In his relatively short career, Charleston’s Sean Brock has become one of the most important toques in the country. As executive chef and owner at both McCrady’s and Husk, the James Beard Award winner is a leader in the movement to preserve and restore traditional Southern heirloom ingredients. The rural Virginia native grew up in a family that farmed, cooked, canned and preserved, and those practices have been ingrained in Brock ever since. His restaurants preach and teach Dixie traditions and tastes, and the menu at Husk focuses solely on foods indigenous to the region. Brock is also a passionate advocate for seed saving and grows a number of heirloom crops. He opened his second Husk location in Nashville in 2013, and the eatery focuses on hearth and ember cooking, as well as local Tennessee vegetables, meat and threes, and hot chicken sandwiches. Brock is also writing his first cookbook, Heritage, which is releasing in October.
What would you serve at your ultimate dinner party?
If I have lots of folks over or visitors from out of town or out of the country, I always replicate a meal from my grandmother’s house, like a classic meal that I grew up with. So there would be a beautiful pot of chicken and dumplings, a huge pan of cornbread, a pone bread, biscuits. There would be a huge crudité platter of lots and lots of raw vegetables — sliced tomatoes, onions, banana peppers, and cucumbers and onions and vinegar. And then tons of vegetables — whatever’s fresh. I’d also serve preserved vegetables from mason jars like navy beans, mixed pickles and lots of different condiments. And then a beautiful sorbet and apple stack cake for dessert.
What is your favorite cuisine?
Obviously Southern is my favorite cuisine, but if I had to pick another one, it would certainly be Korean. I love Korean food. I love condiments, so when you sit down for a meal at a Korean restaurant and they just pound you right off the bat with 12 different condiments — pickled things, fermented things, sauces and spices — I love it. I get so excited about Korean food.
How do you come up with your menus?
Our menus change all the time. Most of the time it’s the same products and the same producers, so the challenge is how can I sort through the things in my head to determine which dish goes to what restaurant. So, in knowing that, that’s kind of why we put that set of rules and discipline in place at Husk. You can only buy products from the South, so we have to write the menu every day. That kind of ties our hands a little bit and keeps us from being too creative. You have to cook on the fly — so it’s like a jazz song. You’re just doing it as it happens — it’s in the moment. It’s whatever just kind of falls out of the sky. You don’t think about it; you just cook. Whereas at McCrady’s,we can work on dishes for two weeks to perfect it. So one is the heart, and one is the mind.
What makes a successful restaurant to you?
I think you have to have a story or a message, and that’s important because you’ve got to have something to believe in to inspire you. But also so do your cooks, so do your servers, because once they understand the story and the message — once they start drinking the Kool-Aid — then they work twice as hard and then they transfer that energy. And now it’s to the guests, and you have to complete the loop. It’s just about having a mission statement, having a goal that everybody agrees upon and can get behind and support and believe in. That’s what it’s all about. Because if your front of the house believes in it, and your cooks believe in it, then the guests are gonna believe in it. And then once the consumer starts believing in something, then they trust you and they’ll eat anything and they want to come back. I think that’s a lesson that I’ve really learned in the past three or four years.
How do you inspire your team?
You have to be extremely passionate. The passion has to just pour out of you when you talk, when you handle things, when you cook, when you explain things. You have to be extremely passionate because you just pass that on, and that passion just becomes part of your life. And you see how positive it can be and how much it can make a difference when you’re cooking, serving or entertaining.
What keeps you so passionate about cooking and the restaurant industry?
I love the eating, I love discovering and I love learning. And I’ve always been this way, since I was a little kid, and that’s what this job is— constant research, constant development, constantly forming relationships and searching out producers and even guests and even ideas, and then taking all of these things and developing them into a dining experience. That’s a lifetime journey. What I’m trying to do is going to take my entire life. I want to get food, Southern food, back to its purity and its honesty. And you can’t do that by yourself. It all starts with the dirt and the plants and the breeds, and if we can do that, which will take a lifetime, then we can sit down and enjoy food that is as delicious as it can possibly be. Let’s take watermelon, for instance. The watermelon we eat these days is like playing Russian roulette. No one ever knows even what variety it is. It’s so commercialized. If you go back to the 19th century, you’ll find very specific varieties grown for very specific flavors, all well documented. The ground and soil haven’t been contaminated with toxins and poisons like we have now. And if you can find an old Bradford watermelon seed and grow it in beautiful soil, then you’re going to taste a watermelon that’s going to blow your mind. Just like the heirloom tomato series. Once you taste anheirloomtomato grown in proper soil, you won’t let someone shove one of those plastic-looking tomatoes into your mouth. But what we have to understand is that every vegetable is in the same situation — even lemons, even celery. We’ve screwed celery up! Who’s growing beautiful heirloom celery? In order to move forward, we have to look back pretty far, and we have to dig through agricultural journals, and look through the literature and old newspaper ads and farm journals. We have to make friends with historians, professors, scientists and seeds men. We can’t just stay in the kitchen glued to the stove in order to move this cuisine forward. It’s a tremendous amount of work that involves a lot of different of people.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
Hands down, my grandmother. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in the middle of the coal fields. And that cuisine is very specific and very unique. In fact, it’s nearly faded away. There are very few people documenting it, studying it and celebrating it. She was that pure Appalachian cook that grew everything, raised everything, conserved everything and cooked everything all day long. So growing up, all my chores had to do with food. Before I could play whiffle ball or Super Mario Bros., I would have to string up a bushel of beans or snap beans, shuck corn, grate cabbage for sauerkraut or peel potatoes every day. I was working with food from the time I was able to walk.
When you live in a rural area like that, you didn’t go to restaurants. In fact, I don’t even think that the town that I’m from even has a restaurant these days or has ever had a restaurant. You don’t go out to eat; you cook all day, sit down with your family and you eat. You occasionally order pizza, but I thought everybody lived that way. It’s very European to live that way. I didn’t sit down and eat at a nice restaurant until I was like 15 years old.
What are your favorite things to do in Charleston?
- Go to Bowens Islandand eat oysters. That’s a really cool thing.
- Have margaritas at the Surf Bar on Folly Beach and walk out to the lighthouse and hang out.
- I think for me, some sort of bird hunting, like duck or quail.
- Well, obviously eating at Husk and McCrady’s.
- I think just seeing some sort of historical-driven tour to really see the city and understand the history. I think that’s really fun. A lot of people think it’s really cheesy, and it’s not. I think it’s very, very cool and informative. We have some fantastic tour guides in town, and you always learn these really cool things about the city and its history.
- I love hanging out at this place called The Gin Joint. They make really fantastic cocktails. And there’s a dive bar I love called The Griffon.
What’s your favorite time of the year in Charleston?
I think late spring. First, there’s the really beautiful vegetables: English peas, asparagus. Around that time, we also have soft-shell crabs, so it’s really just a wonderful time to eat out and do social things. But there’s also this sort of energy in the kitchen. Everybody is excited about cooking green things and more fruits and vegetables. That’s my favorite, and the weather is just perfect. It’s absolutely perfect.
Photo Courtesy of Andrea Behrends