Moreton Neal honors the now-shuttered Southern restaurant with this Cajun steak recipe given to her by its original owner, Gene Hamer
Crook’s Corner: Yesterday and Tomorrow
Crook’s Corner suddenly closed its doors on June 9. The announcement came out of the blue, sending a shock wave through our food-loving community. No explanation, no celebration, no chance for a last plate of shrimp and grits – just lights out.
My three children, who practically grew up there, went into mourning as if they’d lost a family member.
The question on everyone’s mind: What happened to cause such an abrupt end of an era? Among the many circulating rumors was my own presumption – good staff, like real estate in the area, is not easy to find these days. Why else would Crook’s not capitalize on serving legions of devoted patrons one final dinner at their beloved hangout?
As it turns out, I was wrong. There were too many cooks in Crook’s kitchen – debt restructuring by the new owners became an issue, according to a reliable source. The good news is the restaurant may well rise from the ashes. Gene Hamer, the original owner, manager and backbone of Crook’s, says, “There’s a good possibility of Crook’s reopening. I’m very hopeful about it.”
So much has been written about Crook’s legendary two Bills, I won’t repeat the stories here, except to dispel the long-lived rumor that I am or ever have been a part-owner of Crook’s. (Full disclosure, I am Bill Neal’s ex-wife and Bill Smith’s friend and former employer.) Gene and Bill Neal took over Cam Hill’s barbecue joint, already named Crook’s Corner, on the site of Rachel Crook’s fish market. The two of them transformed the joint into a Southern regional restaurant in the same wave as Alice Waters, Mark Miller, Jasper White and Paul Prudhomme were developing produce-oriented regional restaurants in other areas of the U.S.
Bill Neal sold out to Gene early on and temporarily left Crook’s to embark on a writing career which, over nine years, produced “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking,” “Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie,” “Good Old Grits Cookbook,” (co-authored with David Perry), and “Gardener’s Latin.” He returned to supervise the kitchen until his death in 1991, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript for “Southern Vegetarian Cooking.”
Bill Smith, who followed in Bill Neal’s footsteps to become chef at La Résidence, the restaurant Bill Neal and I founded in 1976, took over the Crook’s kitchen from chef Bill Fiss in 1993. Through his cooking, his cookbooks (“Seasoned in the South” and “Crabs and Oysters: A Savor the South Cookbook”), his many charitable endeavors and his courageous activism, Bill Smith has become one of the most well-known and beloved chefs in the South. Though he retired from Crook’s in 2019, we haven’t seen the last of him. His charming cake-baking videos lifted the spirits of thousands stuck at home during the pandemic. Watch for him to pop up regularly as guest chef for benefit dinners. He also has not one but two books under contract. I’m hoping he’ll find time to run for governor.
Crook’s history features prominently in my own UNC Press cookbook/memoir, “Remembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking.” A third of the book is devoted to Crook’s best recipes, which Gene generously shared with me. Old-timers will remember Cajun steak, one of the most popular items from the original menu and one of my own favorites.
6 Tbsp. sweet paprika
4 Tbsp. black peppercorns
3 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. cumin seeds
2 ½ Tbsp. red pepper flakes
1 ½ Tbsp. dry mustard
1 ½ Tbsp. fennel seeds
1 tsp. allspice
4 cloves fresh garlic
4 rib-eye steaks
Olive or vegetable oil
In a small food processor, grind together all the ingredients. Expect some of the ingredients will grind more coarsely than others, particularly the fennel seeds.
About 30 minutes before grilling, rub the seasoning mix onto each steak, covering both sides thoroughly.
Heat a little oil in a skillet and panbroil the steaks to your taste.