610 West Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27516
One thing I love about the Market…I love it when, as you approach it, you can already see all the flowers, or you can smell something that's there. There’s a certain couple of weeks when you can smell the strawberries from the street. That’s a good time to go. – Bill Smith
Bill Smith was born in New Bern, North Carolina, in 1949. He grew up with a great appreciation for the simple yet elegant East Carolina fare that his great grandmother cooked. The culinary traditions of his family heavily influenced Bill's cooking as chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, where he has received national acclaim for his innovative twists on traditionally Southern cuisine. In 2010 The James Beard Foundation nominated Crook's Corner a Best Restaurant in the United States.Bill sources many of the ingredients he uses at Crook's Corner from local farmers. One can spot him cycling up to the Carrboro Farmers' Market every Saturday morning. For more than 30 years, Bill has been working closely with the farmers at this farmers’ market and has encouraged many chefs and businesses in the Chapel Hill area to follow suit and support local growers. The highly seasonal and flexible menu at Crook's Corner is testament to Bill's commitment to sourcing locally.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Bill Smith, chef, Crook's Corner – Chapel Hill, NC
Date: August 29, 2011
Location: Crook's Corner – Chapel Hill, NC
Interviewer & Photographer: Ashley Rose Young
Ashley Young: This is Ashley Young with the Southern Foodways Alliance. Today is Monday, August 29, 2011 and today I’m interviewing Bill Smith, chef at Crook’s Corner for the Carrboro Farmers’ Market Oral History Project. We are currently sitting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at Crook’s Corner. Bill, would you please introduce yourself, stating your name and profession?
Bill Smith: My name is Bill Smith and I’m the chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Would you also please state your date of birth?
January 11, 1949.
You wrote a cookbook called Seasoned in the South and in this cookbook there are some stories of your childhood or stories of your relationship with food growing up. Could you speak about your experiences with food as a child or as a teen?
Sure. I didn't really think about it while it was happening but looking back, particularly when I had to think about it to write this book I realized that we grew up with the expectation of always having good food. I had countless relatives, women relatives in almost every case who were fabulous cooks, my great-grandmother, grandmothers, aunts. And so it was always a treat; you know, it was never a chore. And that’s just the way we were raised. We were lucky. [Laughs]
Is there anything in particular that you remember about your mother’s or your grandmothers’ cooking?
Actually it was my great-grandmother that cooked for us until she was very old, and so she was like the one that I think about most often at first. Her house was right downtown in New Bern and she sort of presided over this family table at lunch every single day during the week—I would leave school, people would leave the offices downtown, and things like that and we’d all go to her house and eat these fairly formal fancy lunches every day my whole life.
So that’s what I think of first and it could be anything. I mean, sometimes it was light fare and sometimes it was more elaborate; it was very seasonal of course, in those days. She was a very good cook, very good cook and, you know, and gave it a lot of thought—never measured and never had recipes; just knew how to do everything. And she did that until she was surely in her eighties.
When you were traveling in Europe were there any culinary experiences that you had that stuck with you or that inspired you later on with your cooking?
Probably, I travel a lot actually. Even today I travel a great deal and I always find that—I don’t sit down looking for recipes ever but you always pick up things. I go to Mexico all the time now and I’m always finding things that I can apply here.
The main thing about traveling and food is if any curiosity at all you’re just exposed to so many different things and you don’t necessarily repeat them when you get home but it opens your mind to whatever possibilities there are and that’s the most valuable thing about it I think rather than gathering recipes or you know, so.
Are there any vegetables or other cooking styles that you picked up from Mexico recently that otherwise you hadn’t cooked with before?
Yeah. I mean this is a Southern restaurant so I try to stick to that but—and people know how fond I have become of Mexico so I think they’re always expecting me to just to flip the place over [Laughs], so I resist the urge. But there are some things that are applicable. There’s a lot of things in common. The Mexicans use lots of pork products and in fact, my last trip I was down I guess April during Holy Week, which is a good time to visit Latin America and I spent a whole day in a pork rind factory, so—. And although I don’t know if we’ll have pork rinds on the menu here—they are certainly Southern and so the application applies in both cuisines.
