Southern Radicle

In 2010, James Beard “Best Chef Southeast” winner Sean Brock started a new restaurant to protect the legacy of a lost cuisine. He ended up sowing a revolution.

Sean Brock takes stock of a curing hog.     Photo: Joe Spring

Sean Brock pinching the fennel.

Sean Brock with curing meats.

So much of chef Sean Brock’s success started with the idea of a seed. In May 2010, David Howard of the Neighborhood Dining Group and his partners bought a crumbling 18th-century Queen Anne-style home in Charleston, South Carolina, and asked Brock to open a restaurant. The chef said yes, imagining a place where he could highlight the throwback vegetables he grew and ate as a child in Appalachia. The crumbling walls were fortified, the reclaimed wooden floors were polished, the brick shell was exposed, and the house was turned into a metaphor—a strong casing meant to protect southern cuisine. With the exception of tourists, nothing north of the Mason-Dixon would come through the large glass front door. The recipes would come from 18th- and 19th-century cookbooks. Meats would arrive from local ranchers. Local farmers would supply only southern vegetables. They called the restaurant Husk, after the dry outer covering of a seed.

Brock was already the executive chef at another Charleston restaurant called McCrady's. There, he poured reductions of plants like cabbage into beakers and transformed heavily-manufactured things like Mountain Dew into basic ingredients like vinegar. Several years ago, he also grew heirloom southern vegetables from rare seeds in a large garden for the restaurant. He woke up at 6 a.m., tended to his crops, showed up to the restaurant at 1:30 p.m., and worked until 2:00 a.m. All that work ground him down, so he stopped gardening, but his obsession with rare seeds intensified. “I realized that was something I needed to focus on and something that was important to me and something that was important to the future of southern food,” says the 35-year-old.

So he outsourced, partnering with Maria Baldwin of Thornhill Farm to grow the vegetables and save the seeds. They passed the seeds out to local farmers, who now grow the produce for Husk, which opened in November 2010. The farmers’ SUVs and delivery trucks pulse in and out of the restaurant’s parking lot. Brock takes in whatever he can, like a seed imbibing from the surrounding soil. Every day, he writes the vegetables and the farmers’ names on a giant black board at the front of the restaurant. Every day, something new arrives. “That’s a really cool way to cook because you never know what’s going to happen,” he says. “You never know what’s walking through the door, what it’s going to taste like, or how you’re going to cook it.”

It’s a culinary riff on a refined scale, and Brock has made the notes resonate. Many have applauded. In September of 2011, Bon Appetit dubbed Husk the best restaurant in the United States. In October of 2011, Burkhard Bilger wrote an 11-page profile of Brock for the New Yorker. In February of 2012, the James Beard Foundation named him a semifinalist for the Outstanding Chef Award. In October 2012, Brock announced he would open a new branch of Husk in Nashville, Tennessee. In March of 2013, the James Beard Foundation nominated him again for its Outstanding Chef Award.

Brock has become a culinary celebrity. Local farmers are becoming brands. The protective casing has burst open.

BROCK’S PREPARATIONS PUSH INTO every cranny of Husk and out on to the premises. He pickles and cures and hangs and smokes and grills and ages food in closets and corners and sheds and on porches and in the parking lot. He bustles around the grounds, testing and tasting. In between bites, he utters short exclamations of analysis and praise.

On a large rectangular grill filled with glowing embers near the back fence, three-dozen chopped fennel bulbs covered in parsley cook slowly. Brock puts the back of his hand over the vegetables to check the temperature, pinches a quarter bulb, turns it, holds it up to his nose, and smiles. “Are you kidding me?” he says. “Smell that. Smell that.”

The chef picks up boards from a torn up whiskey barrel spilling out of a nearby shed—remnants of Frankfort, Kentucky—and explains how they provide flavor. He hustles to a refrigeration room. An assistant slices steaks that seep sunset red. Brock shakes his head in disbelief at the color, and then catches something out of the corner of his eye.

