Some of the most important lessons that chef and former Hominy Grill owner Robert Stehling learned at Crook’s Corner weren’t taught in the kitchen.
The Chapel Hill, N.C., institution, an outwardly casual restaurant responsible for ratifying many of the tenets of contemporary upscale Southern cooking, on June 9 announced it had ended its 39-year run. According to The New York Times, Crook’s Corner’s financial troubles were fatally exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a super special place, but both its time and location had kind of passed,” said Stehling, one of many acclaimed Southern chefs whose professional trajectory included an early run through Crook’s.
Stehling started washing dishes at Crook’s in 1982 while studying studio art at the University of North Carolina. He stayed at the restaurant for six years, ultimately running the kitchen under chef Bill Neal.
Neal, who died in 1991, is credited with cultivating respect for Southern cuisine and showcasing the region’s ingredients: He was the chef who recast shrimp-and-grits as a dish fit for elite dining room tables.
“Things were so important,” Stehling said. “Preserving recipes, seasonal cuisine — it was a way of life.”
In an oral history interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance, Stehling said he was a careful observer of the techniques that Neal recorded in his cookbooks.
After seeing Neal demonstrate the overlaps between Southern cuisine and the older cuisines that influenced it, “I felt really confident about being a Southern chef … that this is what I should be producing and not, you know, worrying about learning French and spending a couple years in the South of France.”
But when he thinks back on what Neal taught him, he remembers something that Neal said over shift martinis at the Crook’s Corner bar.
Food, Neal instructed, is just fat, starch and protein: Cooking involves controlling the heat applied to them.
“I made it part of my learning to understand that statement,” Stehling said.