Matt Neal has been interviewed many times about his famous father, the chef Bill Neal.
He has answers about how Neal, a small-town North Carolina boy who taught himself to cook by working his way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, achieved so much in so little time. By his mid 30s, the elder Neal had helmed two essential Triangle restaurants and written a book, Bill Neal's Southern Cooking, that became a landmark of the region's cuisine. He was arguably the cook who made shrimp and grits a staple of contemporary Southern cuisine.
The gracious co-owner of Neals' Deli in Carrboro has even decided there's no point in getting offended when asked about the end of his parents' decade-long marriage or his father's romance with Gene Hamer, a colleague at La Residence and partner at Crook's Corner. He's even accustomed to being asked how it felt when, in 1991, his charismatic father died from AIDS at the age of 41.
So when Matt agreed to be interviewed yet again last spring for a documentary about his father commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance, he expected not to be surprised by revisiting the familiar turf. What caught him off guard, however, was the filmmakers' interest in a casual reference to his father's writings, stashed away in a box in the attic.
Durham filmmakers Kate Medley and Jesse Paddock were surprised, too, that this wealth of materials had been sitting, almost forgotten and entirely unexplored, in Bill Neal's post-divorce home so long. Matt, who lives their now with his wife, Sheila, and two children, escorted Medley upstairs. What they found became the key of They Came for Shrimp and Grits: The Life and Work of Bill Neal, a short but dense and powerful documentary that explores and expands the scope of Neal's accomplishments.
"The family was very generous. They gave us full access," recalls Medley, who works as a photographer and filmmaker for Whole Foods Market. "Matt had boxes of things in his attic that he'd never looked at. It was a treasure trove of handwritten recipes, writing and correspondence and sketchbooks. There also were medical bills and records."
The scope of unpublished documents in the boxes dumbfounded Matt, offering new insight into the father he'd lost nearly a quarter-century earlier. They covered not only his food writing but also drafts of pieces about other interests—gardening, travel, his declining health. While Matt lived and worked elsewhere before returning to live at his dad's old house, renters had miraculously left the boxes intact.
"Most of it is cookbook notes, menus, journals, sketches. In some cases, I really remember what he was writing about, or when it was," says Matt, now 44. "I thought I had about a third of what I actually had."
Medley and Paddock finished the 13-minute documentary just minutes before the film premiered last month at the annual SFA symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. (A local screening is in the works for January in Chapel Hill.) Neal is open to working with them on an extended version of the documentary. After all, they helped him learn about his own late father.
"They were sensitive and smart to the story," he says. "I found it very moving and engaging, though I'm a bit biased."
John T. Edge, the executive director of SFA, agrees that the film represents a balanced look at Neal's brief, brilliant life and a significant achievement for Medley. She previously produced a series of SFA shorts called Counter Histories, regarding the role of food in the civil rights movement.
"Last year, we asked her to explore the burdens of racism and the heroic stories of Southerners who fought that bastard Jim Crow," Edge explains. "This year, our assignment required more subtlety. She juggled narratives of fame, creativity, sexuality, family and mythology. She accomplished all with aplomb and sensitivity."
Medley and Paddock interviewed many people who were part of Neal's culinary circle, some of whom are still active in the area's food scene. There's Moreton Neal, his former wife and the author ofRemembering Bill Neal: Favorite Recipes From a Life in Cooking, and Crook's Corner chef Bill Smith, who succeeded Neal in that role just as he'd done previously at La Residence.
Last May, Gene Hamer, Crook's owner and Neal's former partner, was inexplicably omitted from a panel discussion on the 30th anniversary and enduring impact of Bill Neal's Southern Cooking at a UNC conference. They Came for Shrimp and Grits corrects that, allowing Hamer to offer red-eyed recollections of his last conversation with Neal and his sense of his friend's lingering presence at Crook's.
New York Times food writer Kim Severson presents a thoughtful assessment of Neal's role as a magnet for exceptional talent, even if he famously declined to give a break to Magnolia Grill's Ben and Karen Barker. (Still, the couple later required all Magnolia cooks to study Bill Neal's Southern Kitchen.)
And those who did put in time with Neal at Crook's before achieving renown elsewhere share insights about Neal's passion for promoting regional foodways and his seemingly manic temperament in the kitchen. John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, for instance, speaks with palpable regret about never mending fences after an argument with Neal that ended with the younger chef flinging a cup of hot coffee at his boss. But there are many references to Neal's influence in Currence's cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey.
"You can still see that it really hurts him," notes Matt. "But John has paid his own dues in the meantime. He's really pushed and promoted my dad's legacy."
Neal's importance extends far beyond his recipes, though. He believed food could say a lot about who someone was and where that person was from. He made the claim in 1986 to Bill Friday during an episode of North Carolina People in a rare video appearance that opens They Came for Shrimp & Grits. Young and confident, Neal contends that, whether a conscious decision or reflexive habit, the food we choose to consume connects each of us with a time and place. Now a tenet of foodways studies, that notion was still novel at the time. In only 13 minutes, They Came for Shrimp & Grits gets to the core of Neal's decades of impact.
"It's really touching for me and my family," Matt says. "It's like when Dean Smith's players started missing him again; they, like others, talk with praise. They don't have to do that, but they've all gone out of their way to do so."
This article appeared in Indy Week with the headline "A simmering history."