Charleston chef Sean Brock on a mission to save Southern food

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 21, 2012 

Chef Sean Brock of McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston. Photo by Terry Manier.

PHOTO BY TERRY MANIER — Photo by Terry Manier

Chef Sean Brock stands tableside, chatting up a group of slightly starstruck diners about the wagyu beef dish being plated in the bustling kitchen across the hall at McCrady's, one of two Charleston restaurants where Brock serves as executive chef.

Brock, 33, appears relaxed, his hands on his hips and a "Make Cornbread Not War" baseball cap atop his head. As he talks, one of the diners, an enthusiastic if not overeager sous chef at a Florida country club, raises his iPhone to snap a picture of a man regarded by many as the most important chef in the South.

For some in Brock's line of work, this kind of attention and his recent ascent into the stratum of celebrity chefs -- courtesy of a James Beard Award and write-ups in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Esquire magazine -- would be distracting or unsettling.

Brock, a Virginia native, sees all of it -- the publicity, the pressure, and yes, even the hype -- as the means to an end, as a weapon in his fight for the true soul of Southern food.

"My goal as a chef is to educate people about the food system we have in the South and to resurrect that food, and that requires a lot of attention," Brock said. "I need a big audience to teach people about what we have done to our food. This isn't about a restaurant, it's not about a chef, it's about a movement."

That audience grew with Brock's inclusion in "Notes from a Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession," a nearly 1,000-page, two-volume collection of books released late last year examining the personal lives and creative processes of some of America's most innovative chefs. The book has drawn rave reviews from foodies, chefs and critics.

"Notes from a Kitchen" captures Brock creating dishes in the kitchen at McCrady's and Husk, the restaurant Brock opened last year devoted to using only ingredients found below the Mason-Dixon Line, working with farmers and purveyors, and tending to his 1.5-acre parcel on Thornhill Farm in McClellanville.

Author Jeff Scott spent about a year with Brock, and said he was taken by the chef's passion for turning back the clock on Southern food through seed-saving and the painstaking preservation and reintroduction of grains, herbs and plants once native to the Lowcountry.

"He's so focused on the history of these seeds and the restoration of Southern cuisine," Scott said. "I had no idea who Sean was as a person until I went out with him on the farms. That's where Sean gets his passion."

Brock said he sees the book as an inside look at how he and other chefs approach their craft.

"I hope people get a much better idea of how we much we care," Brock said. "I hope people see how much time we spend tasting and tasting and tweaking and editing a dish before it goes on the menu. It's not just about eating a plate of food because you're hungry. It's more than that to us."

With a cookbook of his own due out early next year and a reputation to uphold, Brock is hardly content to coast by on his recent success at McCrady's and Husk, which was named Bon Apetit magazine's Best New Restaurant in America last year.

"I feel so lucky right now, and it makes me want to work harder and sleep less," Brock said. "I'm going to take every opportunity to preach the gospel of Southern food. We're going to get back.

"The South is going to rise again."

To listen to Chef Sean Brock's in-the-kitchen playlist, click here.

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