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How Sean Brock Reinvented Himself (and His Restaurants)

“I've never felt more creative. I've never felt more courageous.”

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The last few weeks have been pretty big for Sean Brock — which, considering how the last few years have gone, is saying a lot. The chef has been instrumental in the resurgence of Southern cuisine: He’s built himself a public profile higher than most chefs’, his Husk restaurants in Charleston and Nashville introduced new parameters for what’s possible with the Southern pantry and deepened popular understanding of the region’s bloody history, and his well-documented love for bourbon helped bring the domestic spirit back into vogue.

So it was kind of a bombshell when he announced last week — by way of a sweeping profile in the New York Times — that after a stint in rehab, he’s embraced sobriety. He joined hosts Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner in the Eater Upsell Studio shortly before the Times profile went to print, talking about his new practice of self-care, and how that’s translated into the food he serves at McCrady’s, his high-end tasting-menu restaurant in Charleston. (For a conversation with Brock after the profile was alive in the world, check out Eater Charleston.)

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.

Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell episode 57: Sean Brock, edited for clarity, below.

Greg Morabito: When you travel, are you like, I'm going to try new places!, or are you like, I’ve got to revisit favorite places? Do you have any rules about that stuff as a chef?

Sean Brock: I usually chase my passions or my personality, so I'll do lots of soul food, real honest cooking, and then [I’ll go wherever] is serving the biggest and the most exciting tasting menu. For as long as I can remember, I've loved that way of dining, and I think it's really important to support it.

Helen Rosner: Broadly speaking in the industry, there has been a moment of tasting menu backlash, which is an interesting time for you to have just done a massive revamp of your lauded tasting menu restaurant, McCrady's.

Sean: I felt my stomach move when you said that, “the backlash against tasting menus,” because it drives me completely insane. The level of artistry, technique, care for the guest experience, talent, and drive that it takes to produce a meal like that every day is really hard. Most people can't achieve that, so they make shareable plates with sloppy food all over them and say it's the trend.

Helen: Interesting, controversial take. I like this. We're right out of the gate and you're already casting extreme shade on 95 percent of your fellow chefs.

Sean: No. I love to share and have fun, but we have to have all of those [styles of dining]. We have to support it all. I feel like people are just not in it like they used to be, and it's a shame because that used to be all we had. You came to New York and you ate at the big three, or the big four. You had to, there was no question.

Helen: So what are the big three, or possibly four?

Sean: Per Se, Jean-Georges, Daniel, and Le Bernardin.

Helen: That seems fair. Yeah, but it all changed. We had David Chang on the show recently, and he might argue that he is the instrument of change, but certainly from an outsider’s perspective, he's the locus of where all of that started to shift.

Sean: I know. I think it's amazing because it gives opportunities to people who wouldn't have been able to share their vision. But we still have to support that [tasting menu] level of dining. It's so important.

Greg: Obviously it's a specific kind of expression as a chef, but do you think that we need to support it because we need further innovation? Why is that important in the ecosystem overall?

Sean: I think that level of dining and that way of thinking is critical to happiness and joy because you're in someone's hands for a couple of hours and you don’t have to make any decisions. You're there to relax, get away from life for a little while, and just escape into this world of relaxation and deliciousness and connection. That's what we want. We want to take that time we have with you and allow you to appreciate this moment and use it as therapy or like going to the spa. I think we need that.

As a craftsman, there’s also a precision that's involved in the service and the entire experience. I enjoy pushing myself to try to do better every day and that provides that opportunity for me.

Helen: You mentioned relaxing, which to me, doesn't seem like an obvious word to describe the tasting menu experience. We were chatting right before we came into the studio and you were telling me that this revamp of McCrady's is driven by the idea that you want people to have a relaxed experience. I have probably eaten at more tasting menu restaurants than the average bear, but I still find them fairly stressful.

Sean: Yes. I wanted this experience to be the anti-tasting menu. I want it to be the opposite of everyone's perception of what a tasting menu is and feels like because obviously people aren't interested in the way that style of dining makes them feel or costs. I made a list of everything that drives me nuts or even irks me a little bit about a long tasting menu and vowed not to do any of those things. I wrote it down on paper. I shared it with the team.

Helen: What was on the list?

