Chef Bill Smith’s Grassroots Efforts To Help His Kitchen Family Are Inspiring

Long a social justice activist, this now-retired chef is best known and loved for some of the South’s finest shrimp and grits, his affinity for PBR and a vast collection of band T-shirts.

But he’s also revered for working hard to help keep his former Crook’s Corner kitchen crew from going hungry and homeless during this challenging health care and economic crisis. It’s the kind of humble, grassroots effort that reaffirms faith in humanity.

Say you want a revolution

Long before Bill Smith started cooking at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, he joined the protests against the Vietnam War. “One of the most dramatic protests was in the 1970s, a May Day demonstration in D.C., where we laid down in the street to stop traffic,” said Smith in a recent phone interview. “It was very effective. Freaked people out. There were so many of us getting arrested, they had to stick us in RFK Stadium.”

Years later, he was among those arrested for protesting slashes by GOP-led legislature in North Carolina of public school budgets. “That was part of Poor People’s Campaign’s Moral Mondays effort led by the Rev. William Barber,” he said.

That led to another arrest, captured in a photo in the newspaper that sent his staff into a tizzy. “By the time I got out, I had dozens of text messages wondering if I was OK,” Smith recalled.

His staff feels protective of him, even if they did give him a fairly unflattering nickname. “In Mexico, everybody has a nickname, even if it’s mean. It wasn’t until years later, I found out it meant something like raw pork meat,” he said, laughing at the memory.

He’s been asked to be godfather to a bunch of the team’s children and traveled to Mexico to meet the extended families, who warmly welcomed him. “I think I probably should have been born in Mexico,” he said. “From the first time I visited for a friend’s wedding, I fit right in. The music, the people, the art, it just suits me.”

So, it wasn’t exactly a surprise to friends and fans that shortly after Trump’s election in 2016, Smith started a just-in-case GoFundMe page. The ebbing-and-flowing financial cushion has provided much-needed relief during recent months with many out of work, stressed about paying bills.

“Bill is a multifaceted activist. He takes intellectual and moral stances that challenge and inspire others, engaging in the kind of civil disobedience that gets him hauled off to jail,” said John T. Edge, executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Smith volunteered as a board member of that organization for a number of years. “His activism is also pragmatic, for he recognizes that the people he serves need food and shelter to thrive.”

Sometimes, the end of the month can mean a bit of nail-biting, but somehow, the coffers are always replenished. “It’s kind of miraculous, I might be walking down the street and someone will hand me $100 to help cover the month’s rent.”

Besides helping out whenever he can — donations are also accepted via his Venmo account @chulegre — Smith enjoys spending his summer days baking, most recently sharing tips for his version of a tomato tart and other goodies on his Facebook page.

And if there’s a protest or a worthy cause — like saving Cat’s Cradle .the live music venue he frequented for years — he’s most likely going to be there: “Whatever comes up, I don’t see any good reason not to raise some hell.”

Watch this short video by photo journalist Kate Medley and Jesse Paddock for the Southern Foodways Alliance on the history of Crooks Corner, a film called They Came For Shrimp and Grits: The Life and Work of Bill Neal. Smith worked with Neal at La Residence previous to the beloved chef launching Crooks in 1982. Neal passed away in 1991 and Smith assumed the lead role at Crooks Corner five years later. Some of the kitchen crew had worked with Smith for up to 18 years before he retired.

A few more cool fundraisers

  • Savor Seattle recently put together a drool-worthy collection of sweet — hello, Fran’s Chocolates — and savory goodies from local celebrity chefs who have been featured on Food Network, with a meal donation made to FareStart for every box sold.
  • The community of Paso Robles rallied to build an outdoor dining space in the heart of the charming wine country town. Downtown Dining in the Park is a safe area, staffed by a concierge and sanitization team Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday to promote take-out dining. This effort helped put hospitality workers back on the job.
  • Louisville-based chef Edward Lee’s efforts to help feed out-of-work industry folks from coast-to-coast — underwritten in part by Maker’s Mark — includes support in helping restaurants reboot. Part of the latest phrase of that program includes a commitment to buy from sustainable farmers in 16 regions of the country and donate that food to the restaurants trying to stay afloat during the pandemic.

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