One thing I stole outright years ago, actually this is actually in the cookbook, but it’s been around so long, but in Mexico they often put hot chili pepper on fruit, which is something I really like. And we do a mango salad based on something I learned in Mexico years ago where they take a mango and they peel it and they sort of score it all over with a knife and they roll it in cayenne pepper and squirt lime juice on it and eat it like a popsicle and put it on a popsicle stick and it’s fantastic. And so, I make that salad a lot. And what I do is I don’t serve it on a popsicle stick though. I chop the mangos up and mix them with some mint, which they don’t do in Mexico, but that’s the direct thing for Mexico that I’ve picked up.
And the last time, like when I was down there this last time there was a woman in the neighborhood where I was staying that had a cart where all she sold was jicama which is that white root and she just cut it into all sizes of chunks and sticks and stuff and she rolled it in cayenne pepper and squirted limes over it. And then it was all just sitting in piles of ice and it was fantastic. It was really hot and it was just like the best thing you’ve ever eaten. So that may show up at some point. I should have brought it back this summer when it was so hot. I just didn't get around to it.
You spoke a little bit about the experiences that you had with your family’s cooking and as well as the culinary experiences abroad. Is there anything else that has really influenced your cooking style or any person in particular that has influenced your cooking style?
Oh lord. I admire many chefs. They’re colleagues and that’s one good thing about this profession is you have so many great people that are sort of associated with you because of it. And oh lord. Who would I say? I don’t know if I could pick out one person. A person I admire very much and a woman from whom I’ve stolen at least one recipe is Leah Chase at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans. I met her through the Southern Foodways Alliance actually and met her and been to her restaurant and then after Katrina I was down, you know, when we were doing that relief or whatever we were doing. We were helping Ms. Chase and Ms. Seaton around the corner with their restaurants that were completely trashed by the flooding [Interviewer's note: Willie Mae Seaton of Willie Mae's Scotch House in Treme in New Orleans]. And she is a wonderful person. She clearly has worked hard all her life. I love to hear her talk, I like her outlook on the world is great and I stole her—well I didn't—I don’t want to say I do it as well as she did. But when I was there one time [Laughs] she had prepared something called gumbo z’herbes, which at the time I had never heard of it, and I thought it was collards, you know. And I went wait a minute; there’s more—you know what—because it was in a buffet thing and we were like, "What is all this stuff in here?"
And it was like, "That is the best thing. How could I not know what this is?" You know, it was one of those things where, "How could this be around when I didn't know it?" It was like twenty years ago when I had pesto, I said, "Well, how come I didn't know about this?" You know? So gumbo z’herbes was one of those experiences. So every spring I guess when it’s around Mardi Gras time we have gumbo z’herbes here. I just do it for a couple of weeks. But she’s just one of many, but she comes to mind. I’m very fond of her, so.
So Crook’s Corner obviously is in North Carolina but are there any dishes that you bring from other regions of the South like gumbo z’herbes?
The sort of the foundation of my cooking is Eastern North Carolina and that’s a fairly large menu really but I like lots of things. I love well we have tamales from Mississippi almost all the time or from Arkansas. They have tamales all over that part of the South; a lot of things from Louisiana. I love Louisiana. I love New Orleans and I’m often bringing things particularly around Mardi Gras. We sort of celebrate Mardi Gras but there’s some things that I might bring back. And we do gumbo on and off all the time. There’s this fabulous turtle soup I got from a friend of mine in Louisiana that I use whenever I can get turtle.
And did you have any mentors here in Carrboro or Chapel Hill or could you speak about your relationship to Bill Neal?
