Meet the new chef of Crook’s Corner, the third in the storied restaurant’s history

As Friday night dinner service winds down, Bill Smith and his newfound protege, Justin Burdett, sit at the Crook’s Corner bar, a pair of cracked PBRs between them.

In January, Burdett will become the third chef to lead the Crook’s kitchen, replacing Smith, an award-winning chef and author who will step out of the kitchen full time after more than 25 years. Smith, himself, took over from founder Bill Neal, an icon of Southern food.

What kind of person does it take to follow a legend? Likely one who aims to be a legend themselves.

“Twenty years from now I want people to be talking about something I made that’s now an icon,” said Burdett, 35, in an interview. “That’s the ultimate goal, to hit that mark however many years from now, cooks asking me about these iconic things.”

Wednesday, it was announced that owner Gene Hamer is retiring and selling the Chapel Hill restaurant to a small group that includes Gary Crunkleton of The Crunkleton cocktail bar in Chapel Hill and Charlotte and former Crook’s general manager Shannon Healy, who owns Alley Twenty Six in Durham.

Smith will still play a role at the restaurant, serving as consultant and cooking at special events, but Burdett will lead the kitchen.

The after-service drink will be a familiar routine over the next four months, as Smith transfers all that he knows of Crook’s and its recipes and memories to Burdett, who will soon be tasked with what to keep and what to make his own. It’s teacher-student, master-apprentice, the passing of something sacred on to its next steward.

Succession has been rare in this era of chef-driven restaurants, but Crook’s has endured through decades of dining trends and whims. Neal exalted Southern food, Smith carried it forward. Along the way, Smith was nominated twice for a James Beard Award, and the restaurant was named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of America’s Classics in 2011, honoring restaurants that have made an impact in their region.

“It makes sense, considering who were are,” Smith said on the transition. “I don’t like to brag, but we are an institution. The town relied on us. We’re the dining room of Chapel Hill.”

Now Burdett takes the reins, settling down for perhaps the first time in his career.

“When you’re in your 20s, you’re still finding your place and still learning,” Burdett said. “You’re still trying to find your forever place. I’m at the point where I don’t want to do two years; I want to be here for a very long time.”

‘Knives and fire’

Burdett, tall and skinny with wide black discs in his gauged earlobes and sleeves of tattoos, appealed to Smith immediately.

“He told me he was glad I didn’t come in wearing a chef’s coat and a funny hat,” Burdett said.

Burdett grew up in rural Georgia just beyond the Atlanta suburbs, the second youngest of all his siblings and cousins. While they were outside playing football or beating each other up, he was in the kitchen watching his grandmother, Nanny, cook. He got his first restaurant job washing dishes at 14, but life on the line caught his eye.

“For the cooks it was all knives and fire,” Burdett said. “At 14 that’s the intriguing part.”

Chef Justin Burdett works in the kitchen at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill on Thursday morning, Oct. 4, 2018. Burdett will replace Chef Bill Smith who will be retiring from the restaurant in January. Juli Leonard

At 22, while working at a Mellow Mushroom in Athens, Ga., Burdett made the most of a meeting with renowned chef Hugh Acheson. He told him he would take any job at his restaurant 5 & 10, even offering to work for nothing.

Acheson took a chance on Burdett, but he found a steep learning curve at what he calls “100 percent the nicest place in town.”

“I realized I didn’t know anything,” Burdett said. “I had to be shown what a bulb of fennel was.”

From there Burdett’s resume includes three years in Asheville restaurants and then a move to Atlanta, where in 2009 he helped open Miller Union in Atlanta under James Beard Award-winning chef Steven Satterfield, spending three years as chef de cuisine.

“We saw that he had a lot of raw talent,” Satterfield said. “He was extremely creative. We worked together closely for several years. I always knew he was going to go on and do some things.”

Burdett started to earn recognition himself at his next stop, Ruka’s Table in Highlands, near the Georgia-North Carolina border, getting ink from Food & Wine and StarChefs as one of the up and coming chefs in the South. He was victorious in an episode of the Food Network’s “Chopped.”

On that wave, Burdett opened his first restaurant, Local Provisions in Asheville, in 2015, focusing on small, elegant plates of local ingredients, heavy on seasonal vegetables. Eater Critic Bill Addison named it one of the 21 best new restaurants in America in 2016, lauding Burdett’s housemade charcuterie and command of the seasons, saying he was able to stand out in an Asheville not short on culinary talent.

But Burdett would learn a bitter truth. National press doesn’t guarantee diners.

Burdett left Local Provisions in September 2017, and the restaurant closed a month later. He took the helm at the venerable Admiral, but only stayed a few months.

Chef Bill Smith, right, looks over a recipe with chef Justin Burdett in the kitchen at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. Burdett will replace Smith, who will be stepping down as executive chef of the restaurant in January. Juli Leonard

The next move

Burdett was figuring out his next move when Crunkleton gave him a call about coming to Crook’s. They first met on the Atlanta Food & Wine Advisory Council. Crunkleton said Burdett was his first and only call.

Crunkleton is an evangelist of Burdett’s biscuits. He said his years as a bartender have enabled him to size up folks fairly quickly, and he liked what he saw in Burdett.

“I knew he was going to be a ringer,” Crunkleton said. “You just have a hunch. He is such a kindhearted, genuine person. Cooking is just natural for him.”

Burdett joined Crook’s in August, learning the classics, the kitchen and staff. To be sure, the icons will stay, Burdett said, lest one risks the ensuing riots for chiseling Atlantic Beach Pie off the menu. By this point, he says he can make that pie in his sleep.

Persimmon pudding, shrimp and grits, soft-shell crabs, they’ll never leave Crook’s, and Burdett finds that almost freeing, granting him stability to balance his creativity.

“We had Bill Neal,” said owner Gene Hamer. “When Bill Smith came in, he kept Bill Neal and added his own. And that is what Justin will do. It’s a good evolution of Crooks. Justin will honor the past but will do the future.”

Burdett allowed himself a moment of self doubt, a moment to take in nearly four decades of Crook’s and its role in Southern cookery.

“Can I do this, can I take over a legacy this big?” Burdett said. “I know my ability to cook. This is something that is going to last a long time and it’s an honor to keep something so incredible going.”

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