“Look at that,” he says. He laughs and points at a roughly 100-liter plastic container, filled with enough pimento cheese to shock the head of the Chinese Navy. “Holy shit,” he says.  There are similar-sized boxes of fennel, cheddar cauliflower, and turnips. Brock says it will all be gone in a day or two.

He scuttles through the parking lot as a farmer named Meg Moore from James Island pulls her red Honda CRV alongside the house. She swings open the back door to reveal boxes of vegetables. In a container big enough to hold shoes for a toddler’s feet, golden sweet pea stems with violet and white satin flowers nestle together. Brock pinches a bunch, folds it, pops it in his maw, and starts chewing. “Mmmm,” he says. “Those are beautiful.”

He steps through the back door. “Hey chef, how are you doing?” says a voice from the kitchen. He responds in kind and rolls past the counter, under a chandelier, by the blackboard that lists the day’s ingredients, up some stairs, past the men’s and women’s restrooms, and opens a door at the end of a hall. Golden lights reflect off the upper curve of bell jars filled with stewed tomatoes, pickled cauliflower, and dark green pickles. He grabs a jar, turns it in his hand, and shuffles on to the back porch deck, through another doorway, and into a room filled with fridges. He opens two silver doors to reveal two hanging pigs’ heads. The curing noggins look rubbery, like Halloween masks. He points at the marbling along the edge of one swine’s brow. “That’s going to be good,” he says.

He sits down on the wooden floor next to a wine cooler, opens the door, reaches underneath the bottles, pulls out a plastic container, removes its already askew cover, and looks through a white cheesecloth. Inside sit a bunch of grey pyramids covered in mottled white mold.  He pinches the cloth and lifts carefully, like he’s pulling the veil off a virgin. He moves his head in close, as if to kiss a chunk of cheese, and takes a long extended whiff. “Oh man,” he says. “Beautiful.”

THERE’S EMOTION IN THE simplest steps of making food. That’s what Brock thinks, and to watch him move around his restaurant grounds, sniffing, touching, tasting, and laughing, it would be hard to argue with him. Once seated for an interview, he slows. His eyes roll down and look distant, as if he’s gazing through the floor and into the ground. He answers questions thoughtfully. Occasionally there’s a soft shake to his speech, as if his mouth can’t quite shape whatever feeling is rising up from his gut.

His voice is the subtlest tell to his passion. His fully tattooed left arm is the loudest. To take his mind off the stress of opening Husk three years ago, he decided to get inked. Every two weeks, he showed up at a tattoo parlor and often threw traditional southern vegetables on a table. The tattoo artist drew jimmy red corn, red ribbon sorrel, breakfast radishes, and cherokee yellow wax beans on his arm. “He’s now a vegetable expert,” says Brock.

As the ink soaked into his skin, pain marinated his brain. “Therapy,” he says, against the stresses of running two restaurants. In the end, he had 100 hours worth of vegetables scattered down his left arm, which now rests on the black table in front of him. “You wear your heart on your sleeve,” he says. “Mine happens to be a garden.”

We sat down with Brock this winter to learn about how he got his start, why it’s important to save rare heirloom vegetables, and who deserves the credit for reviving an almost forgotten cuisine.

Where did you grow up?
I was very lucky. I didn’t realize it, but I was really luck to grow up in a very rural part of Virginia. People really sort of lived this rural lifestyle, and, as you’re eating food, you either grew it or you knew the person who grew it. Or you caught it or you shot it. Food is very, very important in those rural communities. I grew up in a garden, and I grew up fishing and hunting and processing food in some form or fashion. It’s still like that there. I thought that’s the way everyone grew up. I thought that’s the way everyone lived. I didn’t realize that people actually went to restaurants and stuff to go to dinner—that they didn’t cook themselves.

Who was in charge of that in your family?
It was my mom and my grandma. They were the masters, the chefs. They were the ones who taught me. What’s cool is that, these days, my mom lives here, and we still cook together. I’m still trying to master her chicken and dumplings, which, I don’t know that I ever will.

