Iconic Chapel Hill Restaurant Owner 'Mama Dip' Dies At 89

May 22, 2018

The cover of Mildred Council's book, 'Mama Dip's Kitchen,' published in 1999, The University of North Carolina Press.
Credit Leoneda Inge

The matriarch of a long-time Chapel Hill restaurant has died. 

Mama Dip's Kitchen specialized in soul food. Fried chicken, pulled barbecue, greens, cornbread, and pecan pie were always on the menu. She will be remembered for her work ethic, her kindness, and her fried chicken.

Mama Dip's real name was Mildred Council. She earned the nickname "Dip" because her arms were long enough to scoop water from the bottom of her family's water barrel. She would grow to be 6 feet 1 inch tall. Her children began calling her "Mama Dip," and so did her legion of fans who ate at her restaurant regularly, including Tar Heel basketball greats Michael Jordan and James Worthy.

Council cooked for students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at the Carolina Inn for years before bringing her style of southern comfort food to her own restaurant on Rosemary Street in 1976.

"I see people that ate with me, they bringing their kids back here to UNC you know. They're bringing their children back here," Council said in 2004 on WUNC.

It is reported Council, the granddaughter of a slave, opened the restaurant in Chapel Hill with $40 to purchase food and $24 for change. Her first restaurant was so small that the line would stretch out the door. She moved across the street to a larger location in 1999.

"And it's a joy to see them, you know, how they have grow'd up," Council said. "And they looking at how we're in a new building and they say, 'Oh my God.'"

Catherine Cross Tsintzos was ordering a veggie plate to go on Monday afternoon. It was full of her favorites − squash casserole, turnip greens, okra, and tomatoes. She's eaten at both the old Mama Dip's Kitchen and this one. Tsintzos said she wondered if the restaurant would be open Monday after hearing of Council's passing Sunday night.

Annette 'Neecy' Council is one of Mama Dip's eight children who have worked, or still work at her iconic restaurant in Chapel Hill.
Credit Leoneda Inge

"And I thought, 'They're not even going to be open.' And then here you are!" said Tsintzos. 

"We're doing exactly what she would want us to do!" said Annette Council.

Annette Council, also known as "Neecy," is Mildred Council's seventh of eight children.

"Well, her Pecan Pie is my favorite," said Annette Council. "Me and my baby sister, we would eat up all the pies."

In Mama Dip's Kitchen, the small lobby area is filled with souvenirs, many bearing a photo of "Dip." There's the barbecue sauce and dressings and then the famous cookbooks, filled with hundreds of her favorite family recipes. And the walls are filled with many accolades, including kind words and photographs of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

In the kitchen, there are liver and onions on one stove, pork chops frying on another, and chicken being pulled off the bone for chicken and dumplings.

Four of the Council children have retired from the restaurant. Four still work there, and have for most of their lives. Annette Council said that last month, her mother celebrated her 89th birthday at the restaurant with close friends. Even at 89, Annette Council said her mama's death was a shock.

"My sister was there all day, mama just fine," she said. "She was talking about the royal wedding; she watched the whole thing, still talking about the royal wedding. And it was just her time, the heart gave out."

Around the corner from Mama Dip's Kitchen is Crook's Corner Restaurant. Chef Bill Smith said he is fond of Dip's fried chicken. He said Mildred Council was a celebrity chef before there were celebrity chefs. And nobody worked harder.

"She had a lot more trouble than I would have had because she was an African American woman, so she had lots more things up against her than I would have ever had," said Smith. "I always admired her. I've always said she was one of the people I took inspiration from, and I meant it."

In the book "Mama Dip's Kitchen," published in 1999, Mildred Council wrote, "I was born a colored baby girl in Chatham County, North Carolina, to Ed Cotton and Effie Edwards Cotton; grew up a Negro in my youth; lived my adult life Black; and am now a 70-year-old American."

"Mama Dip" was a beloved American. People of all colors and creeds drove hundreds of miles just for her southern food and hospitality.

Knox Funeral Home in Chapel Hill is handling the arrangements. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations go to the Mama Dip Share the Love Fund of Triangle Community Foundation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.