Sean: Sitting for three hours, too much talking from the server, too much information, too much stuff, trying too hard, too much theater. My idea is for you to get lost and trust us. The meal is only two hours. It's never been over two hours. I choreographed every single minute. I can make you feel a certain way when you walk in. At some point in the meal, I can make you laugh. I can make you excited. I can make you nervous. I can hit all those emotions at very specific times because it's all choreographed. It's my idea of a perfect dining experience as a guest.

Greg: How do you make someone laugh? What is that element?

Sean: Humor is very big for me. Just the element of surprise or You’ve got to be kidding me or Did you read my mind. I pay very close attention to emotions that a dining experience can evoke throughout the evening. That's not apparent when you're sitting there. You have no idea that we have taken so much time to look at every single minute because we really want you to have this very specific meal where you'd leave and you'd feel like you just had a massage at the most beautiful, tranquil spa. You feel refreshed and relieved and happy.

Helen: I feel calm just thinking about it.

Greg: Yeah, I know.

Sean: That's what I preach to the team. I'm like, This is an anti-stress thing. Our job is to take stress away from people for two hours. We are all way too stressed out. Let's take two hours and try to get rid of as much stress as we can and then be present and enjoy that period of time before you have to go back to reality.

Helen: So how is this different from what McCrady's used to be?

Sean: So McCrady's was always catering to two different clientele, the guest who doesn't want 15 dishes, who just wants a really delicious, craveable meal, and then we would do 12- to 15-course tasting menus. So in the kitchen, it was just complete chaos. You have 25 percent of the guests doing the tasting menu, the rest ordering steaks all different temperatures, and it just wasn't fun. Now we have those separated and that allows us to focus so much more on the two different experiences and therefore create a much better experience for the guest but also the team.

Helen: It's interesting that you're so dedicated to the tasting menu because Husk, which has two locations right now in Nashville and Charleston with two more on the way, is exactly that shared plate thing you were saying mean things about a few minutes ago. Do you just hate yourself every time you remember Husk exists?

Sean: No, hell, no. The idea of Husk is we want to reach as many people as possible. That's how it started. If the ethos of this restaurant is Southern food is the best food on the planet, we have to make it accessible to everyone. We don't have a bottle of wine over $100. It's food that tells the story. The more people we can get into the restaurant, the more people can hear these stories of different regions and time periods of the South — and different ingredients and antique recipes. To me, that's really awesome.

Helen: That's a bold claim, that Southern food is the best food on the planet.

Sean: I'm 100 percent positive that is the truth. That's the beauty of life. That's my truth. That's my reality. That's my perspective, and that's what I fight for.

Helen: What's the second best food on the planet?

Sean: Japanese.

Helen: Okay. What's the third best?

Sean: French. The fourth best is Italian.

Greg: You've clearly ranked all the cuisines in the world somewhere in your brain. That's an amazing top four. It almost sounds like what you're talking about with McCrady's. I saw a photo of the way the counter is arranged, and it almost looks like an omakase or something. Is there any Japanese influence there? Is your number two favorite cuisine seeping in there at least in practice if not in the food?

Sean: Yeah. You take one look at my Instagram account and it's basically a scrapbook of my trips to Japan. I'm just obsessed with everything about Japan. There's a very specific emotion linked to going into a place with seven seats and two employees, and [there’s a] connection in that moment with those people and their passion and the way you feel. I think that's what I'll always be chasing.

McCrady's allows that. I never thought that I would have this opportunity. It's an opportunity that I have been dreaming of since 2003, and to see it become a reality — to walk into that room, feel that connection with the team and the guests, and see everybody really, really, really happy for two hours — is one of the greatest feelings. To have people say, I feel relaxed. I feel calmer. I feel better. I feel refreshed — that's incredible if we can give that gift to someone.

Greg: As someone who spent a lot of time in New York, I feel like Husk has become the restaurant you're synonymous with outside of the South. Do you feel that Husk overshadowed McCrady's? Is that why you wanted to revamp McCrady’s and make it this singular experience?

Sean: We're so lucky and so grateful that people are interested in Southern food and Southern culture. It's really amazing what's happened over the last four, five, six years. It's something that should have happened a long time ago in my opinion.

Helen: What do you think changed?

Sean: The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation’s work brought back the flavor, brought back the deliciousness, and brought back the story [of Southern food]. We are able to cook simple food with these explosive flavors and change people's minds about Southern food. People these days love a story. They love imagining different times. They love hearing about the importance of saving an animal breed and being a part of that by buying it.

But for Southerners, it's also an enormous opportunity for nostalgia, to take you back to your grandmother's kitchen or those communal dinners within the community. That's a very cool thing to tap into.

