“What kept me going all those years, frankly, was all these delightful people I was working with,” he said. “Because you know, in a restaurant, you might as well be in a coal mine. It’s relentless — 80-hour weeks.”
Mr. Smith has been self-isolating in his Chapel Hill house in response to the coronavirus, riding his bicycle when he gets the chance. He is worried about his unemployed friends in the hospitality business.
“No one has any money,” he said. Crook’s Corner is closed because of the health crisis.
Although the restaurant is synonymous with Mr. Smith, he was never an owner. It was opened in 1985 by Gene Hamer and Bill Neal, a chef revered for marrying traditional Southern recipes and French technique. Mr. Smith got his start as a chef working for Mr. Neal, and became head chef in 1991, when Mr. Neal died of AIDS.
Mr. Smith was regarded by some as an interloper. “It took a good while for people to accept me,” he said.
Before he began cooking, he recalls, he was “a very good hippie” and a founder of Cat’s Cradle, an influential local music club that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. His collection of rock-tour shirts, many of them sauce-stained, can be found in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina.
“I was never a chef’s-whites guy,” he said.
Over the years, Mr. Smith created new standards at Crook’s Corner, like fried oysters with garlic mayonnaise and honeysuckle sorbet. He is asked to make Atlantic Beach Pie, a lemon pie with a saltine crust, so often that he refers to it as “that stupid pie.”
Corned ham was never a regular menu item at Crook’s. “We’d do it as a special a few times a year, usually on a Saturday, when we knew there would be enough people to eat it up,” he said. “It had a following.”