“We probably could not open a more complicated restaurant.”
David Howard, the president of Neighborhood Dining Group, understands why people are confused by the decision he’s made with his partner, acclaimed chef Sean Brock, to open two new outposts of Husk — in Greenville, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia — this year.
Husk, with locations in Charleston and Nashville, is not an elevator-pitch restaurant. Back in October 2010, Brock told Charleston magazine that Husk would “celebrate Southern food in a restaurant where all of the ingredients have been raised, grown, or produced in the South and resurrect older dishes as we resurrect old crops.” Brock threw himself into researching old menus, studying up on the agriculture of 19th-century Charleston, and generally nerding out in the way he’s become famous for. “I have a lifetime of work to do,” he told Eater in June 2011. “Husk is the perfect stage for that.”
Each location is considered among the best restaurants in town. Husk Nashville has a coveted place on Eater’s list of the South’s 38 essential restaurants and on the national Eater 38. So Brock and Howard’s decision to replicate a lauded, deeply complex restaurant seems even odder considering that the group has a casual concept in its portfolio (the taco restaurant Minero, with a location in Charleston and another in Atlanta) plus the famous Husk cheeseburger, which could surely fuel a fast-casual brand of its own. Why not focus on something like that?
“I think doubling down on Husk,” Howard says, “is a bold thing to do.”
The Beginnings of Husk
By the time the Neighborhood Dining Group opened Husk in November 2010, Brock was already well-known in Charleston for his work at McCrady’s, where he earned himself a Beard Award earlier in the year. “It’s safe to say that the opening of Husk has been the most anticipated and hyped of any new Charleston restaurant in years,” reads the lede of Charleston City Paper’s January 2011 review.
Today, the menu continues to reflect Brock’s obsession with heirloom ingredients and Southern producers, and his research is ongoing. “When I start talking about history, antiquity, and all of these things, I’m afraid that people get this vision of, like, a Civil War reenactment with people in costumes, a Disney sort of thing,” he says. “A large part of historical research, respect, and wisdom is also [asking], What’s the future of this cuisine? What’s the future of the food in this town? What’s the future of the food in this region?”
If Husk Charleston laid out a philosophy, the restaurant became a ~brand~ when Brock and Howard opened a second location 550 miles away, in Nashville. Howard doesn’t remember the exact conversation he and Brock had about expanding, but he remembers “when we decided to look at the demand for seats in Charleston, it was logical to say, ‘What if we do another one?’ I remember Sean saying, ‘Man, I just think Nashville is a fantastic place.’” Brock, who worked for years in Nashville prior to his time at McCrady’s, also had relationships with farmers and cooks in town.
Howard and Brock announced their expansion plans in 2012, and from the get-go made it clear that Husk Nashville would be a different restaurant from Husk Charleston. “We are looking to expand what we do and what Husk represents,” Howard told the Post and Courier in 2012. “It will be a little different because the ingredients will be a little different, but it will have the same standard of hospitality, the same high-quality cuisine and the same super-friendly staff and professional service at Husk (in Charleston).”
Of course there were questions: How could a restaurant founded on exploring specific Charleston foodways go anywhere else? The Nashville opening would be a test of Husk as philosophy — “the study of culture through food,” as Brock put it in early 2013 — versus Husk as a restaurant.
The Nashville experiment, which debuted in May 2013, went well — very well. “The 550 miles between them has allowed each to develop distinct, rooted identities,” Eater’s roving critic Bill Addison wrote in a 2014 side-by-side comparison. And even though Husk Charleston came first, Addison concluded: “The cooking in Nashville is so all-in-one Brock that, if I could only dine once more forever and ever at one Husk (and I pray that will never be the case), I would have to head to Tennessee.”
The Husk framework proved it could succeed in a new city and food system. ("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," Brock told the Eater Upsell earlier this year.) Next on the docket is Husk Greenville, which should open to the public by the end of October. Greenville will be quickly followed by the Savannah restaurant, currently slated to open the first week of December.
“What I’m looking forward to is to stand in a place, collect the ingredients in arm’s reach, then do the research of what ingredients are missing from the historical cuisine,” Brock says.
And while opening in Nashville seems to have given Brock and Howard the confidence to try again, Howard is quick to point out that nothing’s a sure thing. “[You can’t] guarantee that it’s going to work in another city,” he says. “I think it’s a good dose of guts when it comes to making that final decision.”