Greg: That’s an interesting idea about craving nostalgia. I know that innovation and playing around is very important but there are some things you can't take off the menu like cornbread or fried chicken or your famous burger. Some of those seem like nostalgic things. How do you put together the menus? Do you know that X amount is always going to change, and X amount is always going to stay the same?

Sean: I give 100 percent creative freedom to the chefs of each individual Husk. I'm not standing over them. They've worked with me long enough to operate that restaurant with my vision and do it better than I could, which is freaking awesome. You have to play to the crowd a little bit. You have to have those things on the menu.

I like putting myself in the diner's shoes. If I flew from New York to Charleston and the burger wasn't on the menu and I've been dreaming about it for a week, I'd be so pissed off. And we don't want people to be angry. We want people to be happy. As you get older, or at least as I've gotten older, I care a lot more about being in another person's shoes. That really influences a lot of decision-making.

Helen: Is there a moment that you realized that you cared about that?

Sean: Chefs are oftentimes stuck back in the kitchen with no relationship to the guests. When we built Husk in 2010 with an open kitchen, my expo station was basically in the dining room. Once you start listening to people, once you start sharing stories, once you start listening to feedback, you realize how important that is — and you realize how disconnected you've been back in that kitchen. When it's in front of your face, when you see it and feel it, that's when it hits you.

Helen: What techniques have you developed to keep people happy or to manipulate their emotions at McCrady's? Teach us your ways.

Sean: To me, McCrady's is the answer to a question that's been floating around in my head: What does Southern food taste like today? Not tomorrow, not yesterday. What does it taste like today? That's a really amazing thing to think about because the cultural influence is changing. Ingredients change, weather changes, people's tastes change. There are so many factors. And we have an opportunity to say, All right, we can cook whatever we want. No one gets a choice. We don't have any rules. So we become collectors. We collect the most beautiful products within arm's length and then we take all of the things we've learned over the years in modern cooking and old fashioned cooking and put it together in a minimalistic way so that you're tasting things without too many distractions.

The room itself feels a very specific way. The music is very, very, very important. There is a specific way the music makes you feel. When I'm in the restaurant, I'm deejaying based on how the room feels. Same thing with the air conditioning and the lighting. There is so much more to that experience to keep you captivated, entertained, and connected. That's just really fun.

Helen: It sounds like a holistic, theatrical experience. Just full multisensory manipulation.

Sean: Yes. And you want to have that anticipation of what the guest wants. We have a dish where we purposely put a shitload of this incredibly delicious beef sauce on the plate. When you eat the last piece of meat and the last garnish, there’s all the sauce on the plate that's so freaking good. You're craving it and you're staring at it and then, at that moment, a server sets down a warm piece of grilled bread and tells you to sop that shit up.

Helen: Oh my god.

Sean: It's being in that seat and saying, I'm going to eat this meal 10 times. I'm going to write down everything that I wish would have happened.

Helen: It sounds like Groundhog Day. Not the horrible parts where he's driving a car off a cliff but when he realizes that he has to be standing under this tree at this exact minute to catch the kid who's going to fall and step past this woman and help her not trip down the stairs. You get it totally orchestrated and you anticipate every breath.

Sean: What a cool opportunity to be able to do that in a restaurant.

Greg: It sounds very dialed in. Do you have a map somewhere of every minute of the tasting menu?

Sean: Yeah. I basically broke it up into five-minute segments.

Helen: What if someone gets up to go to the bathroom? I'm very serious. Whenever I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of a tasting menu, I feel like I'm ruining it.

Sean: It's no big deal. We're right there. We watch you go to the bathroom. The kitchen is right beside the bathroom, so we hold your food for you and then make sure that we time it perfectly when you sit down. That food is still at that perfect moment that we chase.

The Japanese inspiration is doing things a la minute because ingredients and products have, I believe, about a five-minute lifespan where they are the most vibrant, the most alive, the most delicious. Every ingredient we work with, we try and find that moment so that the guest gets to experience that five-minute period. We always get to experience that in the kitchen, but if you're at a 12-top with 12 different dishes and you're at the other side of the restaurant, you're going to miss that. It's going to be amazing, but you're going to miss that really special moment that exists in each ingredient. What the hell am I talking about?

Greg: That's very heavy. I've never thought about that.

Helen: We're totally with you.

Sean: Don’t get me going.

Helen: We clearly already have.

Sean: I sound like a hippie.

