James Michael Crooks, a chef and former co-owner of the Country Kettle Cafe in western Howard County, died Friday of heart failure at his New Windsor home. He was 44.
Mr. Crooks was born in Wheaton and was raised there and in London, where he attended London Central High School.
After graduating from Wheaton High School in 1982, he went to work in the restaurant business.
"We met when we both were working at the Olney Ale House in 1983. Back then, we were young and crazy," said his wife of 17 years, the former Amy Regina Lauer.
"I later studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., but Jim was a self-taught chef. He had a natural-born talent," Mrs. Crooks said.
Mr. Crooks worked at the Inn at Glen Echo and E. W. Beck's in Sykesville.
"He was also trained by a chef who went onto the White House," Mrs. Crooks said.
In 1999, Mr. Crooks opened the Fire House Pub in Mount Airy, and in 2001, he and his wife established Country Kettle Cafe on Route 144 in Poplar Springs.
Because Mr. Crooks and his wife had spent time studying with several friends in Louisiana who were chefs, it was only natural that Cajun cuisine eventually influenced his own style of cooking.
Some of his signature dishes included a butternut squash and crab soup, Cajun gumbo, Black Kettle chili whose ingredients included Andouille sausage, Cajun salmon Caesar nicoise and a fried catfish that was coated in cornmeal and served with horseradish.
The couple closed their restaurant this year because of the economy, according to Mrs. Crooks. At his death, he was the chef at Baldwin's Station in Sykesville.
Mr. Crooks enjoyed collecting and listening to music. His musical tastes ranged from big bands to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Viers Mills Baptist Church, 12221 Veirs Mill Road, Silver Spring.
Also surviving are two sons, Albert J. "A.J." Crooks and Zackery L. Crooks, both at home; his mother, Clara J. Crooks of Silver Spring; two brothers, Frank C. Crooks of Daytona Beach, Fla., and John S. Crooks of Olney; and three sisters, Mary Sue Crawford of Reading, Pa., Amy Jean Walker of Altoona, Pa., and Ruth Ann Willard of Damascus.