By Laurie Paolicelli
Anyone who loves food and who has lived in Chapel Hill — or North Carolina for that matter — knows Bill Smith. For more than 40 years, Smith has played pivotal roles in the evolution of Southern culture. In the 1980s, his nightclub, Cat’s Cradle, provided a home for Southern musicians of every stripe. Then for more than two decades he was head chef of the most quietly influential restaurant in the South, Crook’s Corner, one of the many restaurants that became a victim of COVID, closing its doors in 2020.
Bill nurtured an amazing evolution in Southern food as this region grew more multicultural. His work helping others through the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford and authoring books on favorite recipes continues today.
But the work most important to him is helping his former kitchen workers, especially immigrants, stay safe and connected to family.
Bill retired from Crook’s Corner in 2019, shortly before the pandemic hit. After retirement he was sought after by dozens of charity organizers for food and wine affairs. But Bill had a deep desire to devote his life to the immigrants he worked alongside for decades, co-workers who had been the target of ICE raids, and the possibility of deportation. Bill was an honorary uncle, godfather, and even grandpa to many. And he was not going to stand by idly while they lived in fear and tears.
Bill’s goal became clear: raising funds to help American-born children get passports, feel safe, and stay connected to their families.
“The Mexican-Americans and other immigrants in our greater Chapel Hill community have gone through some tough times during this past decade,” Bill says. “First there were ICE raids, and then the possibility their green cards would be taken away if they were on any public assistance. And when COVID hit, they lost their jobs, could not pay their rent, or provide food for their families.”
But helping kids get passports takes money, so Bill began a fundraising campaign — and was stunned at the positive reaction. “There is a deeply rooted desire in Chapel Hill to give back to those in need. We raised enough money for passports and began the process of helping these kids work through the fifteen pages of paperwork it takes to become a citizen.”
In the end they raised enough money to get passports for eighteen children. With the money left over they provided food and shelter for families out of work.
Fast forward to 2022, and Bill feels more optimistic. “I do miss Crook’s Corner and the social side of connecting with our community, every evening when I walked out of the kitchen to say hello to friends and neighbors who got so much joy out of being connected to others through food.”
But Bill does not regret retirement. At 73, the life of a chef was taking its toll. And having the freedom to work and help others, all while moving at his own pace, is something Bill is happy to do.
Bill says that Chapel Hill is changing but at its heart it’s still the same. “We don’t want to be the town that time forgot,” he says. “We’re too smart for that. But there’s still culture around every corner if we look. I still love the music scene. Music is key to our economy.”
But the restaurant scene is important to him too. He gets around to most of them. “I spend time at 411 and The Lantern. I love Glasshalfull. I’m a fan of IZA Whiskey Eats and Mercato. You’ll find me at Med Deli, Mama Dips, and Italian Pizzeria Three. Throw in Al’s Burgers and the newer restaurant, Tesoro.”
He’s a man with many passions and many friends. “What an iconic, genuine, and conscientious person,” says Amanda, one of the owners of BowBar on Rosemary Street, and who has known Bill for many years. “I like that Bill is so comfortable hanging out with almost anyone he meets. He’s an avid bike rider and has such a killer work ethic and lives very simply, always thinking of others.”
Bill Smith has a genius for food and for friendship. Retired, his presence is as strong as ever — you can see him pedaling down Franklin or Rosemary Street almost every day. If you believe that respect for tradition can co-exist with the graceful acceptance of change, you will find no better model than Bill.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.