THE CROOK’S CORNER STORY
29 YEARS/ TWO CHEFs
In the late 1940's, Rachel Crook ran a fish market & cafe where Crook's currently stands: at the corner of West Franklin Street and Merritt Mill Road just before the West End of Chapel Hill ends and turns into the town of Carrboro.
In 1951, at this intersection, Rachel Crook was murdered. The case was never solved.
Since then the Crook's building has served as a taxi stand, bait & tackle shop, pool hall and then, for years stood deserted. In 1978, Cam Hill (a local boy & former Town Council Member) remodeled the dilapidated building and opened a BBQ house.
Soon after, in 1982, Bill Neal and Gene Hamer thought this the perfect venue to pursue Southern cuisine. Neal wrote several acclaimed cookbooks, including Bill Neal's Southern Cooking and Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie and placed Crook's on the culinary map. Crook's has the reputation for being "the birthplace of Shrimp and Grits." The often copied dish became famous after Craig Claiborne wrote about it in The New York Times. It's still wildly popular and Crook's has served it in the late chef's style now for more than 25 years.
Bill Smith came to Crook's from the Bill and Moreton Neal-established La Residence restaurant by way of the Cat's Cradle, which he co-founded in the 1970's. His musical, literary and culinary interests may explain why the Sanford Herald called him "Chapel Hill's most quintessential resident." A writer as well as an intuitive chef, his essays (commenting on such profound pleasures as "Cuisine de Gran Mere and Covered-dish Suppers," "Why Collards May Have Saved the South and are a New Year's Tradition," "Foraging for Flowers to make Honeysuckle Sorbet") are often featured in newspapers and on radio and television.
Seasoned in the South, Bill Smith's collection of more than 100 recipes and stories from his life growing up in Eastern North Carolina to years in the kitchen at Crook's Corner was published in the fall of 2005 by Algonquin, a division of Workman. What is unusual about this book is that the recipes (reliable) and stories (mostly true) are grouped by the ingredients of each of the four seasons and show the genius of many quickly prepared and delicious dishes such as Fresh Tomato Pasta or Fish in Paper. It also clearly explains more complicated creative economies such as "How to use a Whole Duck."
The menu posted daily on the web site consistently offers some of Bill Neal's classic recipes: Shrimp and Grits, Mount Airy Chocolate Souffle Cake, Princess Pamela's Buttermilk Pie, Hoppin' John and Jalapeno Hushpuppies. Season and market permitting other Neal recipes such as Persimmon Pudding come and go. The Crook's menu is now also well known for such Bill Smith's seasonal dishes such as Soft Shell Crabs, Fried Oysters, Aunt Hi's Oyster Stew, Carolina Moon from Chapel Hill Creamery served as a crotin with the freshest vegetables, Sweetbreads, Green Tabasco Chicken, House Cured Corned Ham on many Saturdays, Steaks with Bourbon Sauce, three and a half seasons worth of Goat Cheese Salads with toasted pumpkin seeds and cooked market vegetables .... and of course Bill Smith's inventive ice creams and sorbets and old-fashioned desserts.
Gene Hamer has kept everything working for the past 30 years, including the dining room/art gallery. The exhibits give the dining room at Crook's a new look each month. There are many artistic mainstays that the Chapel Hill News said are now landmarks: the hubcaps on the outside of the building, the Clyde Jones critters in the garden, Bob Gaston's fountain in the the bamboo lined Patio and definitely his Pink Pig on the roof.
The James Beard Foundation awarded Crook's a 2011 America's Classic Award for "Timeless appeal, beloved for quality of food that reflects the character of their community." We are very proud of the recognition.
"We count ourselves lucky to have had and have good people working here, some for a long time," Gene Hamer explains. "And two great chefs - Bill Neal for the first 10 and Bill Smith ever since.