Helen: Well, okay, let's shift gears pretty dramatically because I have a burning question about Husk that is actually a frequent topic of conversation around the metaphorical Eater water cooler. I would be surprised if this is not something you’ve thought about before. Husk has two locations currently, one in Nashville and one in Charleston, and you're about to open one in Greenville, South Carolina, and then you're going to open one in Savannah, Georgia. At what point does Husk become a chain?

Sean: Yeah. This is what's fascinating about it and this is why we do it: Each restaurant is dedicated to studying and celebrating a specific region. The art will be different. The vibe will be different. The music will be different. The food will certainly be different. And that is an opportunity to show how insanely diverse Southern food is.

If you look at the South on the map, you can quickly see it's the size of Italy. If you start breaking down the micro regions, you could study it for your entire life. Unfortunately, a lot of people know Southern food as one thing, one cuisine. Having multiple Husks not only allows me to explore new regions for the rest of my life — which is a goal, to understand them and to cook their food — but it's so cool for the community because it's singular. It's of that place, in that moment, and that becomes the sense of pride, like Our Husk is better than yours.

Greg: Potentially, you could keep going and turn into a locavore-ish chain. It could be like the neo-Waffle House, which I know you love.

Helen: Regional culinary anthropology. Why call them all Husk?

Sean: Because Husk is a theory. Husk is a belief system. Husk is a vision. Husk is the idea of showing everyone else what we get to experience every day as Southerners. It’s the joy we get in watching other people freak out when they taste Bob Woods’s ham for the first time, or a pawpaw, or Carolina Gold Rice, or any of those things. That's just so cool.

One of the really great things about expansion is watching employees go from the bottom and working their way up to running a restaurant that's really, really difficult to operate on a daily basis. We could not make it more difficult to operate a restaurant. We only use products from the South. The menu changes twice a day. That's reckless thinking, but that's what it takes to say, This is what Greenville tastes like right now.

Helen: How do you do it? This feels like a massive academic and anthropological undertaking to go into a place and figure out not just what makes this place tick but what makes it tick in a way that is distinct from other places.

Sean: How cool is that? That's like Indiana Jones shit. That's so amazing. It's hard. You have to connect with professors and you have to connect with scientists and you have to dig through old newspapers and you have to buy piles of spiral-bound church and community cookbooks. You’ve got to do your homework.

Helen: It sounds like journalism, really good journalism.

Greg: There is a process with every new Husk of digging into that city and its past. Is that how it's been?

Sean: Yeah. It's an opportunity to tell a story and to keep the conversation alive about [the people and everything else] that makes up a culture or a region. That's just really amazing. You can step back and see, Whoa, that's what it tastes like. That's what it feels like. That's what it sounds like. That's what it looks like to be in that place at that moment. Then, if you could time travel to all the different Husks, it would feel completely different. In Charleston and Nashville, it doesn't even look like the same restaurant.

Helen: Will you ever bring Husk out of the South?

Sean: I would love to, but flying all the Southern products would diminish their deliciousness but also cost a fortune.

Helen: What if you did Husk’s theory but in Minnesota or in Idaho?

Sean: That’d be fun as hell. Yeah. Maybe it doesn't have to just be the South. Maybe it's a sense of place.

Greg: Now, we're cooking. I like where this is going.

Sean: Oh, dear. I'm tired enough as it is.

Helen: Well, I have a mystery question that I want to ask. You were recently at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival and your skillet was stolen. I read a throwaway line about this on Eater Atlanta, and I was immediately riveted by the mystery of the missing skillet. My Nancy Drew alter identity snapped into place. What happened? This feels major. Your cast iron skillet, which in a personal brand way feels fairly essential to who you are.

Sean: Yeah. It was really terrible. I wish I could find freaking video footage so I could expose that savage.

Helen: Do you know who it was?

Sean: No. Hell, no. I wish I did, because you can't steal another man's cast iron pan.

Greg: How long did you have the pan?

Sean: About three hours. But it has this incredible story. It's from a guy named Dennis Powell, who created this amazing company based on his passion for his grandmother's cast iron pan. He did hundreds of thousands of dollars in research to create a very specific feel of cast iron. I'd just been blown away by it and he brought it to give to me, and we sat and talked about cast iron and the future of cast iron for an hour. I was on my way out the door so I carried that pan to dinner. I was already growing attached to it and bonding with it, and then it disappeared. That's why I put something on Twitter. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Greg: You never even got to really get to know it.

