Photo courtesy of Gray Brooks
Williams with a baby Brooks in 1968
Gray Brooks' earliest food memory involves his highchair, where he'd happily eat scrambled egg-and-jelly sandwiches fixed by Hattie Mae Williams.
"That was my go-to dish," says Brooks, co-owner of Durham's Pizzeria Toro
and partner in the upscale diner that will be featured at the overhauled Jack Tar Hotel.
"Hattie Mae was all about doing what you do because you love doing it. It's become my approach to cooking and life in general."
Brooks believes his trajectory—including working for super chef Tom Douglas in Seattle, where he met his wife, Cara Stacy—was significantly informed by Williams. After his parents divorced, the family housekeeper stayed on to help his mother raise three children. She taught Brooks an array of empowering skills, from hitting a baseball to cooking eggs.
Brooks last saw his aging caregiver when he was around 9. A few years later, when he and his mother sought to reconnect with her, they were devastated to discover she'd passed away.
"I was incredibly sad," Brooks says. "That's why we decided to call our new place Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain."
Brooks continues that it comes from a nickname Williams had for him as a boy. She originally called him "Mr. President," but she modified the salutation after the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy: "I was 2 at the time, and she decided that that wasn’t really a safe aspiration to have for me any longer," he recalls. "So she started calling me 'Captain' instead."
The big name has invoked some sharp (and some funny) quips on the Bull City Rising blog post about the spot's opening.
Maybe it simply seems oversized for a 30-seat restaurant, which will be located in the former Monuts space on East Parrish Street. Brooks hopes to make minimal changes to the room, which he hopes to update quickly and open in early 2016. The old Monuts counter will be pushed back about six feet and converted into a lightly stocked bar. The kitchen, which retains only an exhaust hood, will be outfitted with just enough gear to prepare a few dozen dinners and snacks each night.
"I've always loved those tiny restaurants you find in places like New York, the kind where you feel like you have to turn sideways to get to your table," says Brooks. "I love that cozy, informal atmosphere. I want it to feel almost like having a great dinner party with a few too many people at your house."
The daily menu will feature three or four seasonal entrees, a handful of appetizers and raw oysters. "I can just see our ad now on Craigslist: Hiring a dishwasher who can shuck oysters," Brooks says with a laugh. "We won't have room for an extra people."
While it will only offer dinner service, the restaurant will be used during daylight by Toro's pastry chef Emily Barnard. "She works midnight to 8 a.m., night after night," Brooks says. "Part of the appeal of opening this restaurant is the amazing opportunity for her to have normal hours so she can enjoy life with her husband."
It's a notion Hattie Mae Williams would likely appreciate.