Opened in 1982 by the late Bill Neal and Gene Hamer, Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill is a small café that has had a big effect. Neal, the founding chef, helped elevate Southern cuisine to national prominence with serious renditions of dishes that have become classics, like shrimp and grits. And over the course of its nearly forty years, the restaurant itself has become nothing short of a Southern institution.
After Neal’s death in 1991, he was followed by chef Bill Smith, who spent more than twenty-five years in the Crook’s kitchen and added such beloved dishes as his Green Tabasco chicken and salty/sweet Atlantic Beach pie.
Now the reins have been handed to the third chef in the restaurant’s lineage, Justin Burdett, who took over for Smith in January. At thirty-five, Burdett has already helmed one restaurant, the now-closed Local Provisions in Asheville. He did an early stint for Hugh Acheson at 5&10 in Athens, Georgia, and helped Steven Satterfield open Miller Union in Atlanta. He even won an episode of Chopped on the Food Network. Still, taking over at Crook’s Corner? That’s no small amount of pressure. As Burdett settles into the tiny kitchen on West Franklin Street, we caught up with him to see how it’s going and what’s in store for the new era.
When Bill Smith followed Bill Neal, he did an amazing high-wire act: He honored and paid homage to Neal while making room for his own imprint. What’s the toughest part of being the third act?
There are the Bill Neal things that stay on the menu, and that’s good because it’s built in and I don’t have to stress about that. When we did start changing, though, people were like, “Well, what about the Green Tabasco chicken?” Even Bill Smith took it off the menu sometimes. It’s coming back. I’m just giving it a break. People assume that if I change some stuff, the stuff they loved, they think it’s never coming back. Green Tabasco chicken is coming back. Persimmon pudding is coming back, people.
What’s the iconic Crook’s Corner dish you love the most?
Shrimp and grits is always great. That goes back forever. I like the persimmon pudding when it’s around [in the fall], but I was the one who had the daunting task of pureeing all the persimmons last year. I hate making it, but I love eating it. I love the cracker plate [an appetizer with crackers, pimento cheese, crudités, and pepper jelly]. It was the first thing I ate at Crook’s. It’s so simple, but I still gravitate toward it because it was my first bite of Crook’s.
Bill Neal focused on classic Southern cuisine. Bill Smith kept that and added his own touches. What are you planning to add to the lineup?
Once the season gets rolling, pretty produce-driven tends to be my style, obviously with Southern ingredients and local ingredients. It tends to be more vegetable-oriented.
What was your family’s cooking like? Is there something from your childhood that you’ll bring to the restaurant?
I’ve done some renditions on chicken and dumplings. That was the first thing I learned to make when I was a kid. So I’ve done chicken terrines with mirepoix and Parisian-style gnocchi instead of the classic dumplings. I grew up in middle of nowhere, Georgia. My grandmother is the one who taught me how to cook. She’ll be 90 on the Fourth of July. I learned a lot from her: biscuits, chicken and dumplings, turnip greens. I love greens and salad. I love vegetables. I tend to stay away from the old-school thought that everything has to have a starch on the plate.
You’ve experienced highs, like when Local Provisions was named one of Eater’s best new restaurants. And lows: Local Provisions closed despite the acclaim. What did you learn that will shape your approach at Crook’s?
Never be the owner. Because when something breaks, you have to go fix it. Basically, if you’re the owner, you’re a glorified maintenance man. As far as cooking, it taught me to have a little more restraint. I was doing very frou-frou food, which I still love. As cooks, you get really excited and you want to do a little too much. Working with Bill [Smith] and seeing the simplicity and seeing that’s what people love—I’ve had so many colleagues say that Cheese Pork [one of Smith’s regular dishes] is the best thing in the world. It’s just pork and cabbage and madeira sauce, but everyone flips over it. It’s taught me how simple food can be and still be highly regarded.
What’s your personal goal? How will you know you pulled it off?
I don’t think you ever know if you pulled it off. I feel like I can do it justice. There are a lot of similarities in Bill’s and my cooking. As long as the guests love it and we’re still putting asses in chairs, I’ll know it’s good. Change is always scary for people. But it’s still Crook’s Corner. It’s not going anywhere.