Sean: Yeah. There's another one in the mail though.

Helen: He's trying to recreate the Griswold cast iron.

Sean: Exactly. It's the most amazing thing I've seen in a long time. To me, that's a legacy. That's like taking Southern culture and making it last for hundreds of years. How cool is that?

Helen: For our listeners who might not be cast iron skillet nerds, I want to explain why cast iron from — was it 1936 or earlier? — is the best.

Sean: There are various blends and recipes that go into making cast iron. Of course, now, we're making them of lesser quality. The best ones are the ones that are used the most. I have my great grandmother's cast iron pan, which is just completely insane to think about. That pan has nurtured and nourished a lot of people. Now there's a million cast iron products on the market that are made quickly and without the attention to detail that existed back then. Everything that was made during that time period was just better, except for telephones.

Helen: God bless the iPhone. Yeah, the legend that I heard is that the alloy had to change because of the war. Suddenly, World War II was looming and you couldn't get the right — I don't know how it works, but I recently spent a fairly obscene amount of money buying old Griswold cast irons.

Sean: Yeah, exactly.

Helen: It's amazing.

Sean: It's a very specific recipe based on the materials that were available at that time in abundance, and they just happened to be the best for that use.

Helen: This skillet company is Butter Pat, right?

Sean: Exactly.

Helen: He's making ones that are just as good as the 100-year-olds?

Sean: Oh my god. I think they're better.

Helen: So, some asshole stole your skillet?

Sean: The pan, I couldn't stop rubbing my fingers on it and making other people touch it. It looks so beautiful.

Greg: You got some Husks. You got some Mineros. You've got a McCrady's Tavern and a tasting menu part of McCrady's. A lot of your contemporaries who also have tasting menu restaurants are now branching out into fast-casual things and food brands. Is that anywhere in your future? Would you ever consider anything like that?

Helen: Sean Brock Pasta Sauce, for instance?

Greg: Or Sean Brock Cast Iron.

Sean: That's a dream of mine. Imagine how cool it would be to have your name on a cast iron pan that lasts 150 years. That's freaking cool but while I would like to say that I think ahead, I don't. I just try to get through a day and do the best I can. I try not to future trip too much.

Helen: Future trip. I like that word.

Greg: Yeah, that's a good one. How's cookbook number two coming along or book number two, I should say. It's more than a cookbook.

Sean: It's so exciting.

Helen: You don't actually sound excited, I just wanted to get that out.

Sean: No. It's been such a project and I'm here this week just to hole up in a hotel and finish it. There are so many amazing stories to tell because this is it. This is my chance to explain my theory that Southern food is the best food on the planet. It's a lot of pressure but it's a book about celebrating tradition and producers. That's it. [It’s also a look at what I hope] the future will hold for that cuisine if we continue celebrating it the way we're celebrating it. This book is going to be really cool and it's going to be something that I hope to be very proud of.

Helen: It's the Husk book?

Sean: Yeah.

Helen: Is that the title?

Sean: Husk something, I don't know.

Helen: The Grand Unified Theory of Husk?

Greg: Husk: Southern Food is the Best Food in the World.

Helen: That's actually pretty good. That works.

Greg: Why Southern Food is the Best Food in the World.

Helen: I don't even need to say why. Go full throttle, just say it and be like, If you would like to know why, you could open the cover but honestly, the cover should speak for itself.

Sean: It's true. I believe it all.

Greg: Your first cookbook, along with a few other releases over the last few years, changed people's ideas about what food books should be like in terms of the organization, the aesthetics, the stories, and the writing in general. I imagine this must be a difficult second album, just with the expectation of How am I going to beat the first one?

Sean: Again, I just don't think that way. I don't worry about those things. I do the best I can to try to make the next best decision and hope for the best. If I start worrying about all that stuff, then I'm going to overthink it. I'm going to second guess my intuition, and I'm going to make something that's not authentic.

Helen: Yeah. Authenticity has become a toxic buzzword but it is a really important idea.

Sean: My perspective on life these days is completely different than it was last year. It's an incredible gift to be able to step back and really know what your role is and what your intentions are. That's really amazing.

Helen: What changed over the last year that changed your perspective?

