Some South for Your Mouth

How Corn Bread Cuisine Became Haute

When Bill Neal arrived at Duke as a freshman in the fall of 1967, the closest thing to fine dining in Durham was Hartman's Steak House on Geer Street. Serious gourmets traveled to New York or New Orleans to find a meal worth remembering.

These days, they make detours to dine in Triangle restaurants. Whether they feast on shrimp and grits and jalapeÒo hush puppies at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, revel in the green-tomato soup with crab and country ham at Durham's Magnolia Grill, or savor inventive and tasty food at restaurants from Charleston, South Carolina, to Oxford, Mississippi, satisfied diners owe a debt to Bill Neal. His legacy is receiving renewed attention more than a decade after his death from AIDS at the age of forty-one.

Bill Neal

Bill Neal.
Courtesy of Gene Hamer.

A passionate chef, inspiring mentor, and articulate chronicler of Southern fare, Neal made a mark with his Chapel Hill restaurants, La Rèsidence and, later, Crook's Corner, helping to blaze a trail that other talented cooks would soon follow. Going into the food business "wasn't what your parents sent you to Duke for," says Moreton Hobbs Neal '71, Bill Neal's classmate at Duke, his wife and business partner for eleven years, and, after their divorce, a friend. Cooking was regarded as blue-collar work, and the notion that running a restaurant could be intellectually stimulating seemed as far-fetched as the prospect of celebrating corn bread and black-eyed peas as haute cuisine.

Moreton Hobbs met Neal in French class at Duke. He was hard to miss, she recalls--his usual attire was a baggy red-and-yellow Hawaiian bathing suit. Soon they were dating and discovering a common interest in food, whether through their own experiments in dormitory kitchens or by exploring local restaurants using Neal's tip money from waiting tables at the Country Squire.

Bill and Moreton married their senior year at Duke. After a year of teaching high school, while Moreton stayed home with their first baby, Bill decided to pursue graduate work in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The couple began supplementing the family budget by catering for faculty members. Before long, the kitchen won out over the classroom, although Neal would always find great pleasure in quoting favorite writers, from Homer to Eudora Welty, in his conversation and his cookbooks.These adventures were augmented by visits to her family home in southern Mississippi, a short train ride from the celebrated French Creole restaurants of New Orleans. Day trips featuring breakfast at Brennan's, lunch at Gallatoire's, and dinner at Antoine's or Arnaud's opened new worlds for Bill Neal, whose dining-out memories from a childhood in the Carolina Piedmont centered on barbecue joints, fish camps, and other staples of rural Southern life. Later, both broadened their culinary horizons while putting all those French classes to use by dining their way through France.

Bill Neal dreamed of studying at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, but the need to support a growing family intervened, and his education as a chef came through on-the-job experience. Leaving graduate school, he signed on as an apprentice cook at Chapel Hill's Villa Teo, where, Moreton Neal writes, he was attracted by the glamour of the restaurant's exotic ambience and intrigued by "the 'demimonde' of a college-town restaurant kitchen teeming with highly educated eccentrics."

Within a year, he had risen to the position of chef de cuisine, and Moreton was cooking under a French chef at Hope Valley Country Club in Durham. By 1975, they were ready to open their own restaurant. The Neals constructed a menu by combining the cooking techniques they had learned on the job with the French practice of combing local markets for the best fresh food of the day. He ran the kitchen, while she took charge of desserts and, using an eye trained in art classes at Duke, supervised the dècor.

Their restaurant, La Rèsidence, opened in the main house of Jesse Fearrington's dairy farm, now Fearrington Village, just south of Chapel Hill. It moved two years later to a house on West Rosemary Street.

After the Neals divorced in 1982, Moreton managed the restaurant until 1992, when new owners took over. Seven years later, she says, they called to tell her they were thinking of selling, prompting her to rescue the stained and faded cards that recorded the recipes they developed in the early years of "La Res," as locals still call it.

Moreton says she had intended to save those recipes for herself and for the Neals' three children. But she realized that they reflected the essence of Bill's approach to food and decided to publish them. The result is a book in which she writes engagingly about the early years and about the challenges and rewards of a culinary career. Remembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) is a memoir and recipe compilation that complements Neal's own cookbooks. It includes more than 150 recipes, most previously unpublished, for dishes that Bill Neal perfected at La Rèsidence, Crook's Corner, and at home.

