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|Figure 1 |
Mexico and the American South share a culinary heritage as "lands of pork," and Bill Smith's Mexican kitchen staff cooks up some of the South's finest down-home specialties at the famed Crook's Corner. Photograph courtesy of Dave Shaw.
Bill Smith is an innovative, southern-cuisine chef famous for creating such unexpected culinary juxtapositions as honeysuckle sorbet—hot summer in a cool bite. The dessert's main ingredient really is the flower, thousands of them, all gathered by hand. His peculiarly delicious tomato and watermelon salad was featured on the cover of last July's Southern Living. For the past fifteen years, Bill has been the head chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Before that, he was chef at La Residence, a French restaurant also in Chapel Hill, where I was lucky enough to have worked in his kitchen, along with what stood for restaurant labor in the 1980s: part-time graduate students, Vietnamese immigrants, a French chef with a visa, artists, and musicians who played in the many bands that call this college town home.
Throughout the 1980s the kitchen at Crook's maintained this demographic, but in the 1990s neighbors from the deeper South began knocking at the kitchen door, ready to work. The restaurant had a few Mexican employees when Bill began working there in 1993, but he steadily hired more until, by 2000, the kitchen staff was almost entirely Latino men—thirteen out of fifteen employees. This rapid and extreme transformation of the kitchen at Crook's mirrors that of other restaurant kitchens in Chapel Hill and reflects a well-documented, overarching trend in manual labor across the South and the nation.
The deeply personal experiences of immigrants who left the large, industrial city of Celaya in the Mexican state of Guanajuato to work in the kitchens, construction sites, and landscape businesses of Chapel Hill and nearby Carrboro have been beautifully documented in Going to Carolina del Norte: Narrating Mexican Migrant Experiences, published by the Center for Global Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In this recent interview, Bill gives a name and voice to the other side of that equation: the employer, and the opportunity, waiting at the end of the long journey north. In Bill's case, his first group of workers was actually from Celaya. A few years later, a second wave of workers arrived from a remote, isolated village, Santa Maria de Ipalapa, in the state of Oaxaca. Whether from city or village, the workers find common ground once they settle in Bill's kitchen. Over the years, he has come to know his staff well, entering into their communities in Chapel Hill, traveling frequently to their homes in Mexico, always a boss, sometimes a friend, a guide, and even a sponsor in the quest for citizenship.
Twenty-five years ago, I watched Bill revel in the homemade egg rolls and shrimp soup—and gamely try the chicken feet—prepared by Mia and Hong, the Vietnamese "boat-people" who had found a safe harbor working in the kitchen [End Page 60] at La Résidence. An anthropologist by nature, Bill collected their stories along with their recipes, and here he reveals his unique experience today as a participant observer in his own kitchen.
In Bill Smith's Words . . .
I inherited a Mexican kitchen staff when I took over the job [in 1993]. The fact of the nineties in this area was that for the wages we were able to pay, the only people who showed up to apply for jobs were from Mexico. That's how it...