as some sort of snooty artist or anything. I have to draw the line there.”
Bill is our visiting chef for our Friends of the Café Dinner at The Factory on April 25th. He is also a presenter at our inaugural Project Threadways Symposium, sharing his knowledge and insight on the material culture behind the band tee.
We had the opportunity to ask Bill Smith a few questions about his relationship with food and music, and he indulged us.
AC: I understand that you were not formally trained as a chef. Was food a big part of your family—or did you just learn on the fly?
BN: I was not trained as a chef. Like many people associated with music around here, I ended up working in a restaurant because you couldn’t really live on what you made playing in a band, running a club, or just hanging out around that scene. I had the good luck to land at Bill and Moreton Neal’s La Residence. The Neals weren’t trained either, so it was a learning kitchen all around. We were working our way through Julia Child and others as we went along, so we were learning good techniques, but there was a seat of the pants aspect, too. I think that’s why my career has been pretty much seat of the pants, straight through. I also had the good fortune to grow up in a family of good cooks, so the expectation of a good dinner was always routine. Every meal was an event. You need that point of view to be a successful chef, I think.
AC: You took over the Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, after the death of now-legendary Bill Neal. How did you make it your own early on?
BS: I’ve warned Justin Burdett, who has replaced me at Crook’s, to look out. Even though I had worked under Bill Neal at La Residence, for at least three years after I took Crook’s over, there was an undercurrent of “who does he think he is?” around town. The takeover was really hard work, so I didn’t have time to really worry about this. I had my hands full with the day-to-day running of the kitchen. This was probably a good thing. Happily, the food that I grew up within Eastern North Carolina is wonderful, so I was able to shift things that way successfully over time, while keeping a lot of the things that were on the menu when I arrived. I was far too busy to worry about being in the shadow of a legend.
AC: You recently retired from your position as head chef. What are your plans now?
BS: The day after I left Crook’s, I hopped a plane for Mexico and then spent two weeks visiting people who have worked in my kitchen, but have since returned home. One of several writing projects I’m working on is about immigrant people in restaurant kitchens, so I was sort of playing and working on that at the same time. I’m also working on another cookbook that will take up where Seasoned In The South left off. I have to say that it has been harder than I would have thought to shift gears from being always busy and hopelessly behind to all this free time. It’s hard to resist the temptation to stay propped up in bed all day drinking beer.
AC: We are both big supporters of the Southern Foodways Alliance. What drew you to that organization and why do you think it is important?
BS: My agent and publicist Katharine Walton first told me about the SFA many years ago when I first started writing. She thought that they were people that I would like to know, and she was right. Half of my best friends come from the membership. And I can’t imagine how I would have made so many meaningful relationships with so many of my colleagues without the SFA. Besides that, I value their support of the arts, their recording of culinary and cultural history, and their positive activism.
AC: Community plays a huge part in all material culture and social traditions. How does community impact food and cooking traditions?
BS: The community I grew up in has affected my cooking more than anything else. It provided both recipes and an approach to the table in general. The community I live in now does the same thing, but more with embellishments than foundational influence. The most obvious example of this in this area today is the arrival of a huge Latino community. They are in every kitchen here, and slowly but surely, their influence is felt. This is a great and refreshing thing.
AC: You owned well-known Carrboro, North Carolina, venue Cat’s Cradle. How did that come about?
BS: I was one of the owners of the Cat’s Cradle from the early seventies until 1984. Basically, the woman who started it, Marcia Wilson, needed partners, and I was a music hanger-on in town. You didn’t need much money in those days to pull something like that off. But like I said, we were terrible business people, so we ended up in restaurants so we could pay the rent. The Cradle is famous and thriving today, no thanks to me.
AC: Many chefs we’ve spoken to have a deep connection with music. Is there something about music that connects to making food?
BS: The connection between music and food is obvious to me, although I might not be able to explain it. They are both work hard – play hard and unpredictable worlds. People drawn to them tend to be street smart and creative. I’ve had many a rock-and-roller working in my kitchen. You may know that Sean Brock loves guitars.
AC: You have quite a large collection of band t-shirts, some of which are on display here. People collect different things for different reasons. For you, why t-shirts? Was it intentional or just an occupational bonus?
BS: The t-shirt collection snuck up on me. As stockholder emeritus of the Cradle, I never have to pay to go in, so if I liked a band, I would buy their shirts so I could give them some money. At the same time, I’ve never been a chef jacket type of guy, so my trademark uniform has become a beat up band shirt, dirty apron, and jeans. I’ve always been going on about the cultural importance of the music around here. If you’ve got the cash and the energy, you can probably find live music every single night of the year in this town. The Southern Folklife Collection at UNC was beginning to take an interest in this. One day I opened my closet, realized that I had created a monster, and called them. They are all cataloged and folded in neat boxes at Wilson Library now. There were hundreds of them, and I’m still finding them around my house.
AC: Do you listen to music in the kitchen? If so, what is on your playlist?
BS: We do listen to music in the kitchen. We have a fabulous freeform radio station here called WXYC. It’s the student station, and it’s crucial to our music scene here. However, its playlist is weird, and since I’m outnumbered there, most of the time we listen to the Latino station. One new addition has been the bachata and reggaeton that come from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. I have a bunch of teenage dishwashers who love this. Lastly, Justin and I have a common love of punk rock, so now I have an ally. If we can seize control, we get to hear The Dead Kennedys or Minor Threat.