Bill's own books--Bill Neal's Southern Cooking; Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie; and Good Old Grits--have remained steady sellers, says David Perry, editor in chief of UNC Press. In many quarters, they are regarded as classics, especially Bill Neal's Southern Cooking, which was published in 1985, as interest in America's regional foods was influencing the restaurant scene in cities throughout the country. In 1989, UNC Press issued a revised and enlarged edition of the book, which Perry says has enjoyed "a bit of a resurgence" as more liberal-arts colleges add courses in food history and culture.

Kitchen crew: La Rèsidence, circa 1978

Kitchen crew: La Rèsidence, circa 1978. Courtesy of Moreton Neal

Bill Neal once described the volume as "a small personal book that looked back over 300 years of pioneer settlement, native displacement, and enslaved importation that created a cuisine unique among the food cultures of the world." It is also useful for contemporary cooks. Well-thumbed copies live on the shelves of almost any chef whose food retains a Southern flavor. At the nationally renowned Magnolia Grill, located on Ninth Street, just a few blocks from East Campus, chef-owners Ben and Karen Barker consider Bill Neal's Southern Cooking so "fundamentally important for its historical perspective," as Ben Barker puts it, that they often give copies to their new cooks.

"He was the king daddy and remains the king daddy in his influence," Barker says of Neal's legacy for chefs inspired by Southern traditions.

Bill Neal began cooking at a time when Americans were tiring of can-opener casseroles. "Remember," says Moreton Neal, "this was back when anything topped with a can of mushroom soup was the height of fine dining in most of the South."

Remembering Bill Neal-book cover

Restaurants like Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, were making a name for themselves by reintroducing diners to the memorable flavors of fresh, local ingredients. Chez Panisse and other restaurants helped make California cuisine famous. Meanwhile, chefs elsewhere--Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans, Jasper White in Boston, and Larry Forgione in New York, among others--were demonstrating that regions around the country had their own traditions to build upon. As Neal's career developed, he became a standard-bearer for a fresh take on the foods that reflect the traditions of the American South.

La Rèsidence gained a devoted following for its flavorful, mostly traditional French cuisine. But it was in the 1980s at Crook's Corner, his next restaurant venture, where he elevated a low-country fisherman's breakfast, shrimp and grits, to dizzying heights as one of the signature dishes of the Southern culinary renaissance.

The original version was usually nothing more than shrimp, grits, and salt. He dressed up the shrimp with bacon, sautèed mushrooms, garlic, and scallions and served it over stone-ground cheese grits. The reinvented dish was worthy of a white tablecloth.

This culinary renaissance celebrated the foods of Southern grandmothers, dishes that formed the backbone of the "rural, indigenous, pork-based, corn-heavy, poor Southern cuisine" that sustained an impoverished region after the Civil War, says R.W. Apple, an associate editor of The New York Times who writes frequently on culinary matters. In 1993, Apple covered a tribute dinner to Bill Neal at the James Beard House in New York City, planned and cooked by admiring chefs, several of them former apprentices. Each chef contributed to the meal his take on a dish by Neal. "The stellar lineup," Apple wrote, "showed how widely Mr. Neal's ideas have percolated through the South."

As John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, observes, "Bill Neal was one of the first chefs who, by way of what he cooked in his restaurants and what he wrote in his books, said to eaters and readers, 'These foods are of merit.' We're a region with many foibles and deep-seated problems. Yet blacks and whites can take pride together in what we wrought at the stove and what we served on the plate."

Like music, food offers a shared experience, a context for coming together in ways that create a stronger sense of community. Just as good music thrives on talent cultivated with creativity and leavened with intellect, the new respect accorded to traditional Southern foods gained depth and breadth as much from Neal's insatiable curiosity and sound research skills as from his gifted palate.

For Neal, the kitchen became another form of classroom--for his own exploration of food or for his lifelong love of teaching others. Working in his kitchen entailed a lot more than chopping vegetables, searing meat, or washing dishes.

"He really inspired cooks to read and think and analyze, to look at [their work] from an intellectual point of view," says Ben Barker of the Magnolia Grill. The Barkers never worked for Neal. Ben, a Chapel Hill native, wanted to return to the area and applied for a job at La Rèsidence soon after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1981. Neal turned him down, saying that, as a self-taught chef himself, he preferred not to hire graduates of culinary schools.

In hindsight, Barker says he doesn't disagree with the decision. "Most culinary-school graduates come across as fairly arrogant," he says. "It was important in that kitchen dynamic that there be one leader and one source of information."

Pastry pals: Moreton with chef Bill Smith at Crook's Corner

Pastry pals: Moreton with chef Bill Smith at Crook's Corner. Chris Hildreth

Soon after that, the Neals separated. Moreton Neal remained at La Rèsidence and hired Barker. "I could not have asked for a better kitchen to begin my culinary career in," Barker says of those post-Bill Neal days at La Rèsidence. "Even without him there, his aura permeated that place. It was very nearly physical--the way you approached the day and built a menu, how dishes evolved."

