Sean Brock re-imagines Southern cuisine

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 11:29 AM

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Sean Brock can talk. He can talk all day about seed saving or pig farming or pickling. And on this particular day, a swampy, humid summer afternoon, the Charleston chef was holding forth on the rice pea.

The heirloom variety had first come to the low country with Italian immigrants who arrived to build a canal system, and it soon became a South Carolina staple. Brock was just about to explain why, after the Civil War, the rice pea had disappeared from local farms and the city's cuisine when he dropped one of the tiny peas. Immediately, he fell to his knees and began combing through the grass. He searched quietly for a minute or two, the first time he had been silent all day. Then he looked up and flashed the smile of a child who has just completed a task and knows he will soon be rewarded: "There, I found it."

For Brock, the award-winning chef of McCrady's, the rice pea is not just an heirloom seed worth saving. It's the kernel of his vision to re-imagine Southern cuisine. In a 1 1/2-acre garden in a nearby town, he is growing dozens of disappearing varieties: Charleston Gray watermelons, African Guinea Flint corn, goose beans and tall, white-flowered stalks of benne, the traditional Southern sesame seed that was once a cornerstone of regional cooking. His favorites end up not only on diners' plates but also in a Technicolor, full-sleeve tattoo on his arm.

Brock, who thanks to his cherubic cheeks and impish grin looks impossibly young, already has reeled in some of his industry's most prestigious awards. This past May, at 32, he was named the best Southern chef by the James Beard Foundation; it was the first year he was nominated or indeed eligible. Next year, Artisan, which has published books by Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, will unveil his first cookbook. But to "preach the gospel of corn bread and country ham," Brock is opening a new restaurant, Husk, in November.

At McCrady's, Brock uses exotic ingredients such as tonka beans, soy powder and liquid nitrogen. At Husk, there will be strict rules about what can be served. Every item must be grown in and have historical relevance to the South. That means no salmon, no olive oil and no balsamic vinegar, among other things. But there will be sarsaparilla-glazed pork ribs with pickled peaches, wood-smoked chicken with Rev. Taylor butterbeans and chanterelles, and breads made with antebellum flours. "I'm not trying to prove anything. I'm trying to educate," Brock said. "But I need rules. Otherwise, I'll be reaching for the olive oil. And if they taste olive oil, they'll think that's what Southern food tastes like."

At first look, the concept of Husk might not seem so revolutionary. What contemporary chef, whether motivated by passion or public relations, doesn't espouse the righteousness of heirloom varieties and local sourcing? But Husk aims to take farm-to-table to the next level. Brock is not fixated on local but regional flavors. He'll get pigs from Virginia, bourbon from Kentucky and South Carolina grits. For produce, he'll do more than support farmers who revive heirloom plants. He will grow them and bring them to market for other Southern restaurants.

"What separates Sean from the legion of chefs of decades past is his focus on identity preservation," said Glenn Roberts, the founder of heirloom grain company Anson Mills, who has helped Brock plan his heritage garden. "It's remarkable how multilevel his thinking is. He's a farmer and he thinks like a farmer. He's a seedsman and he thinks like a seedsman. He's a culinary historian and he thinks like one. He's always thinking about the cultural relevance."

Southern cooks have long abused their classic dishes. They made grits with the processed, instant kind and loaded their corn bread with sugar. Over the past decade, chefs such as Frank Stitt in Birmingham and Linton Hopkins and Scott Peacock in Atlanta have worked to change that, lightening and refining the food in their respective cities. But Charleston, a town that oozes and is obsessed with history, remained a kind of culinary Disney World: A commonly uttered description is "1,000 restaurants with one menu." When Brock arrived at McCrady's in 2006, he had a hard time finding good-quality ingredients. That's when he decided he needed his own farm.

Brock rented a 2.5-acre plot on Wadmalaw Island, about 20 miles from the city. There, without any help or real farming experience, he raised pigs and vegetables for McCrady's. (Silky slices of house-cured ham are now on the menu.)

The idea of Brock in the fields was a surprise to some of his regulars. In his 20s, he cooked at the Lemaire restaurant in Richmond and the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville and earned a reputation for his mastery of hydrocolloids - gelling agents such as xantham gum and agar agar - not heirlooms. Though he was firmly rooted in the South, he ran with a crowd of rock star New York chefs: WD-50's Wylie Dufresne, who brought the world fried mayonnaise, David Chang of pork bun fame and Jean-Georges pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. But Brock's interest in farming and sustainability predates the fashion for eco-awareness.

Brock grew up in Wise, Va., a coal town with no restaurants or stoplights. His family grew, cooked and preserved much of their food. Even as he obsessed over guar gum and methylcellulose (which he told Food & Wine in 2006 was his favorite ingredient), he continued to study agriculture. While working in Richmond, he would drive up to Monticello to pepper master gardener Peter Hatch with questions. "I've never known a Sean who isn't engaged in Appalachian history and his roots and any technique that suited him," said Hopkins, chef at Atlanta's Restaurant Eugene. "If he were just doing whiz-bang tricks with food, that would be hollow."

The Wadmalaw farm became too much to manage, however. In high summer, Brock says, there would be so much zucchini that it would be piled up in the entryway of the restaurant. Gary Thornhill, one of the owners of McCrady's, offered him a plot on his 100-acre farm in nearby McClellanville. Brock, with the help of his staff and farmer Maria Baldwin of the nonprofit Our Local Foods, maintains the 1.5-acre heritage garden, where they cultivate crops of endangered heirlooms. Anson Mills' Roberts says Brock exhaustively researches every seed he saves and grows. If Roberts recommends a certain variety, for example, Brock wants to see the historical documentation on its place in Southern agriculture. "He works like a journalist. He'll come to me, turn on a tape recorder for an hour to try to understand where and how the seed fits," Roberts said.

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