Sean: As you can imagine, I had a lot going on: Six restaurants, two on the way, battling an autoimmune disease that gave me double vision and caused my eyelids not to work any time I got stressed out or fatigued. As a chef, you're always stressed out and fatigued. So with this autoimmune disease, any time your nervous system is dysregulated, it produces more antibodies which attack your acetylcholine receptors which don’t allow your muscles to work. It started going to my hands. It had been in my eyes. I had six eye surgeries over the last year and a half. It went undiagnosed for a year and a half. It's a serious disease. If you don't take care of yourself, you're not going to be around to preach the gospel of Southern food.

Greg: Do you feel like you're taking care of yourself as much as you should these days?

Sean: Yeah. In January, I got to a point where I had to make some really big decisions and look at things from a different reality, which is that I want to be around for a while. I realized that I had broken myself trying to take care of everyone else first. I put the oxygen mask on the person beside me before I put it on myself, knowing better. The second that I could define self-compassion, everything changed. The whole world opened up.

When you can start taking care of yourself mentally and physically, the ripple effect that occurs is hard to put into words. It’s extraordinary. It's beyond extraordinary to see how changing your behavior affects other people's behavior and happiness. Each day, I do about three hours of self-care to stay grounded, to stay centered, to stay chilled, to stay happy. If you're truly happy and you're experiencing joy, everything else just starts happening and you don't even have to try.

Greg: In terms of self-care, you mean like meditation, exercise, and yoga?

Sean: Yeah. So I have a very strict schedule each day that I try my best to stick to. I meditate at least twice a day. Sometimes, I'll stop on the street and sit on a bench and meditate with my eyes closed. I was in the middle of a video shoot the other day and I was feeling anxious so I laid down on the floor and started meditating and didn't say a word to anybody. I don't care. I stopped worrying about those things. I have experienced life in a new way and it's unbelievable, but it's so much work. You have to take care of yourself and then you'll be amazed at how you're able to take care of the people you love and the people in your daily life. It's really incredible.

I do Reiki once a week, which is everything. It’s crazy to discharge all that stuffed energy. I do Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Somatic Experiencing once a week.

Helen: I don't even know what that is.

Sean: It's a parallel universe. EMDR is fascinating because it's a psychotherapy technique where you start to use part of your brain that's only accessible during REM. It's like a dream world and you can relive moments and change them and affect that neural pathway. Somatic Experiencing is incredible. It's a way to self-regulate your nervous system and traumas so that you lean into the discomfort in your chest and let it do its thing instead of looking at Instagram or drinking a glass of whiskey or whatever you used to do to cope or to bring your nervous system back to equilibrium.

Helen: My god, I need these things.

Sean: It's incredible.

Greg: It’s really interesting to hear you say that it’s a lot of work because I think that may be why it’s sort hard to get to that place with self care.

Sean: Yeah, I do this really cool thing every day called cranial electrotherapy stimulation and it's amazing. It allows you to adjust your brain waves depending on how you're feeling that day or how you want to feel that day. What a gift to give yourself, to say, I'm going to spend two to three hours every day on me. When you come out of those moments, you're so freaking energized. You're so happy. You're so radiant and it makes a big difference on everybody else around you. I've never felt more creative. I've never felt more courageous. I’ve never had this healthy confidence in cooking, entertaining, and my vision. It’s truly extraordinary.

Helen: God, that's beautiful.

Greg: Yeah, that's wonderful.

Helen: I don't know where we can go from here. We have some questions about your underwear preferences for the lightning round but —

Greg: Well, talking about mental health is a new conversation people are having in the restaurant industry in the last few years. It's so important though.

Sean: Yeah.

Helen: It's weird that self-care and mental health are trendy at the moment.

Sean: God, I hope that stays.

Helen: But it's true. The conversation about wellness is not just about eating healthy and exercising. At the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, there was a concerted effort to create spaces for people who needed self-care, and Kat Kinsman’s incredible site Chefs with Issues is all about calling attention to mental health and well-being in the food industry. Suddenly, people are caring.

Sean: Yeah. When people see me now, they're like, What happened to you? Why are you so freaking happy? They think it's weird. It throws people off. People don't know how to handle it and that's really awesome because they will eventually say, I want that as well. I want to be that freaking happy. I want to be able to communicate functionally. I want to be in the moment. And you can be.

Helen: All you have to do is spend three hours a day.

Greg: Yeah, just take your time.

Sean: Acupuncture, tons of therapy, tons of reading, shut your damn phone off at 11 p.m. and don't pick it back up. Take care of yourself.

