An Ambassador of Southern Cuisine
“If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t walkin’ in the door,” says Sean Brock. The James Beard award-winning chef is passionate about his Southern roots, even going to the extremes of resurrecting antebellum grains and sourcing heritage breeds for his Charleston restaurants, Husk and McCrady’s. He’s the most visible force behind the current Southern food renaissance that’s flooding kitchens across the nation. We talk with Sean about the process of saving seeds from extinction, his obsession with sorghum and expanding his brand to Nashville.
AndrewZimmern.com: How has your upbringing influenced your cuisine?
Sean Brock: I feel like growing up in such a rural place really allowed me to see the work it takes to get food on the table. We never went to restaurants when I was a kid. If we were cooking and eating, we knew exactly where the food came from. We grew almost all of the vegetables that we ate. When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in the garden. This allowed me to really see where food came from and the efforts involved in getting it into the kitchen. This most certainly developed my deep respect for food and dirt at a very young age. I am very thankful for that opportunity. I am amazed at how many cooks have never dug up a potato. You approach cooking a completely different way when you’ve had dirt under your nails.
AZ.com: At Husk, you only serve food that is indigenous to the South, often using heirloom produce and heritage animal breeds. Tell us about the process of resurrecting antebellum Southern ingredients.
SB: I am simply standing on the shoulders of chefs like John Fleer, Louis Osteen and Frank Stitt, to name a few. I hope to someday inspire future generations to carry the torch. Southern food is beautiful. When I started working in professional kitchens I noticed that the variety and quality of the produce wasn’t anything near what I had been cooking and eating from my grandmother’s garden. The lettuces just weren’t the same, the onions weren’t half as good and there were only a couple of varieties of beans coming through the kitchen door. For a long time, heirloom ingredients and old breeds of livestock weren’t available to chefs. People just weren’t growing them. One of the main reasons they weren’t being grown is because a lot of people weren’t aware of their existence. Once people started tasting these old varieties, they could see the difference.
The popularity of heirloom tomatoes really helped shed some truth on the heirloom theory. People went nuts over these old varieties of tomatoes and now you can buy them just about anywhere. Each year I try and pick out a variety of corn, some old beans and a couple of other interesting crops to grow just for seed. I try to grow the things that are the rarest to help build up the seed stock so I can give them away to farmers and chefs. Over the years, I have become friends with a lot of the people who are out there doing the research and growing the food of the old South, such as Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and Professor David Shields. They do the leg work and pass the information on to me. I believe these days my role is to help raise awareness and educate people. I am very focused on learning as much as possible about the history of Southern food. It will take a life time.
AZ.com: What has been your favorite ingredient to work with?
SB: That’s a tough question. Currently I am obsessed with sorghum. We ate it every day when I was a kid. I love watching people taste it for the first time. Everyone thinks that it’s going to taste like the molasses that they are used to eating, but it’s completely different. It is so much more refined in flavor. And one of the things that I love about it is that there are a whole bunch of different varieties that all taste a little different. The old fashioned way of producing sorghum – with a horse drawn press and cooking it down over an open fire – is at risk of fading away. These are the traditions that I grew up with and would be heartbroken if people started moving towards more modern ways of producing sorghum. Where I am from, the annual sorghum pressing is a communal activity. People from the neighborhood get together and have a gathering when it’s time to produce the syrup for the year. This helps bring the community together. If these traditions start to fade away, then so does our ties with our neighbors. Did I mention that sorghum is crazy delicious? We do a lot of fun stuff with it. Currently we are making a vinegar that tastes like very old and expensive sherry vinegar (it’s out of this world). It’s an old recipe I found from the 19th century. Eat more sorghum.
AZ.com: Why do you think Southern cuisine has made such a strong come back across the nation?
SB: Southern food has a deep history and was the first true cuisine of America, in my opinion. Our food tells an amazing story. I feel like people are hungry for stories these days. I think these stories and connections enhance the eating experience. When you eat a bowl of Carolina Gold Rice and hear the history of the Carolina Rice Kitchen, the rice simply tastes better, and it’s pretty darn delicious to begin with. Southern food is also very comforting to eat. Think about how you feel when you eat fried chicken and lima beans at a soul food restaurant. I think our food is very powerful and I am so glad people across the nation are eating it and cooking it at home.
