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.

What Brock grows in the garden is not generally for eating but for seed saving. "This," Brock says excitedly, holding out several long, pale green pods, "is what okra is supposed to look like. We got the seeds from Tennessee, but this okra is from Georgetown, just up the road. It's a return home for okra. Isn't that bad-ass?"

When Brock has collected a critical mass of seeds, he will share them with Baldwin, who will grow the heirloom crops at Thornhill Farm for McCrady's and Husk. Brock helps decide what to plant. "But when the crops are ready, they come," he said. "It's not like I say I'll take a case of this or that. When it's ready, we figure out what to do with it."

By design, that plays into the concept of Husk. When customers enter the white post-bellum mansion on Queen Street, one of the first things they'll see is an oversized chalkboard divided into two sections. Under "pantry" will be a list of oils, vinegars, flours and house-made jams, chutneys, country hams and hot sauces. Under "fresh" will be whatever has arrived from the farm and sea that day, and who brought it. If tomatoes are in season, they'll appear in snacks, appetizers and entrees. "We're not trying to be the French Laundry and cook different dishes without repetition. We're trying to create a sense of time and place," Brock said. "You'll know when you eat at Husk that it's summer in the South."

Although the ingredients at Husk will be strictly Southern, Brock says he won't hesitate to employ modern kitchen techniques. Take the process for making mashed potatoes. First, Brock contracts with a farmer to grow a variety called Nicola. Next, he cooks them sous-vide, sealing them in plastic and simmering them in a water bath for one hour at 71 degrees Celsius (or 160 degrees Fahrenheit), a temperature at which the potato expels its starch. The potatoes are then dunked in ice water, which gels the starch so that it can easily be discarded. The potatoes are then resealed and cooked again in a water bath, pushed through a ricer to remove the skins and blended with butter and milk. The result is a rich puree with an airy, almost marshmallowy consistency.

In short, Husk aims to create a kind of third way for restaurants. In today's culinary scene, most restaurants fall into one of two categories. There are the rustic, farm-to-table joints, which, inspired by Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, try to reconnect diners with where food comes from. There are the high temples of molecular gastronomy where chefs exploit diners' disconnection by transforming the old-fashioned meat and three into plates of smoke and foam. "You have to find the balance between simple and making them say, 'Wow, how did you do that?'" Brock said. "The whole idea is to change the idea of Southern food. It's a celebration of Southern food, not Southern cooking."

And Southern food, as Brock is discovering, is far less limited than many people think. Conventional wisdom says that a real Southern cook uses pork fat for just about everything, whether it's a stew of collard greens or a pie crust. But Brock's research shows that Thomas Jefferson brought olive trees to Charleston as early as the 18th century. For several decades, before benne oil and then lard replaced it as a fat of choice, Charleston cooks turned to it for frying. Brock is busily searching for the strain that thrived in the low country's humid climate. If he succeeds, he might one day find himself reaching for the olive oil again. Because that will be the taste of the South.


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