Sure. He was at La Residence. I never worked with him here. He and his wife divorced and he came down here and started this place. I stayed at La Residence for, I don’t know, a good many years after that. I learned a lot in that kitchen. Both of them actually were very good cooks and had a very good eye for sort of the culture of food. You hear about him more but honestly Moreton was as talented a cook I think and she also had this wonderful sophistication that came.
Bill had a way of making you realize that there were no limits to possibilities that everything was, you know, on the table sort of and encouraged us always to sort of always be scouting out new things. We had like stacks—and then in those days there were all these European cookbooks coming out, you know, just all the time. We always would get them all and read them and so we were always scouring for new ideas and stuff like that and he always encouraged that. There was no fixed anything, which is a good thing in a restaurant. Like this restaurant is the same way; There is no fixed menu here. We could change every single day every single thing if I had to, you know. [Laughs] I don’t but—It’s a hard way to make money, in a way, but until you learn how to do it but it’s a very good way to do a menu.
How do you think the restaurant scene in the Chapel Hill area, in Durham, in Carrboro has changed over recent years or has it changed and if so in what ways?
It’s changed a lot. There’s a lot more of them for one thing and even in this economy there’s the clientele to support them. I think New Orleans is a good example of this where people, going out to eat is part of their culture of entertainment. It’s not just because you have to eat. It’s like an evening at a restaurant is considered a night—you know, it’s a pleasant thing to do. You just can’t wait to get together with friends and stuff. We have that culture here. It’s an area of very busy people and we’re fairly well off and if you’re busy you don’t go home and cook at nine o'clock at night. You go out, you know, and so we have that.
At this point I was hoping to move onto a discussion of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market and I was wondering how you came to establish a relationship with the farmers at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.
Well actually I have been dealing with those farmers before there was a Carrboro Farmers’ Market. I’ve been at this a long time now because I was at La Res in—oh gosh probably ’76. Well I don’t even remember now when I started, but I have known some of those people—I’ve known Ken Dawson since we were hippies together like in the ‘60s and I’ve known Kathy Jones and who else—Bill Dow. So I bought from those people before there was an established market. And a lot of the people that I deal with don’t sell at the Market. I mean there’s lots of people from out in the county that I used to—well it started with a lady named Mary Andrews. She’s probably eighty-five or eighty-six now and so twenty years ago at La Residence I got this phone call and it was Ms. Andrews and she was going through the phone book. She said she had a yard full of mint and she was going to pull it up and would I give her $6 for a hundred stems? And so I’m still dealing with Ms. Andrews, you know.
And her neighbor Mr. Atwater now and her sister Blanche and so they don’t sell at the Farmers’ Market; they just have the big gardens and I get probably as much from them as I do from the Market [Interviewer's note: Blanche Norwood and Walter Atwater]. I go to the Market as well. I get all my cheese from the Market now and all kinds of odds and ends. But anyway, it was a natural to me, you know. I knew these people, why not? It keeps somebody in the community; it made sense. In that regard it was obviously fresher. Sometimes they call up and say, "We’re going to plant. What do you want," you know? So both in market and out of market I’ve been dealing with these people since way before I came to Crook’s Corner.
Often when I’ve spoken to farmers about their relationships with chefs they say, “I’ve been influenced by chefs. They tell us what they would like and we see if we can accommodate that.” How have the farmers influenced your cooking? Is there a reciprocation here?
Sure. In fact, there’s a big one. [Laughs] Like those peppers you saw in the thing I didn't expect those, but now they’re going to go on the menu this week. Yeah. I go out of my way actually to see what there is. I mean like I say our menu is not fixed. It can be anything any time. So I always go and see what there is. And then that’s what we do, you know. I don’t say bring me, you know, fifty pounds of lima beans. Like if they have that that day good. That’s what we’ll do and if they don’t then we don’t, you know.
But so, yeah. One thing I got in the winter I get a lot of hams from Eliza McLean [Interviewer's note: Eliza McLean of Cane Creek Farm]. How can I not think of that? [Laughs] You know Eliza. And there’s an Eastern North Carolina specialty called corned ham and I always use Eliza’s hams to make that. And I do that because she’s there, you know, because she has these, you know. I mean I might have done it anyway but I’m very pleased to be able to take her hams and turn them into something that I grew up with.
