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RESTAURANTS: Crook’s Corner (Chapel Hill, NC)
EXPERIENCE: La Résidence (Chapel Hill, NC)
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
Now that I’m the boss, I always hearken back to the food of my youth. My great-grandmother was the biggest influence on me as a cook. She taught me to expect food to always be good. I also worked for Bill Neal at La Résidence. In Bill’s kitchen, we were encouraged to observe and learn on the go.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
I’m a really informal and seat-of-the-pants chef, so it changes. Something we’ve got on the menu right now that suits my style: a picnic plate of cold fried chicken, a slice of watermelon, some potato salad and deviled eggs. It’s like something from a church picnic: real Southern, real easy and everyone loves it. We only offer it in the summer.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
I remember being on a Boy Scouts camping trip. We made a pineapple upsidedown cake using Bisquick in a Dutch oven at a campfire. It worked, and I couldn’t believe it.
I’d tell a neophyte to pick something they really like and maybe something they remember from childhood. There are a lot of simple cakes that are very satisfying.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
It would be my family. There is so much good food I grew up with. Among my favorites: hard crab stew, which is such a mess to eat, so we only have it a few times a year. You have to eat it outside on a table covered with newspaper.
Favorite cookbook of all time.
The Joy of Cooking 50th Anniversary Edition. It has a lot of old basic stuff but is also sort of modern. It has features like know your ingredients and measurements and conversions, but also directions on how to boil water, make ice cream and clean a fish. Whenever a friend gets married, I always try to find a copy of it. It’s absolutely elemental.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
You need to know restraint and to be a good observer.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Lots of things. I went to Japan a few years ago and I wish I knew how to make Japanese food. I wish I knew more about Asian cooking in general. I enjoy it and haven’t had time to learn it.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Corn. It’s so versatile. I’ve just steamed corn for gazpacho, and made corn and green bean salads; tomorrow we’ll serve roasted corn as a side and fried pies with sweetened ground-up corn, something I discovered from Mexican cuisine. My default fried mix for catfish is half ground Mexican corn and half self-rising flour. I use it for everything.
What is your current food obsession?
I’m about to make myself sick eating fried chicken crust that falls off. I also love uni; whenever I’m in New York, I have uni for breakfast.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
I’m on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance so I travel around the south and have met lots of young, tattooed chefs that are working so hard. If I had my way, I’d go around and visit a lot of them.
Jason Alley has a place called Pasture in Richmond, Virgina, that I’d love to go to. The Ordinary in Charleston, Mike Lata’s new place. He was the chef at Fig, which I’ve been going to for years.
Tandy Wilson’s City House in Nashville. I’ve had drinks there, but I’d love to go back and have dinner with him.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I go to Mexico frequently because a lot of my staff is from there. Most of the guys who work for me come from north central Mexico. I love Oaxaca for the art and culture, and Mexico City. I have a friend who works in a pork rind factory and another who has a meat market. Mexico is amazing and has fascinating food: The markets blow you away.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I’ve got charms and masks from Mexico, made out of old gum wrappers and magazines. I have an angel mask with an Elvis Presley hairdo from Oaxaca. From Ecuador, I love a painting I bought from an art student, of an archangel holding a musket.
What do you consider your other talents besides cooking?
I like to garden, although I don’t have much time for it. I’m sort of a bon vivant; I love going to see bands and indie rock. I love the music of West and North Africa, and the ballet and opera and going to Venice.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
It would be similar to Crook’s Corner, but open only two or three days a week. We’d have just a few things on the menu, but with all the staff that’s with me now. We’d do really good food, not too expensive, but with no shortcuts. It would be on the beach at Cape Hatteras.
If you were going to take Tony Bourdain out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take Anthony Bourdain with me to my ciceroneria in Mexico. It’s a store where you can drink beer and eat pork rinds while they work.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d want to bring practical things, so I’d pack butter, salt, flour, lemon and bacon, plus little kits of ramen to eat in the sun. What I’d make depends on how long the emergency lasts.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I keep waiting for veal to come back. In the 1970s, veal was a big deal. Then it became incorrect, but I’m sure there’s humane veal now and it seems to me to be undersung. Maybe some food from Brazil as well. A country that complicated, with that kind of music, art and writers, I suspect will have an interesting food culture as well.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I eat everything standing up. I love cold spaghetti and cold pizza.
My favorite snack hasn’t been invented yet. I don’t want to cook late at night; I don’t want it to be sweets or junk food, but I often find myself wanting a snack late at night.
I think some kind of meat that’s good cold. A lot of chefs have horrible eating habits.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
P.A.N. Mezcla Mais Dulce, ground sweet corn I buy at Latino markets, made in Colombia. It’s good in recipes for every ethnicity you can think of.
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
I don’t really believe in this, but if my grandmother spilled salt, she would throw some over her left shoulder with her right hand, and I find myself doing it too. I feel funny if I don’t do it.
As for rituals, if I have time, I like to sweep and wipe down the counters daily around 2:45 p.m.