BILL SMITH has cooked memorable suppers for most everyone who lives, farms nearby or visits the good life we have here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He is as well known for a New York Times Notable and Food & Wine Best-of-the-Best cookbook, Seasoned in the South, as for the way he tends to remember his customers' favorite dishes.
In both 2009 and 2010, the James Beard Awards named Bill Smith in the final four for Best Chef Southeast. And in 2010, The James Beard Foundation nominated Crook's Corner a Best Restaurant in the US.
For the past 17 years, Bill Smith has faithfully continued the traditions established by founding chef Bill Neal, while creating delicious, original dishes that have become classic -- if not iconic -- Southern dishes; on Bill Smith's seasonal menu, among his exceptional take on Soft Shell Crabs and Fried Oysters and Gumbos are singularly Bill Smith dishes, like House-cured Corned Hams, Green Tabasco Chicken, I *Heart* Cheese Pork! and, of course, Honeysuckle Sorbet.
Smith's stories and recipes are an open book, available in Seasoned in the South and on his blog, A Year in the Kitchen (and on the Road). A writer as well as an intuitive chef, his essays (commenting on such 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") have been featured in newspapers, radio, and television. In his book and blog -- and on the Crook's menu -- there is genius in his sense of economy, flavors and storytelling, for even the simplest of dishes, "Fresh Tomato Pasta" and "Fish in Paper," or, the more complicated, "How to use a Whole Duck."
As pastry chef at Crook's, Bill Smith's dessert explorations are often inspired by customers' family recipes. For the past few years, Bill Smith has become enamored with variations of ice cream and old-fashioned layer cakes. A surprise ice cream or sorbet hits the menu week after week. Molly O'Neill's USA-wide community cookbook One Big Table shares Bill Smith's recipe for Strawberry Buttermilk Sherbert, inspired by Donna Florio. And Nancie McDermott featured Bill Smith's Sweet Potato Pie in her 2010 collection, Southern Pies.
Bill Smith's latest writing topic is Immigrants in the Kitchen -- recipes and social commentary interwoven with his travel journals from such places as Mexico City and Celaya to visit former staff. He recently was interviewed on this topic for a much-discussed article in the Journal of Southern Cultures "Taking the Heat and Dishing it Out in a Nuevo-New-South Kitchen." The Summer 2010 edition of The Southern Foodways Alliance journal, Gravy, featured Bill Smith's essay on his kitchen staff.
And Mexico's influence on Bill Smith's Southern menu shows up in unexpected ways: Look out for The Tamale Plate (a trio of Banana Leaf- and Husk-wrapped wonders from two Southern states and Oaxaca); Mango and Cayenne Salad; and Pork Rinds!
A little clarified history here: Smith cooked with Bill Neal, when he was at the Neal's French restaurant, La Residence; Bill Smith joined Crook's co-founder Gene Hamer at Crook's Corner in 1993. It's true that Bill Smith founded the Cat's Cradle in the 1970s and it's here he builds on perhaps the most extensive-ever, rock-band, T-shirt collection. Smith's musical, literary and culinary interests may explain why he's been called Chapel Hill's most quintessential resident.
In 2010, Bill Smith joined the Board of Directors for the Southern Foodways Alliance. Also in 2010, three of his recipes were selected for the Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook: Jerusalem Artichoke Relish and his Tomato and Watermelon Salad that has inspired so many variations.