AZ.com: What dish, from either restaurant, is most dear to you?
SB: The cornbread at Husk. It’s a very simple old Appalachian recipe inspired by Ronni Lundy. It doesn’t have flour or sugar in it. You can really taste the flavor of the corn with this recipe. I ate cornbread every day during my childhood. Food like that evokes so many memories. Every time I tear into a pan of cornbread and that smell wafts into the air I am transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen. It’s the first thing I eat when I return home from traveling. Real cornbread is hard to find!
AZ.com: Canning and pickling are part of the operation at your restaurants. What products are you currently preserving?
SB: We are constantly preserving. Right now we are pickling the last of the green tomatoes, it’s important to have those around for Husk. They are so good dredged in cornmeal and pan fried in a little lard. I could eat a whole jar of them. The pickling liquid is a great chaser for a “pickle back.” We are also pickling a bunch of gorgeous cauliflower right now. “Putting up” is so important on so many levels. It helps us buy more food from the farmers. We often buy things for preserving by the truck load. Every time we get our whole pigs in we do a lot of curing. My favorite is making country hams – there is nothing like tasting a ham that you cured for two years.
AZ.com: Any expansion plans on the horizon?
SB: This spring we are opening a Husk in Nashville, TN. I used to live in Nashville and have several close friends there. I can’t wait to cook in that city again. It’s one of my absolute favorite places to hang out. Nashville has a unique voice and the food scene is totally blowing up. I feel very lucky to have an opportunity to bring the theories of Husk to such an amazing and growing city.
AZ.com: Favorite restaurants in Charleston?
SB: I love Fig, I have eaten there a hundred times and it just keeps getting better. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Martha Lou’s. That place is amazing and I’ll always strive to cook like her. My new favorite is Two Boroughs Larder, I am in love with this place, we are so lucky to have such a wonderful restaurant in Charleston. The food is so creative and delicious, but I am afraid they are getting tired of seeing me in there!
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
SB: Lots of food in jars. It’s pretty weird actually. I almost need a separate fridge for all the jars. I just love pickles and preserved food. There is always Pabst Blue Ribbon and some good buttermilk. I always have lots of BBQ sauces, and I never go without Rodney Scott’s sauce in my fridge. And I will always have a jar of Duke’s mayonnaise on hand. I also have a whole section of my fridge that is all Japanese products. I cook a lot of Japanese food at home.
Check out Sean’s recipe for Cornbread, from Husk restaurant in Charleston.
Many chefs have their first exposure to cooking at a young age. For Sean Brock, who was born and raised in rural Virginia, it was the experience of his family growing their own food that left a deep impression. “This was a coal-field town with no restaurants or stoplights,” he explains. “You grew and cooked everything you ate, so I really saw food in its true form. You cook all day, and when you’re not cooking, you’re preserving. If you were eating, you were eating food from the garden or the basement–it’s a way of life.” These were the building blocks that Brock remembered as he began his career as a chef, inspiring a lifelong passion for exploring the roots of Southern food and recreating it by preserving and restoring heirloom ingredients.
Leaving Virginia to attend school, Brock landed at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, SC. He began his professional career as chef tournant under Chef Robert Carter at the Mobil Four-Star/AAA Four-Diamond Peninsula Grill in Charleston. After two years at Peninsula Grill, Brock was executive sous chef under Chef Walter Bundy of Lemaire Restaurant at the AAA Five- Diamond Award/ Mobil Five-Star Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, VA. His success in Richmond led to his promotion within the Elite Hospitality Group in 2003 to executive chef at the AAA Five-Diamond Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, TN. Brock spent just under three years fine tuning his craft in Nashville before accepting a position as executive chef at McCrady’s Restaurant.
