When a young, bare-armed chef named Sean Brock took over Charleston fine dining restaurant McCrady’s in the spring of 2006, the small Southern town was nothing like the cosmopolitan city seen on Southern Charm and in-flight magazines today. Above Calhoun Street were boarded-up storefronts, and many downtown restaurants served the same tired menu of crab cakes, she-crab soup, and stuffed flounder, in a pastiche of idealized antebellum decor.
Twelve years later, Brock now wears an entire sleeve of heirloom vegetable tattoos, has eight restaurant openings under his belt, and is the poster child for the modern, Billy Reid vision of the South: highly polished and expensive. The Charleston restaurant scene has exploded up the entire peninsula; over sixty restaurants opened since the beginning of 2017, and there’s more on the way, with new openings routinely making national best-of lists, while the annual Charleston Wine + Food festival pulls in top talents from across the country.
Brock helped bring about that change. Cast as the city’s leading culinary voice by nearly every local and national outlet, he pointed that light towards the under-appreciated wonders of Charleston with his restaurants, cookbook, television appearances, and magazine spreads — and now he’s leaving.
On Wednesday, the chef announced that he has walked away from his roles with Neighborhood Dining Group, the company that essentially made Brock a household name. He remains “founding chef and culinary advisor” of the four-city Husk empire, but he is no longer involved with the other NDG restaurants: McCrady’s, McCrady’s Tavern, and Minero. His departure marks perhaps the single most significant event in the Charleston food scene in the last decade.
Brock has always been ahead of the culinary crowd trends — or at least on the very cusp. In 2006, the young chef offered Wylie Dufresne-esque molecular gastronomy to diners at McCrady’s, a white-tablecloth restaurant housed in an eighteenth-century tavern. While pushing local palates with freeze-dried foie gras and sea urchin powder, Brock also blogged incessantly, optimistically sharing his love of Ossabaw hogs, heirloom seeds, and the glory of Lowcountry rice — all at time when most of the prominent restaurants in town were still more interested in feeding imported, flavorless shrimp and grits to tourists.
Brock made his definitive case for the little city by the sea with the opening of Southern-ingredients-only Husk. When the Queen Street restaurant opened in 2010, an avalanche of praise came swiftly after a much-hyped first night. Brock became a bonafide celebrity, and the New York Times set out to determine if Husk was “the most important restaurant in the history of Southern cooking.” He would go on to win a James Beard Award for “Best Chef Southeast” that year, and Charleston dining hasn’t looked the same since. Working with heirloom products and a sense of history has become a key tenet of Charleston’s restaurant culture; rare bourbons, a Brock passion, are now commonplace and nobody blinks an eye at a $30 plate of locally raised chicken.
It’s easy to credit (or blame) Brock for the city’s sudden-feeling resurgence, but it was more like the Southern stars aligned. The Charleston Visitors Bureau was pumping money into advertising the amenities of the Holy City to the world. South Carolina had recently loosened the mini bottle law, so the bar at Husk could stock up on rare bourbons. Other ambitious restaurants began popping up around Charleston: Asian comfort eatery Xiao Bao Biscuit, late-night sandwich shop Butcher & Bee, Mediterranean-meets-South the Grocery, and James Beard award-winning chef Mike Lata’s the Ordinary.
Charleston was a “foodie” destination by late 2013, with Husk at the top of the list for must-visits. It was the beginning of boom times for everyone that made a living off of Charleston’s tourism economy. But many of us locals wondered whether the glut of new restaurants wasn’t also the beginning of the end of the city we loved. With all the talk about Brock, Brock, Brock, Charleston became known as “a town afloat on bacon-washed bourbon,” and that specific point of view spread across the South, with restaurants clamoring for rare bottles of cult-favorite Pappy Van Winkle and pork belly on every menu. Brock helped bring “home” recipes into high-end restaurants. He served pig ears and chicken skins, and critics declared it a revolution.
More than just a star chef, Brock became known as Charleston’s scholar of the South, having spent a good portion of his career studying its history, foodways, and heirloom recipes and attempting to honor those traditions. He would often speak about the African descendants of the American slave trade who created the cuisine of the South and cultivated the staple products he celebrated at Husk, whether that’s Carolina rice or benne seeds. As he got more famous, Brock would name-drop Charleston’s smaller, black-owned food businesses, sending media attention, television crews, and tourists their way. But there’s no denying the primary audience for Brock’s work was white; and the question of whether Brock’s work is outrightly appropriative has been and will continue to be up for debate.
When Brock opened a Husk in Nashville in 2013, the narrative started to change. It was the the first sign that he would not, in fact, “never leave,” as he had told Eater only two years prior. With Husk Nashville — which some considered even better than the original — he was no longer a Charleston chef, he was an empire-builder. He went on to open Mexican-inspired Minero (2014), Gilded Age restaurant McCrady’s Tavern (2016), and, again in 2016, an updated McCrady’s with a tasting menu of “the most intense” food he had ever created. He then went to work building two additional Husks in Greenville, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.
He opened up about battling a rare autoimmune disease and later told the New York Times about going to rehab and sobering up. Despite his having businesses across the Southeast, Brock’s 157,000-plus Instagram followers could see that he was most invested in life in Nashville, newly sober and living with his girlfriend, two French bulldogs, a growing obsession with classic guitars. He seemed happy there.
But what does a post-Brock Charleston look like? The Neighborhood Dining Group restaurants will be just fine without their main attraction; Brock is well past the stage of his career where he would be rolling the burritos at Minero or saucing the plates at McCrady’s every night.
Charleston, meanwhile, has continued to mature. Like the new McCrady’s, Charleston 2.0 looks more expansive — chefs like Shuai Wang, Josh Walker, Jill Mathias, and Paul Yellin are finding inspiration far away from their own backyards, even as they remain totally committed to artisan producers.
Of course, along with the exciting talent that has found a home in Charleston came the Husk copycats, chains, and restaurateurs with too much money and too little vision. Investors and developers continue to build restaurants here, and tourists keep arriving to eat at them. Rents are climbing alarmingly fast.
It’s tempting to see Brock’s exit as an ending or, at the very least, the beginning of an ending, like the indie song played to death in an Apple commercial. If Brock’s past ability to predict where culinary culture was heading says anything about Charleston, it’s that the city risks draining itself of the energy needed to support the type of creativity that fueled the chef’s meteoric rise.
But his exit also leaves room for the city’s other chefs. Charleston has plenty of talent beyond Brock, talent that too often was relegated to the shrimp-and-grits cliche — or straight up ignored for not being, well, Brock. It’s up to them, and to us in the local media, to make the argument that Charleston still matters.