All these wonderful cheeses they make here, I almost always have some of those on the menu somewhere, you know, and I do it because they’re here. I wouldn’t have sent off to France for Camembert and stuff—but because we have, you know, Carolina Moon she calls it here, which is fabulous, you know. I put it on the menu, so—. And then vegetables, they just show up like I said. You know, gosh, there’s so many people I deal with but Walter Atwater he’s probably almost ninety and he—“You want any Swiss chard?” I say “Well no, Walter. I didn't really count on it.” He says, “Well I got a lot.” He said, “I’m just going to plow it under if you don’t get it.” I said, “All right, Walter. I’ll—.” That kind of thing. And you know, you can do something with it, sure. [Laughs]
Is there any vegetable or story involving a vegetable, say a farmer had x and you decided to take on the challenge of cooking that. Is there anything that was particularly challenging that was locally grown and you kind of just took by chance and tried to make something of it?
So people would always bring me all their weird peppers, not even just this guy but other people too. Betsy will come in, she works here; “I’ve got all these peppers. Do you want them?” “Yeah, sure.” And they’re all weird shapes and different kinds and different colors and there’s not really enough of any one to do anything particular with, so I thought okay, I’ll make piperade which is that French thing—that’s peppers and onions [Interviewer's note: piperade is made of peppers, onions and sometimes tomatoes. It is cooked down and seasoned with herbes de Provence and is usually served as a sauce or relish]. So I am now going to make piperade out of those peppers and I also used all the scraps from all the tomatoes we have. [Laughs] You know, we slice tomatoes and we usually have the tops and the bottoms but you can mince them up and so I’m very pleased with the piperade and I put a can of Mexican hominy in it, so I’ve said I’ve invented something out of sort of circumstances. [Laughs]
And everybody goes, "Oh, what in the world is this?" And I said, "Just piperade with hominy, you know." But I didn't set out to make that. I just—what am I going to do? Here let’s make that, you know. Does that make sense or not, you know? [Laughs]
I was hoping you would describe what the Farmers’ Market was like when it started in the late ‘70s and then through the ‘80s.
Well it was in a different place. It was beside the Rescue Squad in Carrboro. It’s much smaller. It was only on Saturday instead of Saturday and Wednesday and there weren't all these offshoots. You know, there’s a whole bunch of other ones around now. I never get to go to the rest of them but—Ken was there and Kathy Jones was there and Bill Dow was there and Alex and Betsy were there [Interviewer's note: Ken Dawson and Alex and Betsy Hitt]. It was considerably smaller, but the same vibe, you know, pretty much.
All of those farmers have gotten a lot sort of more accomplished over the years obviously, I mean weather accepting, you know, but by and large they’ve learned a way to grow in bulk and to keep the quality high and everything is always clean which was not always the case to start with because a lot of people thought if it was organic it had to be filthy, you know, like leave dirt all over the—. [Laughs] That’s true. I mean I would sort of pull it out with this dirt clinging to the roots out of, you know, grocery bags in my kitchen and get sand everywhere. So anyway it’s a lot more professionally done and they figured out how to grow more and I think they probably widowed out things that weren't practical. And I talked to Betsy Hitt a lot. You know, she grows the flowers. I mean she’s one of the people that grows flowers and she’s always talking about—"Well, those were nice but they didn't produce properly or they took too much water or they weren't reliable enough or like some years they didn't do anything." And so I’m thinking everybody does that.
I wanted to ask you briefly, could you describe your relationship with farmer Bill Dow?
Yeah. I’ve known Bill forever. He was one of the first people that would come around and deliver. See that was the big deal.