Greg: It's really cool to hear you — a chef whom a lot of people look up to, who has been on TV, who has cookbooks — talk about this stuff because you are a role model. I'm sure there are a lot of young chefs out there looking at Sean Brock and people like Sean Brock and saying, I want to be that guy.

Sean: If I can inspire someone to take better care of themselves or to have the courage to ask for help, that's way bigger than a bowl of shrimp and grits. That's way bigger than the story of corn meal. That's really important stuff and what a gift. What an amazing opportunity to use a platform — that you worked your tail off and almost killed you [to get] — to influence and inspire other people to chase happiness.

Greg: Did you make any changes in your kitchens and how you run them?

Sean: Yes. I'm working on a model. I'm working on a language. I'm working on a survival guide so that we can be vulnerable. We can feel safe. We can feel secure. We can communicate clearly and functionally without the other person becoming defensive. [I’m looking for] ways to remove fear so that we're driven by happiness instead of being scared to do things. That's really amazing.

At Husk Nashville, we meditate before service. That's freaking incredible. When I first started doing it, everybody would come to me like, Thank you, that was unbelievable. I'm ready to go take care of other people now. Just to see its effect on my team, the relief that these poor people have when they know that we can have a functional conversation without my eyeballs exploding all over the wall or my blood pressure rising has just been incredible. It's made the restaurant so much better and so much healthier and, damn, I'm lucky.

Helen: Well, Sean Brock, on that note, it's time for the underwear questions. They actually aren't underwear questions but we have arrived at the lightning round, which frequent listeners to the Eater Upsell know is the time when we ask you pretty quick questions but they're not actually lightning-ish. Today's guest question asker is the editor of Eater Charleston, Erin Perkins. Erin, welcome to the Eater Upsell.

Sean: I love Erin Perkins. I love feeding Erin.

Helen: She's delightful. She has the best hair.

Sean: She does have good hair. She likes cheeseburgers the way I like cheeseburgers.

Helen: What's the way you like cheeseburgers?

Sean: A lot, every day.

Helen: Okay Erin, now that we have sufficiently embarrassed you on air, what's your first question for Sean Brock?

Erin: Hi Sean, this is Erin Perkins, editor of Eater Charleston and I have some lightning round questions for you. What is one dish that you haven't mastered?

Sean: One dish that I haven't mastered. Wow, so I'm not sure I'll ever master it but it's shrimp and grits. Besides my mom's chicken and dumplings, that's pretty obvious.

Helen: There's a lot of psychology wrapped up on that.

Sean: Yeah, I'll chase that forever but shrimp and grits, what an interesting thing. I bet I've cooked 2,000 versions of shrimp and grits, and I'm chasing the final one. When it's right, I'll know it and I'll stop.

Greg: What's the impossible thing there? Is it the texture of the grits?

Sean: Every single minuscule detail from when the corn was milled, how the corn was ground, what variety of corn it is, how it's cooked with modern technology, how it's heated up, how it's taken care of, how it's held, where the shrimp come from, how the shrimp are handled from the water — to the easy part, which is cooking.

Helen: Cooking is the easy part.

Greg: It sounds like an endless field of study.

Sean: It's so much fun.

Helen: All right, Erin, what's your next question?

Erin: Question number two is what is your favorite snack on a long flight?

Sean: I'm pretty predictable. I usually have three to six Slim Jims in my bag at all time.

Greg: Slim Jims, for real?

Helen: Really?

Sean: When I was a little kid, I used to buy them by the box. My dad would buy them for me and it made me so happy. That's a way for me to stay centered and grounded. It's that nostalgia of the Slim Jim.

Helen: Important Slim Jim question, what is the ideal length? They come in a number of different lengths.

Sean: They can't make them long enough for me.

Helen: They made these super long ones, like they're so long they're flopping over.

Sean: They can't make them long enough for me because I never want that to end, but here's one gripe with Slim Jims. I could never open the damn thing.

Helen: They're so slippery.

Sean: Well, the packet never tears. You're ruining a beautiful moment.

Greg: Wait, so what the hell is a Slim Jim? It's not just beef jerky. It's like a beef jerky tube?

Sean: Slim Jim is hillbilly charcuterie.

Helen: It's so good.

Greg: Yeah, it's delicious.

Sean: Slim Jim is just redneck charcuterie.

Helen: If anybody listening has not tried a Slim Jim, seriously, don't listen to me, I'm just a dumb writer but Sean, tell our listeners that they need to go get a Slim Jim.

