The Soul Needs Nurturing: Sean Brock on Southern Cuisine

25th May 2017

Interview: Adam Park
Portrait: Andrea Behrends

The west coast of Ireland is wild, windswept and, for a chef flying direct from Nashville, Tennessee, can be a bit of a slog to get to. Like many chefs before him, Sean Brock has temporarily left his hometown to discover new tastes and flavours, and to wax lyrical about his own food and where he’s from. Which is exactly why he’s sitting in front of me, straight off the plane, at Galway’s gathering of gastronomic luminaries Food on the Edge.

Not that you’d be aware by looking at him of the journey he has taken. Once talk begins of the food traditions in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, where he grew up, Brock is engaged and engaging, with a trove of knowledge. He’s humble but fast-talking, introverted yet animated, and he sits up, forward-leaning, waiting for the next question like a diner hungry for the next dish.

Brock is a hugely respected chef, a figurehead of the resurgent Southern cooking. At McCrady’s in Charleston, which he took over aged 27, and his first restaurant Husk in Nashville, he has sculpted his reputation as the most American of cooks, drawing on his deep Southern roots rather than looking further afield for inspiration. Now, after winning multiple James Beard awards, he has reopened McCrady’s as a small counter-service space, which he says is his “dream come true. Every chef’s dream. 18 seats, 1 menu.”

We get deep into conversation here in Galway before the demands of the festival pull him away, though we could have spoken for many hours more, perhaps over a bottle of Pappy van Winkle, with tales of sorghum potlucks, oyster boils and Mississippi blues swirling around us.

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What was the food like when you were a kid?

I grew up in a very rural part of the south, very poor. In the coal fields. But it has a really interesting cuisine, one that most people in the South wouldn’t know about. It’s a cuisine of poverty really, of survival, with a big emphasis on preservation, and lots of interesting techniques that I don’t see really anywhere else in the world. It’s very delicious and very different to what most people know southern food to be.
Southern cooking is the idea that the soul needs nurturing. For the longest time and even today, there was a lot of poverty. So, to nurture the soul you have to know how to take a head of cabbage and some beans and make it this extraordinary, comforting, delicious thing and that takes a lot of skill and wisdom. You hunt, you go fishing, you grow and preserve your own food, and that’s just the way of life. You’re taught all this from a very young age.
Where I grew up, there wasn’t even a restaurant. I didn’t go to a restaurant until I was 15 years old. Isn’t that crazy? Until I started working in restaurants, I’d never actually sat down at a nice restaurant and had a nice meal.

Is there a particular ingredient that represents where you grew up?

Take beans. Each region has its own varietals that thrive there, that belong there, that have always been there, that taste completely different from the next region over. Even in my own small little town we had six or seven varietals that were indigenous to that area. They have these funny names: one varietal is called Greasy Beans. It has this huge pod with a very slick surface, hence the name, and the way to preserve it is completely unique, as far as I know. It really confused the shit out of me when I was a kid. You take the bean, you let it get to full maturity, then you take a needle and a thread and you thread it up, just like you would popcorn for the Christmas tree, and you hang it over the fire and let it dry. It’s called Leather Britches, and when it dries it takes on the flavour of the hearth, of the smoke. The dehydration intensifies the glutamic acid; it’s almost like a country ham process. And then you have those beans dry for eternity, essentially.

My grandmother took me under her wing and taught me all these great Appalachian dishes. At 12 years old, I would cook these huge feasts for my family in the backwoods of Virginia

Then you cook those on the stove with some water and salt and a little bit of fat and as that cooks it rehydrates and becomes just like dashi. The depth of umami in that broth, which we referred to as potlicker, is insane. When you eat it you receive the same emotion that you would get if you were eating pot roast or stew or braised meat. It feels the same. It’s a way for poor people to nurture the soul with something as simple as a bean.

Was there a favourite thing you ate when you were growing up?

When I was a kid there was a thing – it was essentially a sauerkraut of corn. We’d take corn, leave it on the cob, clean the husk and silk away, then quickly blanch and salt it – just like you would cabbage for sauerkraut. You then let that sour for months. Eventually, a white, murky lacto-liquid is formed and the flavour is just amazing. It becomes pickled, obviously, but it’s a deeper pickle. The starch in the corn makes it really creamy. Then you cut it off the cob, flash fry it in a little bit of lard, and it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. I’d just eat tons and tons of it as a kid. I’d eat whole jars of it.