At what age did you get into cooking?
I was probably 10 or 11. At that point, I was glued to the TV watching great chefs, and the TV series. Yan Can Cook, Justin Wilson, Galloping Gourmet, Julia Child, and Jacques Pepin. That was before The Food Network insanity. I already had my own knives and pots and pans and was already cooking full meals for my family by the time I was 11.

And what kind of food did you like to cook?
Chinese food.

Really?
Yeah, I loved it.

How did that happen?
I’m not sure. I just became obsessed with Chinese food, I guess, because it was such a different thing. Where I grew up we didn’t even have restaurants to go to, much less ethnic restaurants. So I would see these things and read about them, and I had a hand-hammered wok—I still have it—and bamboo steamers, and all of that stuff, including Chinese cleavers. I would just cook these huge meals that were all Chinese dishes. I have no idea why. I still love Chinese food. I even like really bad Chinese food. 

Like cheap General Tso’s chicken?
I’ll crush that stuff.

It’s perfect after a night out, especially if you’re not feeling that good.
Oh, it’s so good cold, too.

Sitting around all night in its sauce?
[Laughs.]

So, you started cooking for your family at a really young age, at what point did you think, This is what I want to do?
I was probably 14 or 15. That was kind of when the whole Food Network thing started. Chefs started to get more respect. It was seen as more of a career than it was in the past. I started working in restaurants, washing dishes, and just fell in love with it. I was like, Wow, this is really cool. You can act that way and still be respected.

What do you mean by that?
Well, being in a kitchen is like being on a pirate ship or in a submarine. You’re there with your team and you spend so many hours together. It’s just so much fun—you can act and say whatever you want. You can’t do those things as a banker or an investment broker. We have fun. We play really hard and we work really hard. I remember when I was 15 or 16, in 1992 or 1993, washing dishes and admiring the cooks—these guys with black bandannas on, blaring Metallica and smoking Marlboro Reds, talking about how much fun they had the night before, and still just making beautiful meals. I was like, Wow, I got to do that.

Where was that?
It was called The Hardware Company restaurant and it was in Abingdon, Virginia.

That’s your early start in cooking. What about your early start in farming and growing vegetables?
Oh, I grew up doing that. Those were my chores as a kid. I grew up in the dirt, in the soil. My chores as a kid were digging potatoes, or shredding lettuce, or shredding cabbage, or stringing beans. Those were the things I had to do before I could play wiffle ball or Mario Bros. I don’t know, I just thought it was in my blood. I though everybody did that.

Then I became a professional chef and I started realizing how the flavors of the vegetables that I grew up eating—beans, lettuce, and corn—were different. The food I was cooking, the food that was available from distributors, just wasn’t the same. I knew that the only way that I could get those flavors on the plate was to do it myself. I started to grow food on a piece of land. It was a crazy idea. I didn’t know what I was doing.

When was that?
That was five years ago.

Take me through quickly how you started your restaurant?
Well, I got really lucky. I was a chef at a hotel in Nashville, but I’d gone to school here [in Charleston] and worked here and knew that I just loved this city. I knew that this was where I wanted to be and where I wanted to live. I just kept my ear to the ground and I heard that the chef at McCrady’s had just left. I put in a call to the place immediately and asked for the manager. I said: “Hey, I heard the chef left. I’d like to put my name in the hat.”

Strangely, I was the first person to call. When she told me that, I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow and I’m going to cook you a meal.”

She said, “What?”

I said, “No, I’ll be there tomorrow and I’m going to cook you a meal.”

I cooked a 10-course meal for the owners of the restaurant, which, at the time, were the owners of Piggly Wiggly, which was cool. I got the job. A couple months later, they sold the restaurant to another group of guys, which I thought was kind of screwed up. As it turns out, those guys are my partners now. Those guys are my buddies. We’ve had an incredible relationship and we’re going to keep opening up restaurants and keep building and creating and dreaming. It’s so much fun, and we’re in the middle of that process right now, opening up a new restaurant in April in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a little crazy. Living in two cities is going to be fun, especially a city like Nashville.

