The last time Sean Brock did an interview with this site, he hadn't yet been the subject of a 9,000-word profile in the New Yorker, he hadn't yet been one of the stars of the Cook It Raw episode of No Reservations, and his Charleston restaurant Husk hadn't yet been named the best new restaurant in the country by Bon Appétit. Those are but three of the many accolades the chef has racked up in a year during which he's become the most visible member of the renaissance currently taking place in kitchens throughout the American South.
Brock still talks about being a country boy who wants to preach the gospel, but now he acknowledges that he has a platform he never imagined having access to. And he intends to use it: he's traveling all over, he's pitching a TV show, and he's evolving both his restaurants while now pursuing the study of Appalachian cooking. In the following interview, he runs through it all.
Safe to say that when I last talked to you, you hadn't totally blown up yet.
I'm a country boy who grew up in the coal fields, dirt poor. Sometimes you don't see these things coming. Sometimes when you work too hard or think that's what you're going for, you screw things up, so you just have to keep your head down, be nice to people, and preach about the right things. When you do that, good things happen. Once good things happen, it's most important to realize that you have to use the platform that you're given the right way.
For me, all of a sudden, it seems like people are noticing that I have something to say about the South. I finally have their attention, which is great. I just pitched a TV show, and I never thought that would happen. That's fucking scary! It's insane.
Was there a single thing that happened that clearly signaled that things had changed?
When I got invited to Cook It Raw. I got that phone call and almost puked. I really was that terrified. "What the hell am I going to do there? Why are they inviting me?"
What did you learn from the experience? And what do you say to people that criticize those gatherings as self-congratulatory, cliquey, or pretentious?
When you're able to get together all of these talented and intelligent people in what's basically a roundtable discussion, you learn so much. That's what life's about — learning. What's wrong with like-minded individuals getting together and discussing things of interest? Nothing negative is going to come of that. Nothing. When people say bad things about it, they're probably jealous, which is unfortunate. These are incredible chefs and writers and thinkers that want to get together and just talk and be together. That sharing is in many ways what life is all about.
Can you talk more about what you learned from it?
It was life-changing in many different ways, because I saw a culture that was so advanced. Then I saw a lot of similarities with where I come from, the Lowcountry, and Japan. They're both cultures based around rice, but unfortunately, rice left the Lowcountry right before the Great Depression started, and now it's making its way back in. You wonder what the culture would be like in Charleston and the rest of the region if rice had never disappeared from 1930 to the 1990s.
The rice is symbolic there, and it kind of was the same thing in the Lowcountry. Back then, you ate rice three times a day, you fed your dog rice. What I found interesting was how one crop can not only form a cuisine, but shape a culture. If you look at Charleston, in order to have a successful rice plantation back then, you'd really need to understand crop rotation and soil management. In order to do that, you needed to know which plants to plant at what time, because it was a 17-year crop rotation. We had the West African influence in the plants that would nourish the soil, but the deeper you look, you see how the basic need to keep the soil rich — those plants make their way into the cuisine and the pantry and into the culture.
If you take these plants that are part of that crop rotation and then you add in the influence of West African agricultural practices and knowledge and cooking, as well as influences from the French Huguenots and a couple of other places, you see how a cuisine is shaped.
So you look at Japan and see how they are so isolated and how rice is their cuisine. It's theirs and it's been theirs for a very long time. Look at all the wonderful things they do with it. What if we had Lowcountry sake?
Have you made that?
Yeah, we make it with our rice. Then we make rice wine vinegar with that sake. And then we say, "Why can't we make soy sauce with farro or Sea Island red peas from West Africa?" You begin to wonder if that would have been the evolution of the cuisine or if it should be that way now. It's all about taking advantage of your resources and using the plants and products that grow and thrive in your region so you can tell a story. If you can manage that properly, you can create an honest and beautiful cuisine.
Does this apply to Husk, McCrady's, or both right now?
That's what we're really trying to do at McCrady's right now. When you walk in there, you find an 18th century tavern, one of the oldest restaurants in America. There are the hearths that they built for cooking, right in the dining room, there's this wonderful smell, the exposed brick. If you sit down and have a bowl of rice that tells this story, it's giving diners a unique experience. They can only get that there.
For the sake of clarity, run through how you view the difference between the two restaurants these days.
Husk is about the South and showing the cultural diversity of the region. There's no primary focus. At McCrady's, we're trying to figure out what it's like to cook today in Charleston, not at another time in history — what's it like to eat, breath, and cook there now, inspired by the history certainly, but also by the products that are showing up now. That's a lifetime of work, though. But I would say that McCrady's is in a really special phase.
