with Moreton Neal
gifted chef, restaurateur, and writer working at a time when Americans were
beginning to take a new interest in their culinary heritage, Bill Neal helped
raise Southern food to national prominence. Well-thumbed copies of his cookbooks
Bill Neal's Southern Cooking; Good Old
Grits Cookbook; and Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie grace the cookbook
shelves of countless professional chefs and home cooks, and stand as culinary
bibles. He was also a talented gardener, and penned the classic reference work Gardener’s
when Moreton Neal met her future husband and business partner in French class at
married in their senior year, found jobs in local restaurants, catered their way
through graduate school, started a family, and founded the landmark Chapel Hill
restaurant La Résidence. Although they ended their marital and business
partnership in 1982, their friendship survived. While Moreton continued to
manage La Résidence, Bill opened the nearby restaurant Crook’s Corner, wrote Bill
Neal’s Southern Cooking, and gained fame after Craig Claiborne of the New
York Times and Phyllis Richmond of the Washington
Post gave Crook’s stellar reviews.
In REMEMBERING BILL NEAL: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking (University of North Carolina Press, October 2004; $22.95 hardcover) Moreton Neal tells the story of Bill Neal’s largely self-directed culinary education. Moreton has collected more than 150 recipes—mostly unpublished and several classic—from the celebrated and extensive number of dishes that Bill perfected at La Résidence, Crook’s Corner, and at home.
why did you write this book?
The present owners of
La Résidence (the Chapel Hill restaurant Bill Neal and I started in 1976)
called me a few years ago to let me know they were putting the restaurant on the
market. I decided to retrieve the old recipe files, which were unused since I
left the restaurant in the early nineties. These files held Bill Neal’s and my
recipes from the beginning of the restaurant in 1976 to the early eighties when
Bill started Crook’s Corner. My intention was just to rewrite the recipes in
layman’s terms and pass them on to our kids. David Perry, editor-in-chief of
UNC Press, encouraged me to expand the book to its present form.
and Bill went to Duke University, a far cry from a culinary school. Why did you
go into the restaurant business?
We were idealists who graduated with teaching degrees and wanted to change the world. After a year of teaching, that particular goal didn’t seem likely to happen. Bill went to graduate school at UNC and we began catering for his professors. We missed New Orleans food and dreamed of dining at a really good restaurant here in the Triangle area. With the encouragement of our friends and clients, most all of them francophiles, we opened the restaurant we envisioned.
would two Southerners choose to open a “French” restaurant?
I grew up in South
Mississippi in a family that dined often in New Orleans. Galatoire’s and
Antoine’s were my idea of good Southern restaurants. Bill was raised in North
Carolina where eating out usually meant fish camps and barbecue joints. Back in
the sixties, ‘fine dining’ in the South existed mostly at steak houses (with
the exception of port cities such as Charleston). By the time we opened La Res, our favorite restaurants in
this country were French (e.g., D.C.’s, Lyon d’Or or New York’s La Cote
Basque—we were willing to travel a long way to dine well), and after a couple
of trips to France, we were besotted with all things French. For Bill, who grew
up working on his grandfather’s farm, the connection from the table to the
land there was refreshing.
Remember, this was
back when anything topped with a can of mushroom soup was the height of fine
dining in most of the South.
La Res meet your expectations?
We had a very positive
response. Craig Claiborne, then food editor of the New
York Times, and Phyllis Richmond of the Washington
Post gave us national exposure. La Res was a critical hit, but the 24/7
schedule of restaurant work was tough on family life—not for sissies!
book includes recipes from Bill’s second restaurant, Crook’s Corner (also in
Chapel Hill), and other simple recipes for home cooking…
Bill had written three
well-received cookbooks and was working on a Southern vegetarian cookbook when
he died. I had been urged to finish that book, but I just couldn’t get excited
about Southern food without pig parts! Years later, though, I realized there
were several unpublished Crook’s recipes that people often asked me about. And
I had a personal book of old recipes Bill and I compiled before we began cooking
professionally. There were also Bill’s own favorites he cooked after he
retired from restaurant work.
In putting together
these recipes I began noticing trends. This introduced a new perspective to the
book—a look at food and restaurant trends in Bill’s lifetime, roughly the
last half of the twentieth century.
was Crook’s Corner that eventually attracted more national attention, wasn’t
Bill was on the
cutting edge of the American regional trend in the eighties. This was when Alice
Waters and Paul Prudhomme, among others, were bringing attention to regional
food in this country and there was a new interest in using local ingredients.