I don’t remember how we met. I think he just showed up. That’s often the case. People just came or called or whatever. The main thing I remember about my relationship with Bill was that I suggested he grow fennel. Now fennel grows very well in North Carolina but it wasn’t part of the regular vegetables that were grown here in the South. I had always felt like people like my grandmother, if they had known about fennel, they would have used it but it just wasn’t habit—you know, accustomed to grow it. And he just has gone great guns with fennel. He does beautiful fennel now. [Laughs] And has it, you know, into the early summer usually every year.
Returning back to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market would you describe what a typical Saturday looks like for you when you head to the Market?
It really depends on what I need that day, how busy I am. I guess the weather to some degree and the season as well. One thing I love about the Market, and there are a couple of times when this happens, is that I love it when as you approach it you can already see all the flowers or you can smell something that's there. There’s a certain couple of weeks when you can smell the strawberries from the street. That’s a good time to go.
I’m usually in a big hurry. I’m usually late. I'm on my bicycle. I go tearing down I guess Jones Ferry Road and I go in that entrance. And I've usually order my cheese in advance. If I’m getting a ham from Eliza I’ve already ordered that too. I run around and see who has got what after that and I don’t know.
And every once in a while I won't have ordered anything and so I don’t really have to go and sometimes I don’t, but I try to go almost every week. I like to get a lot of stuff from April McGregor, Farmer’s Daughter. I use lot of her things. Lately I’ve been using her pickled blueberries on the cheese plate, actually. You know you want a little something on these cheese plates, a little bit of fruit or something or relish or whatever and so her pickled blueberries have been there lately.
I also usually buy one of those Sunshine buns and that’s sort of my breakfast as I walk about. And then Sam is there from Pig and so now every once in a while I get hotdogs for breakfast because he’s got his little hotdog cart. [Laughs] That’s actually a good way to start the day because they say you need to eat something in the morning and I’m not really a big fan of breakfast but that’s also to get me going.
How do you think the Carrboro Farmers’ Market contributes to the sense of community in the Carrboro/Chapel Hill area?
It’s huge I think. Everybody tries to go every week if they can—or at least the people I know. I mean, it’s on everyone’s list if they have time. I think if people are entertaining on the weekend they certainly try to go to bring their guests or to pick up things to feed their guests. I see us all—the restaurants and the farmers and the cheese makers, and all this, I see us all as sort of a community. And that’s the touchstone for everybody, perhaps. But it’s sort of a central part of this sort of this whole thing in all of us that we do here and why it’s such a strong scene and, you know, why we’re so successful and why we’re so well known for it. It’s an important link, you know, in that sort of chain of things that make the food thing around here so remarkable. I think it’s remarkable. [Laughs]
And when we’re thinking about the community of the Farmers’ Market and how it’s related to home consumers and restaurants what do you value most about the Carrboro Farmers’ Market?
Like with everything, the friends you make, you know. That’s the most important thing. People always say, "What’s the best part about the dinner?" And it’s always the company. You know, it’s not the food [Laughs] and it’s the same thing. I mean it’s the people you become involved with. And we support one another and encourage one another and, you know, that sort of thing. It just seems like a natural to me but that’s the best part, and I mean all the good stuff you get from it is almost a byproduct of the camaraderie or whatever, so.
Is there anything else that you would like to add to this oral history or anything that you think that I didn't bring up in our conversation that should be noted?
Well I don’t know. I don’t know if I stressed enough that how cool I think the interaction between all the different components of this food scene here are. I want to make sure everyone realizes that it’s a very good thing. It’s good for sort of the spirit of the place we live in I think. It’s like the music scene here; it's an equivalent to me of one of the things that makes this like a fantastic place to live. We’re so lucky to be here I think. And I think it’s gratifying that these people have made—I mean Ken Dawson put like his daughters through college on that farm of his and I think that’s a remarkable thing. [Laughs] I think we owe it to him to buy his tomatoes as long as he wants to sell them just for perseverance. They’ve deliberately, it seems to me, chosen a modest life with hard work and I find that admirable, you know.
Well thank you very much, and that concludes our interview for today.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.