For a long time, before Husk opened, McCrady's was the only restaurant that I cooked in. I had this internal struggle: I loved Southern food like fried chicken and pig ears, because it was in my blood, but I also loved modern takes on regional cooking. So I had both swimming around in my head, and it was tough to nail it down and stay focused. When Husk opened, I finally had that outlet for that Southern fix. What does the South taste like? What's the new South? What's the old South? What's the dirty South? Now, at McCrady's, I can just figure out what it means to cook in Charleston today.
We just keep building and building our pantry at McCrady's. When you walk through that place, you'll find these rabbit holes everywhere. There are things fermenting and aging and curing and bubbling away. There is stuff working everywhere. We're just trying to evolve our cuisine, and we really think about what's going on on the plate. At Husk, it's more casual and fun. At McCrady's, we want you to have that unique, intellectual experience.
Would you say it's a more ambitious restaurant than Husk now?
I mean, having a restaurant like Husk, that only serves Southern ingredients, is pretty ambitious. I always say that I cook with my heart at Husk and my mind at McCrady's. If you eat a vegetable at McCrady's, we're seasoning it with vinegar made from that vegetable. We have like 50 vinegars working right now. The goal is to present it super simply on the plate. We're doing huge pork loin that we cook bone-in, asado style for two hours. One guy builds a huge fire, rotates it for two hours, and sweats and burns his ass off to make it. That becomes a little block of pork, which seems so innocent and simple. With it come these lightly braised turnips and then it's finished with a turnip juice that is fermented for only a few days and has a crazy, intense horseradish flavor. It's three things on the plate, basically. It's about taking the ingredients from the old and new pantry and bringing that unique flavor to the plate. It's not easy, but that's my goal as a chef.
To you, is what makes the food Southern most importantly the ingredients?
I think it's the spirit, the culture, the memories, the way you look at things, the point of view, the perspective. If you're only using the ingredients at arm's reach, then yeah, that's Southern food. For me Southern food is about using the ingredients at arm's reach and applying the specific cultural influences of your region and life. When you start thinking about that specific point, you begin to realize how diverse the South is. It's like Europe almost. You could take just one state and see about six different cuisines and styles of music. It's fascinating.
Is it your sense that the majority of people aren't clued into that?
People have no idea, and that's why I'm trying to speak at as many places as possible and do this TV show. I want to show people how interesting and fascinating this culture is. Very few people have had the opportunity to see that.
Have you seen some improvements?
Yeah, because now I'm getting invited all over the world, which proves people are interested by this mysterious area of the United States. The perception of it has been so misguided.
Why do you personally think that is?
We tend to be attracted to the people that are doing things in an extreme way or in a shocking way, but you realize that the things that are done by honest and discreet people are really beautiful. That applies to a lot of people all over the South. There are such amazing figures across the South that people don't know enough about yet.
Who are some of those figures?
Look at Billy Reid. You'll walk around Manhattan and find someone wearing his stuff, which makes me happy. Look at John T. Edge, who is a complete badass and an ambassador. He's partly responsible for my obsession with Southern culture — seeing how proud he was made me want to study it more.
Was there a time when you weren't proud of it?
No, not really. I'm young. When I was 23 or 24, I loved eating Southern food, but I wasn't interested in cooking it. I was interested in blowing shit up with liquid nitrogen. Then I did an event at Blackberry Farm with the SFA called Taste of the South. What they do is pair a chef with a writer. I got paired with John Egerton, whose book Southern Food I ripped off enormously in college for a paper I had to write. But before that event, I reread the book, and I realized when I met him and was there at the SFA event that I wanted to go crazy with all of this. That was one of those moments when you realize how stupid you've been.
Before we wrap up, what can you say about the TV show?
I had this idea for a TV show that, through my adventures, explores the South through music, food, writing, all beautiful art forms. It's been so much fun doing it and thinking that it might actually be on TV. What I'll say is that it's a mix of fun and thoughtful.
And finally, when you look at the next ten or so years, what do you want to tackle or see happen around you?
Right now, I'm really interested in studying Appalachian cooking, which is the cooking of my childhood. I don't know anybody as interested in it as I am. It's a really wonderful cuisine based on preservation and the garden. There are some really cool dishes and techniques that really blow people away when they actually manage to try them. It scares the shit out of me that no one knows about this food from the coal fields of Virginia and the mountains. I adore and love Lowcountry cooking, but the next ten years I'm thinking I'll focus on that.
Would it be within one of the restaurants you already have?
I think it would need its own place. It's comforting but actually very, very healthy. Growing up, we didn't eat much meat. There were lots of vegetables, and when you ate chicken, you knew where you got it, and when you ate fish, you had caught it yourself. That's a culture that's dying, and I don't want it to.