Robert Stehling, chef-owner of the highly touted Hominy Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, took a summer job washing dishes at Crook's Corner in 1982 while he was an undergraduate at UNC. He quickly became far more engaged "by cooking and the atmosphere at Crook's" than by his classes, he says. He dropped out of school and became one of several notable alumni of the kitchen at Crook's.

Stehling says that Neal liked to cook something for the staff and conduct discussions about it. What was the history of the dish? What was its place in Southern culture? Were the flavors interesting? Were they balanced? How could the dish be improved? "There was a lot of intellectual stimulation, a lot of creative stimulation," Stehling recalls. "It was really unique. I've worked in a lot of restaurants in twenty-three years. Nothing has matched that experience, not even my own restaurant, when you get to that level--the connection between what you eat and who you are, the experience of these dishes as products of where they came from."

John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, was another Crook's dishwasher who, like Stehling, went on to open his own acclaimed restaurant. He remembers Crook's in the years when Neal was writing his books and acting as a consultant rather than running the kitchen full time. Even then, Currence says, Neal was "happiest when he had an idea and went back to work in the kitchen." The work area would "take on an interesting, more flattering glow when he was in there, as if the kitchen warmed to him."

But that magnetic charm had a dark side, what Moreton Neal describes as a "legendary temper."

Young Entrepreneurs

Young Entrepreneurs. Courtesy of Moreton Neal.

Currence, who under Bill Neal's tutelage rose from dishwasher to kitchen manager, had a stormy parting of the ways with his mentor in 1989. It began on a Friday, Currence says, when he called Neal at home to consult on the flavoring for an acorn-squash soup and received a string of insults. It ended, he says, on Monday morning, when Neal responded to a request for an apology with another insult. Currence tossed his mug of coffee at Neal and walked out.

"The fact that I was able to glean as much wisdom [from him] in spite of how we parted says a great deal about how much he was able to offer," Currence says. His time at Crook's, he adds, "set the tone for what I would do professionally." Says Gene Hamer, who opened Crook's Corner with Neal and remains a mainstay there, Neal was "always challenging to his employees, [but] they respected him and loved to work for him."

Since 1992, Bill Smith has presided over the kitchen at Crook's. Smith, who spent seven years cooking at La Rèsidence before moving to Crook's, remains faithful to Neal's vision, consistently turning out the style and quality of food that first earned the restaurant a loyal following. Neal is still on the menu--not only with his shrimp and grits, still a much-requested entrèe, but also with other popular dishes such as Huguenot Torte, an apple torte that was Neal's favorite dessert, and pimento cheese, which is such a staple of Southern dining that Neal liked to call it "the p‚tè of the South."

Kathleen Purvis, food editor of The Charlotte Observer, says Neal's pimento cheese is a good example of what she means when she says that he "had perfect pitch when it came to flavor." His version follows traditional lines, with grated cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and chopped pimento, except that it adds a judicious dash of bourbon and a pinch of cumin and chili powder--a subtle surprise that Purvis pronounces "delightful."

Neal had equal success with the national press. In her book, Moreton Neal recalls the time, in 1984, that Craig Claiborne, then food critic for The New York Times, showed up in Chapel Hill to conduct research for an article on Southern food, and Bill led him on a tour of barbecue joints. Returning a year later, Claiborne ended up in the kitchen of Neal's small apartment, typing notes as Neal cooked, for the first time, his now famous version of shrimp and grits. Claiborne wrote a glowing article, proclaiming Neal "a genius at the stove," and ensuring a warm reception for the publication a few months later of Neal's first book, Bill Neal's Southern Cooking.

Phyllis Richman, who retired in 2000 after more than twenty-three years as restaurant critic for The Washington Post, recalls meeting Neal for the first time when he was signing copies of the book at a store near the Post's offices. She found him to be "extremely magnetic, a talker with that Southern way with words."

She, too, ventured down to North Carolina to dine at Crook's Corner. Like most every patron, she was charmed both by the funky atmosphere--a pink fiberglass pig is perched on the roof and hubcaps (presumably lost as cars rounded the corner) decorate the outside walls--and the "seriously good food."

Moreton Neal says that she and Bill left Duke after graduation as idealists, teachers who "wanted to change the world." As it turned out, Bill Neal did make a lasting mark, not in a classroom but in the kitchen. He showed that the dinner table can be its own kind of school--celebrating culture, inspiring young chefs, and nurturing a more vibrant community.

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