Chef Carrie Schleiffer, executive chef at Alley Twenty Six in Durham, has taken on the additional role of executive chef at Crook’s Corner, signaling a new chapter in the storied life of the famed Chapel Hill restaurant.
Situated at the end of Franklin Street, right at the bend where Chapel Hill becomes Carrboro, Crook’s Corner is one of the most celebrated restaurants in the American South. Opened in 1982 by Gene Hamer and chef Bill Neal, Crook’s was at the forefront of the Southern farm-to-table movement, and is credited with popularizing the modern iteration of shrimp and grits.
After Neal passed in 1991 another Bill, chef Bill Smith, took the helm and guided the restaurant through the nineties and into the new millennium. And now, in 2021, after nearly forty years of Bills at the helm (followed by chef Justin Burdett in 2019), the kitchen at Crook’s will belong to a native of New Jersey.
The move in many ways mirrors the changing demographics in Chapel Hill and North Carolina at large, as residents flood into the state from the Northeast and West, embracing Southern cultural icons while also putting a “New South” spin on things.
For Schleiffer, the fact that she will now helm what is one of the most famous restaurants in America is not lost on her. After moving to North Carolina to work at a Giorgios Group restaurant and then helping open new kitchens at the now-closed G2B, Bar Virgile, and Alley Twenty Six, stepping into a legacy like Crook’s is a new challenge.
“This is the first institution I’m walking into,” says Schleiffer. “I’m honored that I’m being given a chance to work in a restaurant that’s been here 39 years and still obviously is standing for a reason.”
For Schleiffer, being able to lure Bill Smith somewhat out of retirement and give a bit of guidance in the kitchen has been invaluable. “I’m grateful that I’ve been able to work with chef Bill a lot,” she says. “I don’t know if I’d be able to pull off what we’re pulling off right now without his help.”
“I told them I’d jump back in and help them, but I do not want to be in charge,” laughs Smith.
Diners can expect to see some of Schleiffer’s touches on the menu as the spring progresses. The farro risotto with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, arugula, and parmesan has already been a top-selling item. Fans of Alley Twenty Six might also notice some familiar menu items — both the chicken liver mousse and the cornmeal fried oysters migrated down 15-501 to Chapel Hill.
For co-owner Shannon Healy (who also owns Alley Twenty Six), a breath of fresh air at Crook’s is welcome. “This is an institution, not a mausoleum,” he says. “We’ve got to keep growing. We’re either going up or we’re going down, those are the two choices for restaurants.” “It doesn’t matter how old they are, they have to keep finding ways to be relevant,” Healy adds.
For her part Schleiffer plans to continue honoring the strong connection Crook’s Corner has with the local food system. “I intend to try to get to know the people at the Carrboro Farmers Market as well as I know the people at the Durham Farmers Market,” she says.
But for whatever change she might implement, there will always be one constant on the Crook’s Corner menu. “The shrimp and grits aren’t going anywhere,” Schleiffer laughs. “I’m not going to touch them.”
• Alley Twenty Six [Official]