That’s going to be another version of Husk. Can you tell me where the idea for Husk came about? What was it about McCrady’s that you weren’t doing there, or what was it about opening a new restaurant that led you to open Husk.
I had my car in the parking garage over there, across from Billy Reid. I always parked there, so my walk was always down Queen Street to McCrady’s. And I always saw these buildings, which were pretty much abandoned. Homeless people were living in them and they were falling down. It always bothered me. Man, these places are just like ... and no one’s paying attention to them. I would always daydream, like, Man, what would I put in there? Maybe I’d just make it a smoker. Maybe I’d turn it into a barbecue place. Make a whiskey bar.

Then, one day, David Howard said: “Hey, let’s take a walk. I want to show you something.”

He wouldn’t tell me what it was. We’re walking down the street and I was explaining to him that this was my walk to work every day and started pointing out the types of architecture that I liked or admired. And we got to this building that we’re sitting in, and I said: “Take this place for instance. Look at this. It’s unbelievable. It’s so cool, and it’s falling over.”

I walked up and I put my finger basically through the brick, like [he moves a finger as if easily digging into the mortar between the brick]. I said, “Oh man, this place is insane.” He stopped and said, “Do you know something I don’t know?” And I said: “No. What are you talking about?” He said, “This is where I was taking you, we just bought this place.” I said: “What? Well, that’s strange.” And he said: “Well, what do you see? What kind of restaurant is this? “

Without even hesitating, because I had already thought about it, I said, “That’s a restaurant you go to and you sit down and you eat the best damn cornbread you’ve ever eaten in your life, the best damn chicken you’ve ever eaten in your life, the best shrimp and grits. That’s a southern restaurant, but a real southern restaurant. Not a southern restaurant that has fajitas and quesadillas and tacos and pasta. I mean a real southern restaurant.” And they’re like, “Interesting.”

And so.
So I kind of had to invent something that was the right plan, but the more I thought about it, the more questions I asked, the more we discussed it, I began to realize that there weren’t any restaurants in America that were really true and honest about southern cooking. Because one of the things about the South is that there’s so much cultural influence. That’s part of the food, but the more I researched the food, the more I asked myself, “Well, what is a southern restaurant? What makes southern food?”

I knew that I had to be able to answer that question with honesty. That was something I chased.

I finally figured out an answer that I was comfortable with: the thing about southern food is that it’s the cultural influences for sure, but it’s also the ingredients at arm’s length in your particular area. Well, hmmm. I guess if we use any food that’s not southern, it won’t be a southern restaurant, meaning, no Italian olive oil, no balsamic vinegar, no French truffles, no whatever. So I was like, Wow, that’s going to be challenging.

I decided we needed discipline—a set of rules in order to create a place where people could sit down and experience what it truly is like to eat in the South on a particular day. The discipline was, Well, we can’t buy anything that wasn’t grown or produced in the south. That was insane, to accept that and to see if it was possible. It’s very challenging when you try to make stock without carrots, onion, and celery—cause they’re not grown in the south.

We’ve been doing that for the last two years. We’ve challenged ourselves and we’ve created this discipline that also has been really great for our cuisine because it simplifies it. It doesn’t give us the time or opportunity to be crazy creative or go nuts like we do at McCrady’s. Here, we cook what comes through the back door and we change the menu every day. We use a lot of smoke and fire to cook with and we do it very naturally. That’s what Husk is.

Can you tell me a little bit about why you’re doing the seedsaving? How much of that is time spent in the field or researchers or...?
Well, in order to properly embrace cuisine, and to try and revive it and reboot it or replicate it, you have to understand that it starts with plants, and it starts with plants for a reason. Agriculture is everything. It shapes cultures and cuisines. Each individual area has its unique particular history. Agriculture is based on geography and the dirt and the weather. Specific plants grow better in specific areas. So whatever the plants are that thrive in the soil in the areas, that’s what’s in the pantry, that’s what you cook, and that’s how cuisines are formed.

