Saturday, February 11, 2006

Rebuilding New Orleans, One Restaurant at a Time

Crook's Corner was one of the very first restaurants I ate at in Chapel Hill. One of the RAs (Resident Advisors), Smith "the man with no first name" Hanes, marched the lot of us freshmen from Mangum Dorm all the way down to the west end of Franklin Street for a barbeque dinner at Crook's. That was the fall of 1978, which must have been within months of Cam Hill opening the place back up as a restaurant. That was also the last time I ate there for many, many years. In the interim, Bill Neal and Craig Claiborne made it world famous and made Shrimp'n'Grits a New Southern tradition and it became so popular (so "in" to be honest) that I didn't bother to do more than once or twice.

I first met Bill Smith when I was working the door at the Rhythm Alley in the early 80's - I knew he was a chef and that he would come in late and dance his ass off to the last couple of songs and the encore of whoever was playing on Saturday night. It wasn't until later that I found out that he was one of the original owners of Cat's Cradle, one of the longest running and best-known rawk clubs on the east coast.

Bill moved over from La Residence to Crook's Corner sometime after Bill Neal's death but as I was a vegetarian by that time and Bill was heavy into big meat on the menu, I never had the opportunity to check it out. That is until a few months ago, when I realized he'd added enough to the menu that it was worth a stop. The food, of course, was superb and it was nice being able to say howdy and talk a bit with Bill after dinner, especially as his cookbook was just about to come out. We also got added to the Crook's Corner mailing list and that's how we found out what Bill's up to this winter - helping rebuild restaurants in New Orleans. I'll let owner Gene Hamer and Bill tell it - what a great cause! -

Today, Bill Smith is leaving for New Orleans. He's helping with the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Project to rebuild restaurants. They've started on Dooky Chase's place and have also been working on Willie Mae's Scotch House. "They started working on Willie Mae's a month ago. She's quite old, 89," says Bill Smith. "Since Willie Mae's restaurant is coming along so well they've moved around to Dooky Chase's. She is something. A wonderful person. Gumbo Z'Herbes is her recipe." There is a weekly update on the SFA's New Orlean's Project at


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