When Bill Neal arrived at Duke as a freshman in the fall of 1967, the closest thing to fine dining in Durham was Hartman's Steak House on Geer Street. Serious gourmets traveled to New York or New Orleans to find a meal worth remembering.
These days, they make detours to dine in Triangle restaurants. Whether they feast on shrimp and grits and jalapeÒo hush puppies at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, revel in the green-tomato soup with crab and country ham at Durham's Magnolia Grill, or savor inventive and tasty food at restaurants from Charleston, South Carolina, to Oxford, Mississippi, satisfied diners owe a debt to Bill Neal. His legacy is receiving renewed attention more than a decade after his death from AIDS at the age of forty-one.
A passionate chef, inspiring mentor, and articulate chronicler of Southern fare, Neal made a mark with his Chapel Hill restaurants, La Rèsidence and, later, Crook's Corner, helping to blaze a trail that other talented cooks would soon follow. Going into the food business "wasn't what your parents sent you to Duke for," says Moreton Hobbs Neal '71, Bill Neal's classmate at Duke, his wife and business partner for eleven years, and, after their divorce, a friend. Cooking was regarded as blue-collar work, and the notion that running a restaurant could be intellectually stimulating seemed as far-fetched as the prospect of celebrating corn bread and black-eyed peas as haute cuisine.
Moreton Hobbs met Neal in French class at Duke. He was hard to miss, she recalls--his usual attire was a baggy red-and-yellow Hawaiian bathing suit. Soon they were dating and discovering a common interest in food, whether through their own experiments in dormitory kitchens or by exploring local restaurants using Neal's tip money from waiting tables at the Country Squire.
Bill Neal dreamed of studying at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, but the need to support a growing family intervened, and his education as a chef came through on-the-job experience. Leaving graduate school, he signed on as an apprentice cook at Chapel Hill's Villa Teo, where, Moreton Neal writes, he was attracted by the glamour of the restaurant's exotic ambience and intrigued by "the 'demimonde' of a college-town restaurant kitchen teeming with highly educated eccentrics."
Within a year, he had risen to the position of chef de cuisine, and Moreton was cooking under a French chef at Hope Valley Country Club in Durham. By 1975, they were ready to open their own restaurant. The Neals constructed a menu by combining the cooking techniques they had learned on the job with the French practice of combing local markets for the best fresh food of the day. He ran the kitchen, while she took charge of desserts and, using an eye trained in art classes at Duke, supervised the dècor.
Their restaurant, La Rèsidence, opened in the main house of Jesse Fearrington's dairy farm, now Fearrington Village, just south of Chapel Hill. It moved two years later to a house on West Rosemary Street.
After the Neals divorced in 1982, Moreton managed the restaurant until 1992, when new owners took over. Seven years later, she says, they called to tell her they were thinking of selling, prompting her to rescue the stained and faded cards that recorded the recipes they developed in the early years of "La Res," as locals still call it.
Moreton says she had intended to save those recipes for herself and for the Neals' three children. But she realized that they reflected the essence of Bill's approach to food and decided to publish them. The result is a book in which she writes engagingly about the early years and about the challenges and rewards of a culinary career. Remembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) is a memoir and recipe compilation that complements Neal's own cookbooks. It includes more than 150 recipes, most previously unpublished, for dishes that Bill Neal perfected at La Rèsidence, Crook's Corner, and at home.
Bill's own books--Bill Neal's Southern Cooking; Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie; and Good Old Grits--have remained steady sellers, says David Perry, editor in chief of UNC Press. In many quarters, they are regarded as classics, especially Bill Neal's Southern Cooking, which was published in 1985, as interest in America's regional foods was influencing the restaurant scene in cities throughout the country. In 1989, UNC Press issued a revised and enlarged edition of the book, which Perry says has enjoyed "a bit of a resurgence" as more liberal-arts colleges add courses in food history and culture.
Bill Neal once described the volume as "a small personal book that looked back over 300 years of pioneer settlement, native displacement, and enslaved importation that created a cuisine unique among the food cultures of the world." It is also useful for contemporary cooks. Well-thumbed copies live on the shelves of almost any chef whose food retains a Southern flavor. At the nationally renowned Magnolia Grill, located on Ninth Street, just a few blocks from East Campus, chef-owners Ben and Karen Barker consider Bill Neal's Southern Cooking so "fundamentally important for its historical perspective," as Ben Barker puts it, that they often give copies to their new cooks.
"He was the king daddy and remains the king daddy in his influence," Barker says of Neal's legacy for chefs inspired by Southern traditions.
Bill Neal began cooking at a time when Americans were tiring of can-opener casseroles. "Remember," says Moreton Neal, "this was back when anything topped with a can of mushroom soup was the height of fine dining in most of the South."
Restaurants like Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, were making a name for themselves by reintroducing diners to the memorable flavors of fresh, local ingredients. Chez Panisse and other restaurants helped make California cuisine famous. Meanwhile, chefs elsewhere--Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans, Jasper White in Boston, and Larry Forgione in New York, among others--were demonstrating that regions around the country had their own traditions to build upon. As Neal's career developed, he became a standard-bearer for a fresh take on the foods that reflect the traditions of the American South.
La Rèsidence gained a devoted following for its flavorful, mostly traditional French cuisine. But it was in the 1980s at Crook's Corner, his next restaurant venture, where he elevated a low-country fisherman's breakfast, shrimp and grits, to dizzying heights as one of the signature dishes of the Southern culinary renaissance.
The original version was usually nothing more than shrimp, grits, and salt. He dressed up the shrimp with bacon, sautèed mushrooms, garlic, and scallions and served it over stone-ground cheese grits. The reinvented dish was worthy of a white tablecloth.
This culinary renaissance celebrated the foods of Southern grandmothers, dishes that formed the backbone of the "rural, indigenous, pork-based, corn-heavy, poor Southern cuisine" that sustained an impoverished region after the Civil War, says R.W. Apple, an associate editor of The New York Times who writes frequently on culinary matters. In 1993, Apple covered a tribute dinner to Bill Neal at the James Beard House in New York City, planned and cooked by admiring chefs, several of them former apprentices. Each chef contributed to the meal his take on a dish by Neal. "The stellar lineup," Apple wrote, "showed how widely Mr. Neal's ideas have percolated through the South."
As John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, observes, "Bill Neal was one of the first chefs who, by way of what he cooked in his restaurants and what he wrote in his books, said to eaters and readers, 'These foods are of merit.' We're a region with many foibles and deep-seated problems. Yet blacks and whites can take pride together in what we wrought at the stove and what we served on the plate."
Like music, food offers a shared experience, a context for coming together in ways that create a stronger sense of community. Just as good music thrives on talent cultivated with creativity and leavened with intellect, the new respect accorded to traditional Southern foods gained depth and breadth as much from Neal's insatiable curiosity and sound research skills as from his gifted palate.
For Neal, the kitchen became another form of classroom--for his own exploration of food or for his lifelong love of teaching others. Working in his kitchen entailed a lot more than chopping vegetables, searing meat, or washing dishes.
"He really inspired cooks to read and think and analyze, to look at [their work] from an intellectual point of view," says Ben Barker of the Magnolia Grill. The Barkers never worked for Neal. Ben, a Chapel Hill native, wanted to return to the area and applied for a job at La Rèsidence soon after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1981. Neal turned him down, saying that, as a self-taught chef himself, he preferred not to hire graduates of culinary schools.
In hindsight, Barker says he doesn't disagree with the decision. "Most culinary-school graduates come across as fairly arrogant," he says. "It was important in that kitchen dynamic that there be one leader and one source of information."