Here, it was all about rice—rice plantations and the plants that were part of the crop rotations that helped nurture the soil for the rice growers. All that helped shape the cuisine and influence the culture, but then the Civil War happened and hurricanes happened and people stopped growing rice. When they stopped growing rice, they had no need to grow all the other plants. So that pantry, that list of ingredients, disappeared from 1910 or 1911 to 1998 or 2000. So if those plants aren’t there, that cuisine isn’t there. You’re making Hoppin’ John with Uncle Ben’s rice. You’re not making it with Carolina Gold rice. It doesn’t taste the same. It doesn’t have the same emotional effect. That’s why seed saving is important.

Number one, things taste better before they are genetically engineered and modified, which affects flavor. Secondly, these things carry stories and teach us lessons. They teach us about a time or place or family or region or part of history that we need to be reminded of. So you start cooking things that have stories and that changes the dialogue at the table and people hopefully appreciate the food a little bit more and chew a little bit slower. They appreciate it and respect it in a different way if they understand the work that has gone into getting food on the table, especially a very rare variety of a plant that was almost extinct, a story that was almost extinct. I think that makes food tastes better. Physically it does, but I think emotionally it does.

And so how are you doing with the seedsaving?
Well, I’m probably four or five years into it now. Basically, I work with professors and historians and scientists and seed savers who share the same passion about reviving a specific cuisine. They do the research and they find the plants and they go through the agricultural literature from the 19th century and farm journals. They dig through all those things and compile lists of plants that were being grown here in specific varieties. Then they go and find seeds in germplasms, collections, backyards, or whatever. We work together because that’s the stuff that I want to grow. We’ve had a piece of land for the last three years that’s just dedicated to that.

Now, it’s getting to the point where my seedbank is so large that I have enough seeds to start giving them away, saying to a farmer: “Here, take this. Plant this whole field of corn. I’ll buy it back. Don’t worry about it.” Those are the relationships you have to form because that’s the way the process works. That keeps the seedsaving going, but it also brings it to the table, so we can serve it here and we can serve it at McCrady’s. And other restaurants can serve it, and the farmers keep seeding and they can grow it again. Then they sell it to 30 restaurants, and that particular variety of beans starts showing up on printed menus throughout the town. That’s what it’s all about. That’s exciting. That’s awesome.

Is there anyone here that you really trust to go out and find stuff for you?
David Shields is the main guy that does the research. He’s a professor. He has access to literature that we don’t and he finds the cold hard facts. And Glenn Roberts finds the plants and grows them and shares the seeds with me. I cook it. It’s just this really cool circle. Husk wouldn’t exist if those two guys never existed. They’re the reason Husk is here and they’re the reason we can cook a specific way and with a specific flavor. There’s no way that this restaurant would exist without their work: no Carolina Gold rice, no Sea Island red peas, no Carolina gourd seed corn. This place wouldn’t exist. Well, it could exist, but it wouldn’t taste very good.

Did you know all that when you started this restaurant?
Yeah, the more I thought about what a southern restaurant was, and the more I thought about what that meant, the more I realized how it all keeps coming back to the products and the people that make those products and make all that reality. That’s why our tag line is a celebration of southern ingredients. That’s what it is, and that’s why you walk in the restaurant and you see that board and you start seeing people’s names. That’s a system of checks and balances. It’s all about them. This isn’t about the creativity of a chef. It’s about telling a story of the work that Glenn Roberts has done, the work that Allan Benton () has done, the work that Adam Musick, or Jimmy Haygood, or whoever, has done.