Bill wrote Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking
at the crest of this “new wave” and gave Southern American cooking a big
boost. Most folks don’t know this, but originally Crook’s used mostly
Mediterranean-style recipes. After the book’s publication, its identity became
Southern. It turned out that this kind of cooking filled a void in the
restaurant world around here (Piedmont, N.C.) and all around the South. Bill
always was a trendsetter.
many of these recipes did you and Bill develop together? Did you collaborate on
At La Résidence, Bill
worked on main courses, and I focused on desserts and hors d’oeuvres. The
Crook’s Corner recipes in this book are all his, with contributions from the
staff. “At Home” recipes are oldies-but-goodies from both our families and
an eclectic mix of recipes we collected together from friends or favorite
cookbook writers such as Simone Beck, Richard Olney, and Maida Heatter. Most of
these were not original, but we added our own touches.
are your favorite recipes in the book?
For quick-and-easy, you can’t beat Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic, a Provence classic.
For a splurge in calories, I love the Gnocchi Verdi with 2 Sauces. For dessert, Chocolate Chess Pie is a crowd pleaser and surprisingly simple to make.
all these recipes new or have they appeared in another of Bill’s cookbooks?
There are a few recipes that are repeated here from Southern Cooking; Good Old Grits; and Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie—including Shrimp and Grits, probably Bill’s most famous and most requested recipe. I couldn’t call this book “Favorites…” without that one and a few others such as Cabbage Pudding, Princess Pamela’s Buttermilk Pie, and Creole Gumbo.
do you see as current cooking trends in this country?
and easy! Americans now work so much they don’t have time to cook. Most of
these recipes are geared toward the busy home cook. Another trend is the
expectation of high quality (both in taste and in nutrients) in our meats and
produce. A great vegetable doesn’t need much fuss to make it taste good.
Globalization has created a demand for, and a supply of, exotic ingredients and
spices. There are recipes here from Italy, Africa, China, Mexico and other
countries in addition to the expected Southern and French dishes associated with
Bill’s books and restaurants.
would enjoy this book?
who knew Bill, people who enjoyed eating at Crook’s Corner and La Résidence
over the years, people who love to eat and cook good food, people who are
interested in food trends of the past fifty years. There are many great
restaurateurs in the South who were inspired by Bill. His story is about a
visionary, really, the American dream—someone who made his dream come true in
spite of naysayers. Lord knows, our parents weren’t too thrilled about our
choice to open a restaurant. “That’s not what we sent you to Duke for!”
Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking was not just a cookbook, but a
scholarly look at 300 years of the South’s culinary history. Is this book
similar in terms of scholarship?
I could never compete
with Bill as a scholar. REMEMBERING BILL
NEAL is meant to be a cookbook for home cooks as well as a personal memoir.
My commentary on food trends comes partly from experience eating all over the
country, interviews over the years with chefs and cookbook writers on my radio
show “Food Forum,” and from research for a gourmet column I write. I just
hope Bill would be flattered, not embarrassed, by the book.
died at 41?
Yes, he died of HIV in
1991. In addition to the vegetarian cookbook, he was also working on Gardener's
Latin at the time of his death. The wonderful people at Algonquin put the
final touches on Gardener’s Latin
and published it after he died.
was it about Bill that set him apart from all the other talented chefs of his
Well, for one thing,
there weren’t very many chefs in that generation! Chefs in the South were
usually African American or French, certainly not middle-class white males with
a liberal arts education. There were no comprehensive cooking schools outside
France as far as we knew. Bill was in the vanguard (which included Alice Waters,
Paul Prudhomme, Jasper White, Mark Miller and others) of a new era. These folks
redefined American cooking and made it accessible outside private homes.
The culinary scene has
changed tremendously since Bill and I opened La Résidence in 1976. REMEMBERING
BILL NEAL is one person’s story, but also a microcosm of evolving food and
cultural trends in the second half of the twentieth century—at least, that was
But Bill truly was a unique and
unforgettable personality. I’ve interviewed hundreds of chefs and cookbook
writers on my radio show and there’s nobody quite like him. Combine the
intellect of Paula Wolfert, the perfectionism of Thomas Keller, the flamboyance
of Tony Bourdain, the wicked wit of the late Craig Claiborne with the passion of
the late Julia Child. That would be my recipe for Bill Neal.
CLICK HERE to learn more about REMEMBERING BILL NEAL: FAVORITE RECIPES FROM A LIFE IN COOKING (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2004).
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