Shortly after his return to Charleston, Brock began the development of a 2.5-acre farm on Wadmalaw Island. “While I was growing there, I began dabbling in resurrecting and growing crops that were at risk of extinction, such as those indigenous to this area pre-Civil War,” he says. These experiments have led Brock to become a passionate advocate for seed preservation and he continues to grow a number of heirloom crops, including James Island Red Corn (aka “Jimmy Red”), from which he makes grits, Flint Corn, Benne Seed, Rice Peas, Sea Island Red Peas, and several varieties of Farro. Brock has worked closely with Dr. David Shields and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, studying 19th century Southern cookbooks–which Brock collects—to educate himself on Southern food history and discover new ways to resurrect antebellum cuisine. He also cares deeply about the way animals are treated before they become food on the table and sources heritage breeds of livestock for his restaurants. He has even raised his own herd of pigs.
In November 2010, Chef Brock opened his second restaurant with the Neighborhood Dining Group. Husk, just down the street from McCrady’s, is a celebration of Southern ingredients, only serving food that is indigenous to the South. “If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t walkin’ in the door,” Brock says. The emphasis at Husk is on the ingredients and the people who grow them, and a large chalkboard lists artisanal products currently provisioning the kitchen. Working with local purveyors and vendors has had a great impact on Brock’s cooking, and the menu changes twice daily based on what is the freshest that day. “Gone are the days of a chef sitting in the kitchen creating recipes and then picking up the phone to order food from wherever it needs to come from,” he says. “At Husk, we might get three suckling pigs, three whole lambs, half a cow, and upwards of 450 pounds of fish, as well as mountains of vegetables. We only take it when it’s ready, so it shows up and we have to start piecing the recipes together; it’s like a puzzle every day.”
Brock is also passionate about wood-fire cooking and a firm believer that “low and slow” imparts the most flavor—evident by his two smokers, barbecue pit and spit, and wood-burning oven at Husk, all fueled by an old fashioned burn barrel. At McCrady’s, he cooks food in the dining room fireplaces, originally built for this purpose in the late 18th century. Because the main dining room was actually the kitchen in the 19th century, Brock believes cooking this way brings the historical building full circle. In the future, he sees his cuisine being geared more toward the fireplace–the smell and visual of a chef cooking on an open hearth changes the feel of the restaurant and inspires him a great deal.
Drawing from his early education, the chef also pickles, cans, and makes preserves from the produce that cannot be used immediately, saving it for a later date and for new creations. His favorite old southern preservation techniques include lactobacillus fermentation and making vinegar using his grandmother’s 40 year old vinegar as the base. Brock pulls from his memory of ingredients and their flavor profiles to create the menus at McCrady’s and Husk depending on what is delivered to the kitchen. It’s a modern approach to cooking that comes from a pure appreciation of the food itself. The results are constantly changing offerings for diners that always surprise. “We emphasize the importance of the food from the Lowcountry region and constantly refine our cooking processes to best honor our relationships with the farmers, artisans and fishermen that provide us with their amazing products,” he says.
Brock’s abilities have resulted in a number of awards and accolades, both locally and nationally. He was nominated in 2008 and 2009 for the James Beard “Rising Star Chef” award and in 2009 and 2010 for the James Beard “Best Chef Southeast” category, winning the award in 2010. Most recently, he was nominated for the James Beard “Outstanding Chef” award for 2012. He wasthe winner of the “Next Great Chef” episode of the “Food Network Challenge” and appeared on “Iron Chef America” in December 2010, taking on Michael Symon in “Battle Pork Fat.” Bon Appétitmagazine named Husk “Best New Restaurant in America” in September 2011. Later that year, Chef Brock joined an exclusive group of chefs from around the world in Japan to take part in the prestigious Cook It Raw.
When he does carve out free time, he’s often at his home just outside of Charleston, which he shares with his two dogs and his wife, Tonya, to whom he proposed while cooking at the James Beard House. Chef Brock sports a full-sleeve tattoo on his arm depicting his favorite vegetables, including Jimmy Red Corn. He is soon to begin work on the other arm, planning a map of Southern food. He is working on a cookbook, due out in 2013.