Remembering Bill Neal

Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking

By Moreton Neal

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Remembering Bill Neal

256 pp., 6 x 9, 11 illus., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1496-0
    Published: March 2014
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-8960-2
    Published: March 2014
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7763-5
    Published: March 2014

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Author Q&A

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

A Conversation with Moreton Neal
Author of Rembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes from a Life in Cooking

Q: Moreton, why did you write this book?
A: The present owners of LaRésidence (the Chapel Hill restaurant Bill Neal and I started in 1976)called me a few years ago to let me know they were putting therestaurant 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 therestaurant in 1976 to the early eighties when Bill started Crook'sCorner. My intention was just to rewrite the recipes in layman's termsand pass them on to our kids. David Perry, editor-in-chief of UNC Press,encouraged me to expand the book to its present form.

Moreton and Bill at La Res

Q: You and Bill went to Duke University, afar cry from a culinary school. Why did you go into the restaurantbusiness?
A: We were idealists who graduatedwith teaching degrees and wanted to change the world. After a year ofteaching, that particular goal didn't seem likely to happen. Bill wentto graduate school at UNC and we began catering for his professors. Wemissed New Orleans food and dreamed of dining at a really goodrestaurant here in the Triangle area. With the encouragement of ourfriends and clients, most all of them francophiles, we opened therestaurant we envisioned.

Q: Why would two Southerners choose to open a "French" restaurant?
A: I grew up in South Mississippiin a family that dined often in New Orleans. Galatoire's and Antoine'swere my idea of good Southern restaurants. Bill was raised in NorthCarolina where eating out usually meant fish camps and barbecue joints.Back in the sixties, 'fine dining' in the South existed mostly at steakhouses (with the exception of port cities such as Charleston). By thetime we opened La Res, our favorite restaurants in this country wereFrench (e.g., D.C.'s, Lyon d'Or or New York's La Cote BasqueÑwe werewilling to travel a long way to dine well), and after a couple of tripsto France, we were besotted with all things French. For Bill, who grewup working on his grandfather's farm, the connection from the table tothe land there was refreshing.

Remember, this was back when anything topped with a can of mushroom soup was the height of fine dining in mostof the South.

Q: Did La Res meet your expectations?
A: We had a very positiveresponse. Craig Claiborne, then food editor of the New York Times, andPhyllis Richmond of the Washington Post gave us national exposure. LaRes was a critical hit, but the 24/7 schedule of restaurant work wastough on family life—not for sissies!

Q: The book includes recipes from Bill'ssecond restaurant, Crook's Corner (also in Chapel Hill) and other simplerecipes for home cooking...
A: Bill had written threewell-received cookbooks and was working on a Southern vegetariancookbook when he died. I had been urged to finish that book, but I justcouldn't get excited about Southern food without pig parts! Years later,though, I realized there were several unpublished Crook's recipes thatpeople often asked me about. And I had a personal book of old recipesBill and I compiled before we began cooking professionally. There werealso Bill's own favorites he cooked after he retired from restaurantwork.

In putting together these recipes I began noticing trends.This introduced a new perspective to the book—a look at food andrestaurant trends in Bill's lifetime, roughly the last half of thetwentieth century.

Q: It was Crook's Corner that eventually attracted more national attention, wasn't it?
A: Bill was on the cutting edge ofthe American regional trend in the eighties. This was when Alice Watersand Paul Prudhomme, among others, were bringing attention to regionalfood in this country and there was a new interest in using localingredients. Bill wrote Bill Neal's Southern Cooking at the crest ofthis "new wave" and gave Southern American cooking a big boost. Mostfolks don't know this, but originally Crook's used mostlyMediterranean-style recipes. After the book's publication, its identitybecame Southern. It turned out that this kind of cooking filled a voidin the restaurant world around here (Piedmont, N.C.) and all around theSouth. Bill always was a trendsetter.

Q: How many of these recipes did you and Billdevelop together? Did you collaborate on new dishes?
A: At La Résidence, Bill worked onmain courses, and I focused on desserts and hors d'oeuvres. The Crook'sCorner recipes in this book are all his, with contributions from thestaff. "At Home" recipes are oldies-but-goodies from both our familiesand an eclectic mix of recipes we collected together from friends orfavorite cookbook writers such as Simone Beck, Richard Olney, and MaidaHeatter. Most of these were not original, but we added our own touches.

Q: What are your favorite recipes in the book?
A: For quick-and-easy, you can'tbeat Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic, a Provence classic. For a splurgein calories, I love the Gnocchi Verdi with 2 Sauces. For dessert,Chocolate Chess Pie is a crowd pleaser and surprisingly simple to make.

Q: Are all these recipes new or have they appeared in another of Bill's cookbooks?
A: There are a few recipes thatare repeated here from Southern Cooking; Good Old Grits; and Biscuits,Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie—including Shrimp and Grits, probablyBill'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.

Q: What do you see as current cooking trends in this country?
A: Fast and easy! Americans nowwork so much they don't have time to cook. Most of these recipes aregeared toward the busy home cook. Another trend is the expectation ofhigh 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, exoticingredients and spices. There are recipes here from Italy, Africa,China, Mexico and other countries in addition to the expected Southernand French dishes associated with Bill's books and restaurants.

Q: Who would enjoy this book?
A: People who knew Bill, peoplewho 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 infood trends of the past fifty years. There are many great restaurateursin 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 spiteof naysayers. Lord knows, our parents weren't too thrilled about ourchoice to open a restaurant. "That's not what we sent you to Duke for!"

Q: Bill Neal's Southern Cooking was not justa cookbook, but a scholarly look at 300 years of the South's culinaryhistory. Is this book similar in terms of scholarship?
A: I could never compete with Billas a scholar. REMEMBERING BILL NEAL is meant to be a cookbook for homecooks as well as a personal memoir. My commentary on food trends comespartly from experience eating all over the country, interviews over theyears with chefs and cookbook writers on my radio show "Food Forum," andfrom research for a gourmet column I write. I just hope Bill would beflattered, not embarrassed, by the book.

Q: Bill died at 41?
A: Yes, he died of HIV in 1991. Inaddition to the vegetarian cookbook, he was also working on Gardener'sLatin at the time of his death. The wonderful people at Algonquin putthe final touches on Gardener's Latin and published it after he died.

Q: What was it about Bill that set himapart from all the other talented chefs of his generation?
A: Well, for one thing, thereweren't very many chefs in that generation! Chefs in the South wereusually African American or French, certainly not middle-class whitemales with a liberal arts education. There were no comprehensive cookingschools outside France as far as we knew. Bill was in the vanguard(which included Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme, Jasper White, Mark Millerand others) of a new era. These folks redefined American cooking andmade 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 ofevolving food and cultural trends in the second half of the twentiethcenturyÑat least, that was my intention.

But Bill truly was a unique and unforgettable personality. I've interviewed hundreds of chefs andcookbook writers on my radio show and there's nobody quite like him.Combine the intellect of Paula Wolfert, the perfectionism of ThomasKeller, the flamboyance of Tony Bourdain, the wicked wit of the lateCraig Claiborne with the passion of the late Julia Child. That would bemy recipe for Bill Neal.