Chef Bill Smith tried, he really did. He tried to keep things traditionally Southern at Crook’s Corner, the award-winning restaurant he’s been cooking for in Chapel Hill for the last 21 years. But then he began to wonder what “Southern” really meant, and that’s when things got interesting.
The first time Smith deliberately integrated the flavors from his Mexican kitchen staff into a dish it was 1998 and came in the form of a mango salad with lime and cayenne. He was already devoted to Mexican fare, in love with the tamales his workers brought in for lunch and a huge fan of provincial Mexico—his vacation spot of choice. Smith, who was raised in eastern North Carolina, felt he could justify it since after all, mangoes grow in Florida, and that’s a Southern state, right? Just because Crook’s was famed for more Carolinian dishes like fried oysters and Hoppin’ John didn’t mean Smith couldn’t push and prod a little at what folks considered Southern.
But what started with an experiment of lime and mango has resulted in a menu that is seasoned throughout with influences from his Mexican staff.
“I’ve actually done everything to not do it, because we’re a Southern restaurant,” Smith insists. “It just happens, it’s not intentional. But food is notorious for that. I call it recipe drift.”
It’s not that the restaurant should be called Esquina de Crook’s, but dishes like country ham and chili tamales or pork shanks braised with tomatillos are no longer experimental.
“Maseca is in everything,” Smith said, referring to the instant corn masa flour he was first inspired to consider in Louisiana years ago. It is now a staple in all the seafood dredges.
His “renegade” approach to culinary integration has been well received by his colleagues. Consider that in 2011 Crook’s won the James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classic Award, a major clue that he hasn’t committed too many culinary transgressions. He was also chosen to prepare the opening dinner at Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium last year, whose theme was “The Welcome Table.”
“The welcome table now includes immigrants,” Smith said. North Carolina alone is home to nearly one million Latinos, comprising nearly 10 percent of the state’s population. Smith made a point of acknowledging the prowess and influence of his staff before the 400 foodies gathered in Oxford that afternoon.
And how have the locals responded? Smith has seen the evolution of the Southern palate first hand: “The first thing I noticed was that people stopped complaining about things being too spicy.”
When asked if he speaks Spanish his response is quick. “Me, are you kidding? I speak Spanish all day long.” Albeit it Mexican street Spanish. “It’s stuff I don’t say in English, quite frankly,” he chuckles. “All of my recipe books are in English and in Spanish.”
Wearing his signature Human Rights Campaign baseball hat, black Converse sneakers, and jeans, Smith revels in the community he has built within the very, very small confines of the Crook’s kitchen. Most of his staff are middle-aged men who emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and have been with him for well over a decade. Through the years, he has helped sponsor citizenship for many such workers.
Last holiday season, about a week before Christmas, Smith gushed, very much the proud abuelo, about the fact he had “14 kitchen babies” to buy gifts for this year.
When asked about Smith, his workers, even the quiet ones, are happy to look you in the eye and say how much they appreciate working with him. Hector Gonzalez has worked at Crook’s since 2000, echoed what the rest of his staff had to say about their jefe.
“He always tries to help us,” he said. “It’s a little bit different here. We feel more like family here.”
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