There seems to be a great tradition of feasts and communal eating in that part of the world.

In the Appalachian mountains a great example would be a Sorghum potluck. Sorghum is a plant that resembles corn as it’s growing but it’s actually closer to cane sugar: it’s full of this funky, grassy, earthy, green juice. You take a horse and you attach it to a circular press. The horse walks around and the stones turn and you feed the sorghum through and down a gutter the juice goes. Then you build a huge open fire and boil down all the green juice. Within rural communities, not everybody had a press or a way to boil it down, so everyone would harvest all of their sorghum on the same day and get together and have a sorghum potluck. If your neighbour had a press, you’d bring a covered dish and sit there all day, catching up and talking about who’s going to be the quarterback of the high school football team, who’s getting married, who’s having kids, who’s moving away, who passed away, and you’d stay connected through this communal activity of boiling the sorghum down. And that was your sweetener for the entire year. We didn’t just go to the store and buy more.
In the low country we also have things like oyster roasts, frogmore stew, and especially low-country boils: you take your ingredients, cooking them in a big pot before throwing them out on a table and everybody stands there and digs in with their hands – there were no utensils or chairs – just eating and drinking beer and catching up for hours.

Sean Brock in the kitchen at McCrady’s in Charleston. Photograph: Andrew Cebulka

Do you remember a moment you realised food was more important than just the need to eat?

Thanksgiving has always been a special day for me. When I was younger we’d have 30, 40, 50 people coming and everyone had their own dish. I saw the tradition and I saw how food made people feel and I thought that was amazing. So at a very young age, probably nine, I was in the kitchen. My grandmother was an amazing cook. She saw my interest and took me under her wing and taught me all these great Appalachian dishes.
Then, when I was around 11 or 12, I started watching Yan Can Cook and Julia Child, Justin Wilson and Jacques Pépin, watching great chefs on The Discovery Channel. I became obsessed with being a chef. My grandmother bought me this hand-hammered wok from an infomercial that I still use. At 12 years old, I would cook these huge feasts for my family in the backwoods of Virginia. I stuck to my grandmother’s cooking like crazy until I was 15 and legally able to work in restaurants, and I haven’t stopped since.

I’d never been under that much pressure, I’d never been that scared or stressed out. But I’d also never felt better

Your grandmother sounds like a real food hero of yours. Do you have a mentor who guided you as a professional cook?

I never really trained under anyone. I didn’t go to Europe, I didn’t go to New York City, I just jumped in. Right around the time I turned 18, I moved to Charleston and it was a whole different world. The cuisine of the low country, the waterways and the Gullah Geechee1traditions were what fascinated me, so I wanted to work in a soul food restaurant. And there I was, this young kid, in there with all the older, wiser soul food cooks.
I eventually realised that I needed formal training so I went to culinary school from age 19 while working for Chef Bob Carter at Peninsula Grill. And that was really the beginning. I’d never been yelled at like that before, I’d never been under that much pressure, I’d never been that scared or stressed out. But I’d also never felt better. It was the greatest feeling in the world going into a busy service trying to make these perfect plates with 250 guests in the books. After that job I went straight into running kitchens, and when I was 22 I was running a five-star five-diamond kitchen as a sous chef. By the time I was 27 I took over McCrady’s and I’ve been there for 10 years.

What about cooking at home, do you cook for yourself much or your family?

I cook at home every day.

That’s quite unusual for a chef in your position…

I never cooked at home for my entire career, ever. Once a year, maybe. But I broke my knee a couple years ago and I couldn’t go to work, so I started cooking at home three times a day. I would cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for my girlfriend, who loves food even more than I do. And I realised that cooking for someone you love is the reason why I became a chef. Now, cooking at home for my loved ones brings me the greatest joy. I go to the grocery store every two or three days, or to the market, and I plan out meals for the whole week. I love cooking at home so much. I just bought a new house with this insanely beautiful kitchen and I never leave it.

