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‘Chef’s Table’ Recap: Sean Brock’s Long, Strange Journey Through Southern Cuisine

Netflix’s hit documentary series looks at the dramatic career of a Southern iconoclast

Courtesy of Netflix

The Sean Brock episode of Chef’s Table covers all the major peaks and valleys of the chef’s career as he tries to elevate Southern cuisine while also preserving its heritage.

Directed by series regular Clay Jeter, this episode is certainly an absorbing overview of the influential chef’s journey through the culinary world. But it sadly does not cover Brock’s recent departure from the hospitality group that made him famous, nor his plans to open a restaurant inspired by his Appalachian upbringing. The episode also, unfortunately, positions Brock as the savior of dishes and techniques that originated from West African slaves, without sufficiently exploring the history of these foodways or what it means for a white chef with a fine dining pedigree to be folding them into his repertoire.

Arguably the greatest value of this episode is that it depicts how Brock’s life changed after being diagnosed with a rare disease called myasthenia gravis. The episode features commentary from the chef’s girlfriend Adi Noe, writer John T. Edge, and chefs Tyler Brown and BJ Dennis.

What was Sean Brock’s journey through the culinary world like?

Sean Brock grew up in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, deep in the heart of coal country. Although he had a happy childhood, Brock’s dad died of a heart attack at the age of 39, and his family moved in with Sean’s grandmother. “Food was this incredible source of pride,” the chef remarks. “My grandmother was constantly teaching me the things that her grandparents taught her about food.”

When Sean was 15, his family moved to a small town in Virginia called Abingdon, and he got his first job in a local restaurant that had a raucous kitchen. “It was the scariest, craziest thing I’d ever seen,” Brock says, but he was immediately hooked. After high school, he started scoping out cities where he could learn more about cooking, and landed on Charleston since it was the closest culinary destination. “At that time, the chefs doing fine dining in Charleston were taking these iconic and classic dishes like hoppin’ John and shrimp and grits, and cleaning them up and making them beautiful,” Brock says. “I wanted to learn how to do that, so I threw myself into the craft of cooking.” Brock spent the next few years honing his kitchen skills, but the chef says, “When I discovered modern cooking, that changed everything.”

Courtesy of Netflix

At the age of 24, Brock got his first job as executive chef at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. Excited to finally be in charge of his own menu, Brock created a 30-course tasting, and the restaurant booked 275 guests during its first service. It was a disaster: Brock estimates that they ended up serving around 50 people that night. The owners were upset, and a bad review followed shortly thereafter. “I‘ve never, ever wanted to quit something so bad in my entire life,” Brock remarks. “But instead, I walked in the next day, and I apologized and I said, ‘I’m not gonna take another day off until we get a good review.’”

True to his promise, the chef worked for 10 months straight, sometimes sleeping on the floor of the kitchen with mops as pillows, and the restaurant eventually got a glowing review. “That 10 months of extreme workaholism, it worked,” the chef explains. “And so that was the way I worked. That was the way I thought. That was the way I expected everyone else to feel.”

Following three years at the Hermitage, Brock moved to McCrady’s in Charleston, a restaurant that was considered the best in the city. While he was excited to serve his modern interpretation of Southern cuisine, Brock had trouble finding the right ingredients in Charleston. He then met Glenn Roberts, a farmer who Brock says was “restoring the pantry of the Lowcountry,” and their relationship inspired the chef to seek out more ancient grains and plants to use at McCrady’s. “Little by little, our pantry was being stocked with ingredients that were unique and true to this place, and I was able to push this cuisine forward,” Brock says. His menu was a huge hit, and Brock won a James Beard Award in 2010 in the category of Best Chef: Southeast.

After growing some “Jimmy red corn” on a plot of dirt donated by Roberts, a lightbulb went off in the chef’s head. “That first pan of cornbread that I made, it felt just like eating at my grandmother’s table, and it just came full circle,” he says. “I knew what I needed to do and what path I needed to take. And a few months later, we opened Husk.” Brock’s second Charleston restaurant focused on Southern food rooted in tradition, prepared entirely with local ingredients, including flours, salts, vinegars, and oils made in-house. The restaurant became a critical hit, and it helped catapult Brock to national stardom. Within a few years, Brock started expanding Husk to other cities while continuing to run the kitchen at McCrady’s.

What was his “aha” moment?

One morning, Brock woke up and was seeing double. He visited several doctors and had multiple eye surgeries, but nothing could fix his vision problem. After two years of struggling with this mystery ailment, Brock went to the Mayo Clinic, where a doctor told him that he probably had a rare disease called myasthenia gravis that affects neuromuscular communication. “There’s no other cure for this other than controlling stress, controlling anxiety,” Brock says. “But to treat the symptoms, the doctor gave me a bunch of pills and I immediately stated feeling better.”

With the help of the pills, he went back to work, but a year and a half after the diagnosis, he started seeing double once again. A doctor determined that the disease was graduating from his eyes to the rest of his body. “I hit a level of depression that I never experienced before, and I drowned my pain in bourbon,” Brock says. “I was in the depths of misery at that point. I stopped caring — I just gave up.” Brock’s friends and loved ones staged an intervention.

The chef went to rehab and returned to Charleston a changed man. By committing to a self-care regimen, Brock is feeling happier than ever while also continuing to hone his cuisine. “I’ll be able to spend the rest of my life on this crazy journey of rediscovering Southern food and what it can be,” he says. “And there’s no way to know what’s going to happen a year from now, but today’s today, and today is a good day.”

Courtesy of Netflix

What are some of Brock’s most memorable quotes from this episode?

On his full-throttle chef lifestyle: “I’m 39 years old, and it’s crazy to think that for this long, all I’ve done is work in a kitchen. All I’ve done is focus on being a great chef. That’s a long road. And that’s a lot of damage along the way. And to be the chef that I am today, [that] wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t immersed myself of workaholism. But it nearly killed me. It literally almost killed me.”

On his deep love of Southern cuisine: “Most people have this idea of what Southern food is: being unhealthy and greasy and calorie-heavy. But it’s so much more than that. It’s amazing ingredients. Unique ingredients. It’s specific varietals of plants and beans. The preserves and the old traditions. Taking humble ingredients and turning them into something truly extraordinary. That’s what I see Southern food as.”

On sober living: “The new perspective that I have takes an enormous amount of work every day. To slow down, that’s difficult for me. And if I skip self-care, I feel the old Sean creeping back in. He’ll be there for a long time, in the parking lot doing push-ups, waiting for that moment. Now the trick is to keep that edge, to keep that passion, to keep that intensity, while taking care of myself. Now my goal is happiness, and the food that is created now is the best food I’ve ever cooked.”

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