It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the “food scene” in the Triangle went from good to great! But we’re there now and the rest of the country is taking note. Some of the most prestigious awards for restaurants and chefs come from the James Beard Foundation in New York. The tops in the food world will soon celebrate their James Beard Awards in “Oscars-like” style. And that will include the crew at Crook’s Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill.
It’s a Sunday night at Crooks’ Corner in Chapel Hill and it’s busy – the line for dinner is just out the front door – under the pink fiberglass pig and the hub-caps along the outside wall. Head Chef Bill Smith is darting back and forth – from the kitchen to the dining room, saying hello to guests. He probably knows everybody there and has also probably fed them dozens of times. Still – the modest Smith can’t believe the news – Crook’s has won a James Beard Award.
"You know it came sort of came from out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting it. But I think we probably earned this one. Ha, Ha!"
Last week, The James Beard Foundation announced Crooks’s Corner is one of five eateries in the country to receive a 2011 America’s Classics Award. America’s Classics is a “hall-of-fame-like” collection of restaurants known for quality food and lasting appeal. Bill Smith.
"Well I feel like we are really a part of the fabric of this community. I really feel that very strongly. I feel like I’m giving a dinner party every night…everybody is welcomed here and I want everyone to have a good time and then have a good dinner and I think that’s surely reason enough."
The kitchen moves to a Mexican beat – working to get hot plates out! They’re already out of tamales AND green Tabasco chicken. And there are three artichokes left! Gayle Murrell is also coming in and out of the kitchen. She has worked for Crook’s for a dozen years
"Tonight I am managing, some nights’ I’m bartending, some nights I’m waiting tables. And I’ll even host when I need to host. So name the night and I’ll name the job."
Murrell calls the James Beard Award awesome. She says all of her years at Crook’s hasn’t made it any easier choosing a favorite dish.
"When I sit down to dinner I have to look at the menu like everyone else does and make a decision because it always changes. There are things I look forward to every year like soft-shell crab and honeysuckle sorbet and I’m always happy to see them back."
But there is one thing that NEVER leaves the menu – original Chef Bill Neal’s “Shrimp and Grits.” And in just a few minutes – this helping of shrimp and grits is headed to Crook’s Corner General Manger and owner – Gene Hamer. He’s been trying to get a plate all night – giving his original plate away to a hungry customer.
"I'’m a plain grits kind of guy. Cheese grits, I like but I like just plain grits with salt and pepper and a pat of butter," Hamer says.
Yeah, me too.
"That’s what I grew up on, I grew up on cheese grits."
Crook’s has been around for nearly 30 years. Hamer gives a lot of the credit for the award to his long-time chefs.
"It’s a wonderful recognition and we’re all excited about it. Bill Smith has done a wonderful job over the past 18 years, and before him, Bill Neal."
Crook’s Corner already knows it’s a James Beard winner – but there are other restaurants in the Triangle area up for other honors at the Lincoln Center awards ceremony on May 9th. In fact – almost half of the semi-finalists for Best Chef in the Southeast are from the Triangle.