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Sean Brock on Bringing the Past into Modern Southern Cuisine

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[Photo: Terry Manier]

Yesterday afternoon Sean Brock, chef at Charleston, South Carolina restaurants Husk and McCrady's, made time during his drive through the Appalachians to explain in some detail his goal of bringing back old southern cooking and ingredients. There was much talk of family — of grandma — and of the passion and rigor that mark the soft-spoken chef's "gospel."

What's up?
I'm having a great day. Driving through the middle of the Appalachian Mountains listening to Drive By Truckers. It's about 90 degrees. I came back to where I grew up for my nephew's high school graduation.

How was that?
It was fantastic. It's easy to forget where you come from sometimes. When you drive through the mountains and hang out with your family, and hear stories about curing hams and pickling beans and making sauerkraut, that brings it all back. You realize how lucky you are to have grown up in the south.

Cooking is in your blood.
Yeah, absolutely. Where I'm from is a very small coal mining town where you never had the option of going out because there were no restaurants. You grew everything that you cooked. You preserved and you cooked all day. I thought everybody lived liked that. When you think about it, it's actually very European. I grew up in the garden. I grew up in the kitchen.

You've said that your cooking at Husk is all about researching old southern cooking. Can you talk a little bit more about that and the motivations behind it?
There are two sides to that. I grew up in Virginia in a very rural area, and that's a completely different culture and a completely different pantry and a completely different type of cooking from where I live now, Charleston. And that's what's interesting about southern food: it's very, very regional.

I love Charleston cuisine as much as I like the Virginia mountain style of cooking. So, our cooking at Husk is a combination of those two.

A lot of the pantry at Husk is what I learned how to do when I was a little kid hanging out with my grandma: making vinegar and fermenting things and making pickles and preserving food in mason jars. That's my childhood. I have this memory of seeing thousands and thousands of mason jars in my grandma's house filled with food, and eating from those jars.

What's beautiful about that style of living is that that food lasts a pretty damn long time. Once my grandma passed away, I found that I still had lots of her food in mason jars in my house in Charleston. So you cook a meal for your family and you find a mason jar that still has your grandmother's handwriting on it. And you eat it, and it's nourishment, and it's delicious. It's more than just eating a cupcake. We certainly push that idea — and the Low Country influence — at Husk.

I've been in Charleston eight years — I'm in love with it and I'm never leaving — the history of food there is really, really incredible. We love researching all the plants that were being grown there and the fish that were being caught.

It's about looking back, drawing inspiration out of respect. We're realizing how pure and beautiful the food was at that time, especially 19th Century Charleston. And those historic dishes, we haven't been able to replicate them until recently. Those dishes were being cooked with ingredients that were in their purest form. They weren't genetically engineered. So they taste different. We're now finally at a point where farmers and people are growing these in their purest form. They taste the way they're supposed to taste. That's insane.

Can you talk a little more about what motivated it?
It started by staring at this empty building that was going to be Husk and figuring out what to do with it. Once we decided that we wanted to give people who had never experienced southern cuisine the best experience as far as the current state of southern food, I started asking myself, "Well, what is southern food? What makes a restaurant a southern restaurant?" So I gathered the menus of all the southern restaurants I knew, and I realized that a big part of southern cooking is the cultural influence, which differs from region to region.

So we decided to almost entirely remove that aspect and just focus on ingredients. What I wanted more than anything was to show the current state of ingredients and call attention to and celebrate the people that are bringing that to your table.

Do you sometimes feel that the goal at Husk limits you in a negative way?
I needed those rules, I needed that discipline. I didn't want to make pasta, I didn't want to make burritos. It's been the most difficult thing I've ever tried to pull off and the biggest learning experience I've ever encountered. I realized how much I don't know about cooking. What I mean by that is flour and sugar and salt and vinegar and all these things that we have in our pantry that we've always just purchased.

When you are cooking and you have these beautiful ingredients and you open the pantry to reach for vinegar, you can't just reach for something that's purchased, since there's very little vinegar production in the south and there's no production to support what we need. So what happens? You make your own vinegar. And you make your own balsamic vinegar. I would have never had to do that if I could just reach for it. It's teaching us about food on a different level.

How do you take that emphasis on research and make it contemporary?
We're very interested in modern cooking techniques. You can have a plate of food that is rustic and simple, but we're using technology. We're not afraid to use sous vide. We're trying to take those traditions, those old beautiful ways of cooking, and refine them. Just make them a little bit cleaner and put them in a modern-day context.

Who would you say are your contemporaries in the movement to bring back the old?
I'm just a spokesperson. The people that really influenced me are three main people. Professor David Shields of the University of South Carolina, a brilliant, brilliant human being who has dedicated his life to researching and finding these documents and proof and putting them into the limelight for chefs like myself.

He works mostly with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, and he's the guy that grows all these things. He and David deal mostly with the Carolina rice culture type of things.

On the mountain heritage side of things, John Coykendall. He's a master gardener at Blackberry Farms in Tennessee. He's a collector and saver of all the old mountain beans and peas and corn and squash. I work closely with him to hear and trace these stories. In fact, I think one of the coolest things in the entire universe is that John Coykendall, one of the most respected gardeners in the south, is growing my grandmother's strain of beans, Wild Goose, which she saved her entire life.

It's neat to see how we go back and forth with each other and how we each can gain knowledge from each other and inspire each other. There's very few people doing it, man. I just hope that one day it'll be mainstream, and everybody will be able to rattle off forty names of beans. Because that's the way it used to be and we have to get it back to that. We have to.

With Heston Blumenthal recreating old British cuisine in London and Grant Achatz doing Escoffier 1906, do you think an emphasis on the old is maybe eclipsing molecular/progressive cuisine?
I think it is progressive cuisine. Progressive cuisine is exactly what the word means: it's about constant discovery and constant research. It's about trying to seek out as much knowledge of food as possible, and that may be a period of trying to find out about science in cooking, and that may be about trying to find out about Escoffier, or even how the Native Americans cooked. It's all a journey and a desire to learn and move forward. That's progressive cuisine to me. It's so much fun to watch all the different stages of it.

We're looking at this naturalism stage right now where everybody is excited about and proud of having these little patches of wheat sorrel and bulrush and morels and chanterelles, and foraging and finding coastal plants. That wasn't happening five or six years ago in America. It's just the way the human mind works. It's natural progression and it's beautiful.

I'm excited to see the next phase.

How do you compare Husk and McCrady's these days?
The beauty of McCrady's is that there are zero rules. The food at Husk is very simple. If there is too much creativity involved, the dialogue at the table is going to be about how interesting the idea of the dish is. At McCrady's, I can do whatever I want.

I'm guessing the answer is "no," but I have to ask: got any future plans? Opening any new places?
I'm so damn proud of where I come from that it hurts. I just want to preach that gospel right now. I have a lifetime of work to do. Husk is the perfect stage for that, and I don't want to leave those two restaurants anytime soon.

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76 Queen Street Charleston, SC 29401-2220