Sean: You have to go get a Slim Jim and make sure that you carefully choose the flavor based on your personality. I like mild these days.

Helen: Seems consistent.

Greg: Yeah, right. Snap into a mild Slim Jim.

Helen: Mild is classic.

Sean: I like the moderation Slim Jim.

Greg: Snap into that Slim Jim — in moderation.

Helen: In all things. They're freaking great though. They're simultaneously really greasy and really desiccated.

Greg: It's like the cousin of the pepperoni.

Helen: Distant cousin.

Sean: It's the redneck uncle of the pepperoni.

Helen: They're so good. Oh my god. And you eat them on airplanes? They're very aromatic.

Sean: Yeah, I don't care about that stuff anymore.

Helen: Okay, because you don't care about other people, as we’ve been discussing.

Sean: I take them into consideration.

Greg: All right, Erin, do you have another question for Sean Brock here?

Helen: Yeah, next question from Erin.

Erin: What kitchen chore do you dislike the most?

Sean: What kitchen chore do I dislike the most? Writing a schedule. Oh my god. I had two goals as a chef: I'm going to work hard so that someday I don't have to write the schedule and I don't have to take inventory at the end of the month. It just rips your soul from you.

Greg: But the executive chef has to write the schedule, right? That’s the only person who knows all the moving parts?

Sean: Yeah. Exactly. That's why I'm opening in so many places so I don't have to do that stuff.

Helen: It's all just an elaborate way to avoid responsibility. Erin, what's your next question?

Erin: What TV show are you binging right now?

Sean: Up until 2014, I never watched TV, never, ever, ever. Then, I broke my knee and had to take time off work. I bought the biggest TV I could find and binge-watched for three months straight. It was so amazing. It was incredible. I really like The Americans. I really like House of Cards. I wish Adi was here. She's the TV guru. [Publicist Adi Noe] is my girlfriend and she's very connected to the world of TV.

Greg: Do you still watch TV now? You didn't just throw away the big screen?

Sean: I really like Chef's Table and The Mind of a Chef, and I love documentaries.

Helen: All right. I like that the fiction that you like to watch is about America falling apart.

Sean: It’s reality.

Helen: With very attractive actors playing all the roles. Okay, Erin, do you have more questions for Sean?

Erin: Describe your perfect day of eating.

Sean: My perfect day of eating. All right, that's easy. I would make breakfast for myself and Adi.

Helen: What's for breakfast?

Sean: It's always pretty darn simple. It's always a pork product, eggs made however we’re feeling, and I usually have some caviar around we like to dump on the eggs.

Helen: Oh yeah, it's pretty simple.

Greg: Caviar in the morning?

Helen: It's so simple.

Greg: Average American breakfast.

Sean: And hash browns, hash browns, hash browns.

Helen: What's your hash browns style?

Sean: Well, if we're talking Waffle House: scattered covered smothered chunked. But to me, it has to be a frozen product that's perfectly glued together and steamed just right and you just pan-fry it in some baking fat. That's wonderful. If you don't have that, you take a skillet. You put it on the stove, you get it medium hot, put some bacon fat in there, you hold your cheese grater over the pan, and you grate the potato right into the pan. That's really good.

Helen: Like with all the starchy liquid and everything?

Greg: A la minute.

Sean: Yes, oh, yes. It's so cool. Then, for lunch, I love Arnold's in Nashville. That place just makes me feel really happy. Very few restaurants make me as happy as that place does. For dinner — you know what? I would stop for a snack in between at Rodney Scott's and get a handful of cracklings and barbecue. Then, I would sit down and eat 16 courses at McCrady's.

Helen: I love it.

Greg: That sounds like one hell of a day.

Helen: Yeah, start the day at Nashville, end the day in Charleston.

Sean: I do that quite often.

Helen: That sounds like you are living your dream on so many levels.

Sean: I am. It's amazing and I'm so grateful for all the people who have taken care of me my whole life, my whole career.

Helen: Well, Sean Brock, thank you so much for joining us here on the Eater Upsell.

Greg: Yeah, thank you, chef.

Helen: If our listeners want to find out more about you, your book Heritage is available wherever books are sold. You have restaurants in like eleventy billion different southern cities and you're on Twitter and Instagram. They can find you everywhere and they can go to McCrady's and get relaxed.

Thanks for joining us.

Sean: Thanks for having me. It was fun.

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The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan and Los Angeles
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producer: Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Editorial Producer: Monica Burton
Editorial services: Amy McKeever


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