The Rise of Chef Sean Brock

Written By David S. Shields

Originally Published in the Rice Paper Newsletter, Spring 2011


2010 will be noted as the year chef Sean Brock became a culinary celebrity. The Virginia-born champion of southern cuisine has had a reputation among food savants for some seasons. A regular attendee at the Southern Foodways Alliance gatherings each fall, he pleased the cognoscenti with his deft hand at fields peas and his love of pork. It was whispered that he had a farm upbringing and maintained his own garden. Yet it was clear he was no southern vernacular road cook. He possessed classical training, having graduated at Johnson & Wales, Charleston. In his earliest jobs — in Richmond (Lemaire) and in Nashville (Hermitage Hotel) — he had experimented with molecular gastronomy and pursued a passion for exotic ingredients. In 2010 what first strikes any viewer is his intensity when preparing food. I recall someone on one of those SFA weekends in Oxford, MS, saying in a rather reverent tone — that guy's a visionary. At which point, one of the guest brewers chimed in, he's too funky to be visionary. It turned out the first speaker was correct.

In 2010 the judges of the James Beard Foundation, the body that monitors the vitality of cookery in the United States, anointed Brock the Best Chef of the Southeast. His work at McCrady's in Charleston was hailed for its concern with the integrity of the ingredients and the ingenuity of their preparations. As is often the case, the Beard people got it right.

Sean Brock has in a relatively short time become the point man for what has been dubbed the "lardcore" movement — a farm-to-kitchen approach that highlights a region's available ingredients and builds great food from things in season in market. In November of 2010 he opened a new restaurant, Husk, that restricts its offerings to things sourced within the south and fresh harvested. The national media hailed the eatery as the next great American restaurant.

Note the word “region.” One of the excesses of the locavore movement has been to set an arbitrary mile limit around a locale from which ingredients may be sourced. This is entirely a 21st century fantasy of how traditional cuisine once operated. Not since the early 18th century did farmers or even the poor practice such extreme parochialism in their growing and consuming. For grain growers the quest for good seed set farmers searching as much as 500 miles away for stock. Loaf sugar, quality salt, prepared mustard, fish, and shell fish often traveled great distances from source to table. What did exist was a kind of imagined limit of a kind of cuisine — imposed to some extent by the growing zones — so ag writers throughout the nation could speak of items grown “at the south” or in “New England.” It is the region that Brock explores.

Eating at Husk one can understand the fuss. A skillet of caramelized golden globe turnips, a benne bedizened Parker House roll, snowy Anson Mills grits, and, of course, the staple grain of the Lowcountry — Carolina Gold Rice. It is odd that at a time when vegetarian restaurants make use of exotic spicing to vest vegetables with more pronounced taste, Brock has grasped the simple truth of matter: a variety of vegetables chosen for their innate flavor, grown in well prepared local soil, without the chemical supplementations of industrial farming, can make you understand why a century and a half of Americans were avid gardeners and followers of horticulture. The best vegetables are treasures in themselves.

Since the Beard award, Brock has become an oracle of American cuisine, interviewed in a blizzard of blogs, tweeted by New York Times stringers, given shout outs by other tier one chefs, and invited to perform on Iron Chef America.

His thoughts on bourbon, bar snacks, pork, ice cubes, pickles, and grits circulate in foodie chatter. Media echo effects have a way of making what one says a kind of white noise. Fortunately, Sean Brock's base message is so direct, so solid, and so resonant that it breaks through the static. His message is the importance of terroir.

Now sometimes people don't grasp the richness of the term terroir. They think it simply means the soil that nourishes and flavors the grapes in a particular region. Well the soil and the locale do play a part, but just as important is the suitability of the cultivar to the place of growing, and also crucial is the understanding that cultivators bring to bear in insuring that the harvest will be productive and flavorful. This last means that a set of stories, judgments, and practices peculiar to a region inform the production and consumption of something.

Southern gardeners have been rather unusual historically in their maintenance of the ideal of terroir at a time when industrial agriculture insisted that anything could be grown anywhere provided you had the proper chemical supplementation. Commercial agriculture only began giving lip service to the ideal when the regional foods movement broke big with the Cajun boom of the 1980s, when the Vidalia Onion became so popular a brand that marketers saw terroir as a marketing tool, and when artisanal farmers began commanding premium prices for the product with high end purchasers.

What marks Sean Brock as someone with a particularly profound grasp of the meaning of terroir is the care with which he has sought out his ingredients and researched the history of the vegetables and grains he employs at his two restaurants. He has had a long standing relationship with the CGR Foundation‟s president and chairman, consulting them on ingredients, cultivation methods, and food history. He knows the importance of the landrace grains in the formation of the fundamental chords of western taste, and appreciates the creativity of the 19th-century vegetable breeders who created that wealth of varieties that cherished taste above all, time to market, hardiness, and productivity. These are the vaunted heirloom vegetables that excite so much comment in food circles.

In 2011 Brock will be taking time to articulate his culinary philosophy and his knowledge of the range of southern ingredients in a cookbook to be published by Artisan. One can bet that it will be a far cry from the “this is my food and this is how I cook it” self-celebrations of most celebrity chefs. At very least, because he has shouldered the responsibility of being the representative of the southern tradition, it will begin with an enlightening starting point — “this is our food.” This is how we grow it, preserve it, process it, cook it, eat it. Even we who passionately study the tradition of southern agriculture and the legacies of the great regional cooks will be edified.