Plating up at McCrady’s in Charleston. Photograph: Andrew Cebulka

What’s a typical breakfast for you?

Although I’m trying to take it easy on the gluten and have more simple breakfasts, biscuits and gravy is a big thing. In the South, if you think of breakfast, you think of country ham with red eye gravy2, maybe with a couple of fried eggs and some biscuits, or just biscuits with sorghum and butter. I ate that a lot as a kid.

Is there a cookbook that you can think of that really exemplifies Southern cooking, or at least cooking that exemplifies your region?

There’s so many of them. An author that had a big impact on me and it was Ronni Lundy. She wrote one book – she’s written several — that focuses on Appalachian cooking. There’s not very many of them, but another book on Appalachian cooking that really struck a chord with me was by a gentleman named John Egerton called Southern Food. That was the moment that I really saw how diverse Southern food was and how diverse the South was culturally. Beyond that, a lot John T Edge’s books are really amazing, and of course Edna Lewis. Her books have been a great inspiration.

Do you listen to music a lot in your kitchen?

I like music almost more than I like food! Over the last three years, I’ve become completely obsessed with the Blues from Northern Mississippi. Junior Kimbrough, RL Burnside, T-Model Ford, Fred McDowell, Charley Patton. It’s haunting, droning, amazing music. It makes you feel the same way soul food makes you feel. It’s something that I chase as a chef, trying to capture the idea of what makes the South so special: the idea of taking nothing and making something extraordinary. Those blues musicians couldn’t read or write, they didn’t have a job, they didn’t go to school, didn’t even know how to tune their guitar. It came out of them naturally because of where they were, how they grew up and how they were living. This music is the most natural, beautiful, unforced thing that I’ve ever heard. It’s the same thing with folk art in the south. They go to the forest to pick berries to make colours to paint these beautiful, haunting pictures. Taking nothing and making something extraordinary.

Going back to dining out: tell me about one or two restaurants that really blew you away.

In the last 20 years, I’ve just been so strapped to the stove that I’ve never travelled, I didn’t eat out. I never even went outside of the country. But in the past five or six years I’ve been focused on stepping away from my comfort zone and seeking inspiration from other restaurants and other cultures. My current obsession is Japan. I just returned from there and have another trip booked in December.
There was a meal at a restaurant called L’Effervescence that I can’t stop thinking about. To me, cooking is easy. Making a delicious plate of food is easy, a lot of people can do that. But to make a guest feel the way I felt sitting in that dining room was a whole other journey. I’ve never felt more at peace, more relaxed, more calm, more satisfied spiritually and also artistically. It was incredible in every detail.
You know how you feel when you get a massage and you leave, your brain goes into this relaxation period? It’s just amazing. And that restaurant made me feel like that. The food was incredible, but the emotion they achieved, I’d never experienced that before and it completely changed the way I see restaurants. Now I want my guests to feel that way.

•Ayu, swimming up stream• One of the most delicious and thoughtful meals I’ve ever experienced.

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Are there any pet hates that you have as a customer at a restaurant?

Yeah. In fact before I reopened McCrady’s I made an enormous list of everything that drove me nuts about restaurants and tasting menus and dining. One of them is sitting in for too long. I just can’t sit for three hours or four hours. When I end a meal and feel like I’m going to die, and don’t want to do anything but lie down on the floor and go to sleep… a lot of people like that, but I don’t like that.

I’m aware you’re a big fan of brown American spirits. Could you pick out a few of your favourites?

I’m very picky. I like pre-1992 Old Grand-dad, I like pre-fire Heaven Hill (there was a huge fire that destroyed lots of their stock in ’96). My favourite whiskey is one that a master distiller named Ed Foote made at Bernheim from 1992, ’93. I love pre-1992 Stitzel-Weller, which was Pappy Van Winkle’s distillery. And I like anything that my friend Drew Kulsveen makes at Willett.

  1. The Gullah are the descendants of enslaved Africans who lived in the Lowcountry regions of the US, in particular Georgia and South Carolina
  2. A thin sauce made from the drippings of pan-fried (or sometimes baked) sausage, country ham, or bacon, and often mixed with black coffee 

Posted 25th May 2017

In Journal


Interview: Adam Park
Portrait: Andrea Behrends

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