Brock says part of the reason he and Howard chose Greenville was the people — namely, their enthusiasm for his food. “Right when we made the decision to go all in, it was during some sort of food and wine festival,” Brock recalls. “David Howard and I were standing there and, like, three different couples came up within half an hour from Greenville requesting a Husk.”
The restaurant occupies a historic building on Greenville’s Main Street, and Howard is particularly excited about joining the revitalization in that area. “It has been an example that set a standard for what can be done in Main Street America,” Howard says.
While Howard oversees the construction and project management, Brock’s been diving into culinary research. “Greenville is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so its cuisine is the opposite of Charleston,” Brock says. “I see Greenville as this amazing opportunity to start a dialogue that includes: What is upcountry cuisine? What is the cuisine of this region?” He's particularly excited by Appalachian preserving traditions and the cuisine's relationship to the foods he grew up eating in Virginia, and notes the area's “insane pride in country ham and corn varietals and fresh mills.”
He’s also diving into Cherokee foodways (“that’s something that I've been really focusing a lot of my attention on, ’cause I have Cherokee blood,” he says), which gives him the chance to once again focus on culinary traditions that are at risk of being lost or forgotten.
Brock has tapped Jonathan Buck, who started at Husk Charleston as chef de partie in 2013 and eventually rose up to the position of executive sous chef, as Greenville’s chef de cuisine. Atlanta hospitality vet Andrea Ciavardini will be the GM.
Savannah, on paper at least, seems like an easier project. “Savannah and Charleston are so close to each other and they’re both low-country cuisine, you’d think that’d be the exact same cuisine,” Brock says. “It’s not.”
In Savannah, Brock’s research has revealed Scottish and Austrian influences (“You see sausage playing a huge role in the cuisine there, where it really doesn’t in Charleston as much,” he says), as well as Greek influences (“Greek recipes prepared with the pantry of the low country”). Brock says “shrimp is king in Savannah,” but where in Charleston it might be served over grits, in Savannah he’s finding more rice and hominy. “Working with hominy and rice instead of ground corn,” he says, “is going to be a lot of fun to dive into.” He is also energized by the curries and flavors that came to Savannah via the spice trade. “And the Girl Scout cookies.”
Brock has tapped Tyler Williams, whom Eater Atlanta named Chef of the Year in 2013 for his work at Woodfire Grill, as chef de cuisine. Longtime Neighborhood Dining Group manager Christian Chapman left his most recent post as GM of Minero in Charleston to take on the GM role in Savannah.
So Is Husk a Chain Yet?
If Nashville proved that the Husk philosophy works outside of Charleston, Brock hopes that together, the four-deep Husk portfolio will prove something bigger about Southern cuisine. “A lot of people think that the South has one cuisine and that’s Southern food,” he says. “If you look at a map of the United States and break off the South, it’s the size of continental Europe.” To Brock, having four Husks in four Southern cities, with four distinct menus, means “[proving] that theory that there are multiple cuisines in the South.”
While Brock and Howard emphasize that each Husk is its own entity, there’s congruity beyond just a passion for heirloom Southern ingredients and obsessive research. Both new restaurants will have some familiar dishes: the iconic cheeseburger, the impeccable fried chicken, and the exemplary cornbread will find its way onto the Greenville and the Savannah menus.
As a larger brand, Husk has an opportunity to make a bigger impact on more communities. Brock says Husk Charleston alone spent nearly $1.5 million on Southern products, sending some $350,000 to a single farm. Between hiring and buying product, Husk the brand has serious financial power when it comes to shaping local food economies.
But do three dishes, a common name, and impressive buying power make a chain? Howard doesn’t think so. “I think we could not be more distant from a chain,” he says, asking and answering the question himself. “Each restaurant has its own tone and motivation, has its own leadership, has its own staff. It’s not cookie cutter. It’s still known as a Husk, but each one has its own identity. We don’t have kitchen managers, we have chefs.”
And though they’re doubling their Husk portfolio this year, neither Brock nor Howard seems keen on looking much further ahead. “We've never really set out a 10-year plan, say we’re going to open X number in the next X,” says Brock.
“Sean and I have had zero conversations about any additional Husks,” Howard says. “We’re so focused on two different cities, two different food cultures, and two different states. That’s a sufficient challenge for us.”