Sean Brock on Chefs as Academics, Southern Food and His New Cookbook Heritage

Heritage/Sean Brock
Heritage/Sean Brock
Artisan books/Andrea Behrends

Sean Brock is not the chef he used to be. When I first ate his cooking, it was in 2006, right after he took over the kitchen at McCrady's in Charleston, S.C. At the time, Brock was gaining a reputation as one of the South's most engaging molecular gastronomists, using geeky techniques to create interesting flavors. His food then was mind-blowing, but something else was brewing under the surface.

Along with the high tech equipment and different aging techniques, Brock had also begun a farm program, growing his own ingredients and even raising his own hogs (during one of my most memorable meals at McCrady's, Brock insisted on ending the meal with a plate of plain-cooked pork cut from different parts of the animal, just so we could taste the pure piggy flavor of his heritage hogs). And over time, the chef became obsessed with another geeky pursuit: history. 

Now, Brock is considered one of the most important food revivalists in the country, seeking out and growing and supporting heritage crops. While he still leads the kitchen at the upscale McCrady's, he also owns and runs Husk, a Charleston restaurant that is devoted to a distinct kind of Southern cooking, one that relies on history as its muse, but with the care of a great chef's technique and many ingredients that may not have been seen for over 100 years until Brock and his producers brought them back. There is now a Husk in Nashville, and plans to open a restaurant in Atlanta. There have been James Beard awards, a star run on the PBS show Mind of a Chef, and universal respect from chefs all over the world. 

And, of course, there's Brock's new cookbook Heritage , which made it onto the New York Times bestseller list and is currently in its third printing (having been released in October). The book is part cookbook, part textbook, part journal, and is one of the most accurate portraits of a chef's soul in book form out there. For the dorky food lover in your life, look no further for a holiday gift. 

I knew when I first tasted Brock's work that he was an insanely gifted cook, but I could not have foreseen his trajectory to superstar cultural preservationist. I spoke to Brock about his book, about the role of chef-as-professor, and about whether or not Southern cooking can be translated in other locations. 

Besha Rodell: I know that when I spoke to you about the book a couple of years ago, you were feeling a little frustrated about the project. But I’m assuming that changed over time somehow. Is this the book you wanted it to be?

Sean Brock: What happened was something very very positive. I just started to realize…originally the book was supposed to be about Low Country cooking. It was going to be, like Sean’s Low Country Kitchen or whatever the hell…and there was a moment where it was kind of frustrating because it was my first book and I didn’t understand the process. But later it just started turning into a Sean Brock book. I started to kind of look at it like a documentary. I wanted it to be my life story. And the reason I wanted to do that, and it was a very hard decision — there’s a lot of personal stuff in there and you really put yourself out there, in your beliefs and your stories and your entire career — is it started to become really therapeutic, I really started to enjoy writing all that stuff.

The more I wrote, the more I enjoyed it. And then it just turned into a 340-page journal, basically. I saw it as an opportunity to dump everything from my brain onto these pages, from the way I think about food and my approach to the lessons I’ve learned. That was the result and that’s the reason why there’s my aunt’s recipe for pumpkin rolls, as well as complex dishes from McCrady’s. It’s all over the place, but I wanted to make the book full of every single thing that brought me happiness. Things that I enjoy making and things that I’ve enjoyed creating over the years. It became a very personal book.

I’ve been thinking a lot, since moving out here to L.A. certainly, about the difficulties of translating Southern food to other locations. I mean, there are people out here and everywhere doing Southern restaurants, with differing degrees of success. But it’s so ingredient-specific, and low country cooking in particular is so ingredient-specific. As I was reading through your book I was thinking about that. You think deeply about ingredients and so many of your recipes are so very tied to a place. I wonder if you think it’s possible to export Southern food like yours, through a book or through a restaurant.

I think what I’ve learned in this process is that the thing about my cooking, and about low country cooking and Southern cooking is that it’s a spirit. It’s an approach. And it’s a very specific type of respect and care about finding ingredients, learning their stories, and putting them on the plate. One of the main things I wanted to accomplish with the book was for people to not look at it like as Southern cookbook. There’s a reason there’s not “The South” or “Southern” in the title anywhere. It’s really a book about an approach and a spirit and a way of looking at things.

Last night, I did an event at Camino in Oakland. And they did exactly that. They took the recipes they were most excited about from the book and created a menu with California ingredients. And it was freaking amazing. It was out of control delicious — one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had in my life. They were using spot prawns and things that were at their peak and beautiful here in California, with the anatomy of the dish in mind. And I was like, “You guys got it.”

