By Maggie Cagney
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
From the honeysuckle sorbet made fresh from local flowers, to an eastern Carolina corned ham, chef Bill Smith of Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner has gained widespread recognition for his Southern cooking.
“27 Views of Chapel Hill,” a recently published book featuring a collection of stories and essays from Chapel Hill writers, contains a selection of stories from Smith’s blog, “A Year In The Kitchen (And On The Road).”
“I was flattered that [the book’s publisher] asked me because there are a lot of good writers in the book and it was nice to be in good company,” Smith said.
The book’s selection describes Smith’s experiences while picking blackberries and honeysuckle blossoms in the summer on a local bike path that connects Carrboro and Chapel Hill.
“A lot of the same people use the path every day, going to work and school,” he said. “It was very interesting because they would see me and they would stop and ask what I’m doing.”
Smith said he would visit the path every day, picking blackberries and honeysuckle flowers for his famous honeysuckle sorbet, a recipe that has become a staple at the restaurant.
Not only has Smith’s distinctive cooking gained local recognition, but Crook’s Corner has also won numerous awards for Smith’s cooking and his dedication to the community.
Last year, the James Beard Foundation honored the restaurant with the America’s Classics Award, a citation Smith calls the “Oscars of restaurants.”
“You’re recognized for your longevity, your quality and your community – which is actually the most important part to me,” he said.
Smith said he is attentive to his customers’ needs and consistently changes the menu based on what people are buying – which could be why he sees so many regulars from Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
“More people live in Carrboro compared to the west end of Chapel Hill,” he said. “There are people that come in here all the time, and I look forward to seeing them. I sort of feel like a host as well as a chef.”
Smith said he has also formed strong relationships with farmers and specialty food store owners in Carrboro and Chapel Hill from whom he buys many of his ingredients.
“I’ve known the farmers at the farmers’ market for forever,” Smith said. “I want to support the valiant farmers.”
Smith said farmers will often come to the back door of the restaurant to bring him ingredients for his menu.
Sheila Neal, Carrboro resident and co-owner of Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, knows the restaurant very well. Neal is married to Matt Neal, son of Bill Neal, who was the founding chef of Crook’s Corner.
“Bill takes the stuff he gets from the farmers and turns it into a great starter,” said Neal.
Smith said he has been getting his meat for many years from Cliff Collins, owner of Cliff’s Meat Market in Carrboro.
Collins said, “Bill’s a really nice guy who knows what he’s doing. He’s a plain guy, but he has so much knowledge.”
When it comes to the cuisine, Smith said simplicity is key.
“I’ve taken to doing very simple things, and then people watch you do it and they take down the recipe and go home and make it,” he said. “But it’s got to be good because that’s the most important thing.”
Smith said he has brought a fair amount of recipes from his North Carolina coastal hometown, New Bern, to Crook’s Corner.
“When I was in grammar school and until I was in junior high school, my great-grandmother cooked lunch every day, and everybody would come to her house for lunch from school or work,” he said. “It was a good foundation for this restaurant since this is a Southern restaurant.”
Whether it’s Smith’s savory banana pudding, or the upside-down cakes he loved as a child, his customers always enjoy a traditional meal.
“Bill has wonderful stories about growing up in New Bern, and I love that he is always keeping up with tradition,” Neal said.
“This is really a very hard job, honestly,” Smith said. “But it’s things like [the people] that make it more pleasant, sort of feeling involved. And you really do get to know people.”
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