That’s the dialogue that we want at the table. We want people to think about the work that goes into food: the production aspect, the research aspect, the nurturing of the plants. That way we don’t have to worry so much about the cooking. You know, slow cook it. Just sit down and we’ll cook it over a live fire and an oven and put it on the plate and that’s it. That’s how the whole place sort of fell into shape. It all started with wanting to make people like David Shields rock stars. Put them in the spotlight.

So when you get your ingredients in, what are you looking to do to create a dish?
Well, it’s completely different here compared to McCrady’s. It has to be; they’re two completely different worlds. Here, it’s about the ingredients and not doing anything to them but applying heat and putting them on the plate. At McCrady’s it’s much different. There, it’s about being intrigued and it’s about pushing and forward thinking. How can we take something in its natural state and how can we make it better through the idea of forward thinking?

An example would be, OK, cabbage walks in the door. It’s delicious raw. Now, how are we going to get it on the plate to make it incredibly delicious? So we juice some of it. We start to ferment some of the juice, just like you would with sauerkraut. That starts to form a glutamic acid type atmosphere where you have umami. We’ll cook the cabbage in that. We’ll take that same liquid about two more weeks. It’s vinegar now. We add that, that gives us acid. We’re layering things on top of each other, but it’s still just cabbage. So we take things a bit further there than we do here. Here, it’s simply not about that. We don’t have the time. It’s a much simpler, more natural approach. McCrady’s is more of an intellectual thing. How far can we push this?

Where did that approach at McCrady’s come from? Because that’s something very different from how you described growing up.
I think it boils down to curiosity. For me, I’ve always been a very curious person and pondered and wondered. And that’s what McCrady’s is. It’s a lot of asking questions and pushing things as far as you can—trying to understand things on different levels through research and even a scientific understanding of why things do what they do. Trying to understand microbiology and bacteria. It’s all these things. That’s a part of me the same way that digging potatoes and putting them in a wood burning oven and putting them on the plate is. To me, it all makes sense. It’s all the same thing. It’s multidimensional. I love them both, and that’s what so great about having two restaurants. They’re two outlets. Before Husk was open I was trying to do all of those things under one roof, but having a great restaurant and cooking is about focus, and giving the right things the right amount of attention. That’s what’s great about having two restaurants. I can cook very simply here and I can go down the street, walk a few blocks, and pull things out of a beaker.

Is it fair to describe the food here then as comfort food?
Oh, absolutely. We wanted you to feel like you’re sitting in someone’s home, and someone’s mother or grandmother was cooking for you. Those were the things we talked about when we created the place with the designers and the architects and the team. You want to create a world-class restaurant in a beautiful place, but you also want it to be like you are sitting in someone’s home. There’s a different level of relaxation connected to that. You can kick back and wear a T-shirt and a ball cap and not worry about anything. You can wear flip flops. It’s not about spending an hour getting ready to go to dinner, getting dressed properly, and going through all of that fuss, because that changes your emotional connection to your experience at the restaurant. You can focus on the food and not worry about whether you’re using the right fork or knife.

And since you’ve started cooking here is there a dish that you’ve made that stands out as your favorite?
Well, we’re very, very focused on the future of southern food, and our biggest inspiration is the history of southern food. I collect 18th-century, 19th-century cookbooks and work with a lot of historians to dig up and cook these old dishes. I read about them and become inspired, so those dishes really get me excited. If I can find a really old recipe and read it and be like, Whoa, that’s crazy the way they put that dish together, then cook it today with the ingredients we have, with the same ingredients they had? Those are the dishes I get excited about. Those dishes are the most important because they remind you and the guest why Husk is standing and why it exists, because it’s about those products. There was a very, very long period of time where those ingredients didn’t exist. We couldn’t cook this food. We couldn’t replicate those dishes honestly. Now we have those products and it’s fascinating to find an old recipe, an old dish, an old way of looking at things, read it, dream about it, and wonder, and then be able to go to the cooler and the pantry and cook that dish and taste it. Whoa, this is delicious. This cuisine was amazing. This cuisine is going to be amazing.

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