That’s exactly what I wanted people to do with the book. It’s not always about replicating a recipe exactly, it’s about understanding a spirit and a point of view. It just made me so happy, I woke up just high from it this morning still thinking about it. They can cook their asses off at that restaurant.

  I first had your food back in 2006 I think right after you took over at McCrady’s.

That’s so crazy.

I know. And if someone had showed me this book then and said, “this will be Sean’s first cookbook” I just would not have believed it. You’ve come so far and changed so much since then. If you could explain a little bit about your evolution as a chef…it seems as though you’ve really come full circle in your life from where you started.

You know what I’ve found is one of the most important things in cooking and in your career and in life — just in the pursuit of happiness — is that it doesn’t matter what people think, it doesn’t matter what people tell you you should be doing, it doesn’t matter whether something is a trend. It’s really paying attention to everything that’s happening and trying to gain as much wisdom as possible. And finding out what makes you happy. It’s a crazy thing to chase. And over the years the more I cooked and the older I got the more I started realizing the importance of ingredients that belong in a place, and food that belongs in a place. And once I started realizing how that added to a culture I became obsessed with culture. And now I’m obsessed with folk art and 1930s blues. All those things make me very very happy. And they all kind of tie in together.

Once you start realizing that, you have a different approach. You take a different stance on things. And the older you get the more you respect things in a way that causes you to do less to them. One of the main things over the last eight years is that I’ve watched the pantry of the low country completely be restored: any ingredients at all that were being grown pre-Civil War, the ingredients that form the cuisine. I’ve watched that journey. In 2007 I began planting some ingredients that we’re just now starting to serve.

When you see the work that goes into that you have a different approach when it’s finally in your hands and it’s time to share it with guests. Because you only have one opportunity to have thier attention while they’re sitting at the table, when you can explain how important this variety of corn is — these ingredients that existed in the antebellum period and why they’re important to a city and a culture and a cuisine. Then that’s you’re driving force.

You can see that evolution throughout my career. My goal is just to serve perfect things with incredible stories and the best technique I can discover, and let that be the dialogue. It’s funny how things start to work when you get older.

Pig’s ear lettuce Wraps at Husk NashvilleEXPAND
Pig’s ear lettuce Wraps at Husk Nashville

The book reads as much like a text book on Southern ingredients and producers as it does a cookbook. There’s a lot of research and thought that’s gone into that. I just don’t think that’s something that used to be a part of a chef’s job. How much of your job now is basically academic research?

I would say 50 percent of my time now is taken up with reading and researching and communicating with people who are way more intelligent than I am. Gathering as much information from them as possible.

It’s an incredible thing. If you think about it, the role of a chef has changed a great deal. You used to just be required to cook delicious food. But as the public becomes more and more educated they become more and more curious, and they’re turning to us for answers because they trust us. So that pushes you as a chef — you have to have those answers. You have to know what the hell you’re talking about, especially if you’re claiming to be obsessed with a particular cuisine, you'd better know everything about it. So that means a lot of reading and a lot of research and a lot of communication. I feel like a very very lucky person to be able to do it every day. It brings me a lot of happiness.

It’s been talked about a lot, but I feel like highbrow and lowbrow culture are getting closer and closer together, those distinctions are starting to go away. And I see that a lot in this book, recipes that have Velveeta in them, ingredients that you respect as much for their own kind of culture. Do you see that being chipped away, and do you think that will make the food world more inclusive when that happens?

I think what’s happening now with food in America and certianly in the South is the craving for nostalgia. People are starting to realize the power of that. It’s one of the most beautiful things. That causes you to pay more attention to the food your grandmother cooked. It causes you to pay more attention to all the memories you had growing up, whether that’s Thanksgiving dinner, or if you were lucky enough to have an amazing grandmother who cooked all day long like I did. You start to realize that that type of cooking, whether it’s you’re grandmother’s cooking or the food at a soul food restaurant, or just comfort food in general, it makes you feel a certain way, it’s a very specific emotion.

I think if chefs, including myself, can really capture that in a restaurant setting that’s going to make a very special experience. A lot of people can cook at home. Why would they go to a restaurant if they’re just going to have comfort food? So the idea is to elevate it enough to be special on a different level. The hard part is keeping that emotion in tact, that feeling in tact of when you sit down at a grandmother’s table or at a barbecue place in the middle of nowhere. I think that’s why you start to see people go crazy for Mexican food. Because it’s all kind of the same spirit. That’s really going to be a major goal for me to meld those things together to create something special.

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