Consider a head of lettuce. It’s odd to think that something so innocuous could be instrumental in setting one of America’s great chefs on his life’s journey. Yet, that’s pretty much what happened. Sean Brock, the much-lauded Southern chef, cookbook author, and culinary celebrity who just opened Husk restaurant in a gorgeously restored 1903 dry-goods store in Greenville’s West End, has wanted to cook since he was a teenager. “As a kid, I never said it out loud, but I was mesmerized by watching anyone in a professional kitchen in a chef coat with sharp knives and flames,” he admits.
Brock landed his first restaurant-cooking job when he was in high school in southwestern Virginia. One day, the restaurant received a box of lettuce. While the other cooks were extolling the beauty of the leafy heads, Brock remembers tasting one and thinking, “This is really bad.” He couldn’t understand why all these people were getting so excited about tasteless lettuce. “I didn’t realize at the time where I would end up and how that moment would affect me,” Brock says. It was a moment that would define his cuisine.
He was struck by the fact that the boxed lettuce lacked the flavor of the lettuce from his grandmother’s garden. Her lettuce carried the essence of the heirloom seeds that she saved from year to year and the soil in which it grew. “My entire cooking career has been a search for that flavor,” the chef declares—the alchemy of just-picked vegetables, treated with a light hand, and served with love.
As a boy in the mountains of rural Virginia, Brock and his family ate out of the garden. “We didn’t eat tomatoes year-round; we didn’t have lettuce year-round,” he points out. “And I never even noticed that as a kid, because I didn’t know you could have tomatoes year-round. Eating and cooking with the seasons is in my DNA because it’s so connected to the earth. Everything goes back to the dirt.” After culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, Brock worked at Peninsula Grill. Eventually, he was tasked with buying the restaurant’s food, and he started working with local farmers. “That’s when I realized how special my grandmother’s collection of seeds was,” recalls Brock. “So every time I went home, I would beg her for some of the seeds she kept in prescription medication bottles in a cabinet.”
Brock’s seed collection has evolved more than a decade later to include hundreds of varietals—so many he’s afraid to count them. Why are seeds so important? “Seeds are the keepers of stories,” he tells me. “They carry the wisdom of hundreds of years. Seeds tell a story about a very particular place and period of time and a family. If those seeds don’t survive, that story is lost. Seeds allow us to stay connected.”
That connection is what triggered Brock’s headlong leap into researching cuisines and his quest for flavor. He approaches this work with the same single-mindedness he applies to everything that piques his insatiable thirst for knowledge. “When I want to research a cuisine, I start with agriculture,” Brock explains. “That leads me to sub-cultures and cultures, then I try to understand that, and the process just starts. All those influences add something to the pot, and that’s what gets me so excited about the future of Southern cuisine.”
His first step is to download or buy everything from church community cookbooks to agricultural journals and field manuals. “The South is so diverse, I could spend my entire life studying the micro-cuisines and micro-regions,” confesses Brock. “It’s curiosity and fascination and being a nerd, but it’s also so enlightening and it changes my perspective, and that inspires my cooking.” He stops and looks across the room, suddenly conscious of his words. “Geez, I sound so serious,” he says, throwing back his head in laughter. “I’m really not that serious!”
It’s safe to say that my obsessions have contributed something to Southern cooking, and that’s amazing. When you can contribute to something that big, it’s a privilege.
His newest project, however, is no laughing matter. Driven by a desire to unearth Southern food stories before it’s too late, Brock has begun interviewing grandmothers throughout the South using a hand-held recorder and a camera. “I have a fear that the generation that knows the most is fading away,” he laments. “The grandmothers have the wisdom and knowledge of the old ways, and that’s where great cooking lies.”
“You have to realize that not everything is on Google,” Brock continues. “I have found that the true breakthrough discoveries are in the spoken word, through sitting down with someone and asking them what they ate as a kid and what their grandma cooked.”
A conversation about benne with Glenn Roberts, the visionary founder of Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina, ten years ago led to one such breakthrough. “Once he started talking, I realized the importance of storytelling and sharing and connecting with human beings,” says the chef. “When you taste benne for the first time, you’re imagining what sesame tastes like, and it’s completely different. Then you wonder why it’s completely different, and the dialogue begins with genetically engineering plants and breeding flavor out. Then benne can lead you into the difficult conversations about the slave trade. That’s the power of food. Food is the great connector.”
If Brock’s process sounds obsessive, it is. The chef’s passion pushes him to dive ever deeper into a subject, plunging down until he finds that elusive kernel of knowledge. “I have a tendency to take everything way too far—it’s a psychological disorder,” HE QUIPS. “It’s not understanding moderation, and not having any desire to try to understand moderation. Why do I have to have 300 guitar pedals? Why do I have to own every cookbook printed in the nineteenth century in America? That’s the kind of person I am. I enjoy information because I enjoy sharing it. I enjoy teaching and seeing how that changes people and things. It’s safe to say that my obsessions have contributed something to Southern cooking, and that’s amazing. When you can contribute to something that big, it’s a privilege.”
That intensity carries over to his interests outside of the kitchen. “My current obsession is the electric guitar,” he says. “I don’t go anywhere without my guitar. To me, it’s a symbol of the way I’m changing as a self-actualized person. I’ve been a novice guitar player since I was 14, but I got frustrated and gave it up and spent all my time cooking. I always wanted to take lessons but never did. Now I’m doing it. I study music theory every day. I take guitar lessons and practice at least three hours a day, and sometimes four or five.”
Like everything else Brock tackles, this is no frivolous hobby. Galvanized by his adopted hometown of Nashville where he has friends in the music business, Brock has become smitten with north Mississippi hill country blues and hopes to record his own music. “For my great-grandkid to have a record with music that I’ve made, how cool is that? That would be so amazing!”
Perhaps owing to his recent health challenges, the chef immerses himself in positive psychology, self-actualization, and anything to do with self-care. To that end, he seeks out alternative therapies such as Reiki, acupuncture, somatic experiencing, and lots of meditation. Then there’s his fixation with folk art, which has turned his Nashville home into a “folk art museum” that he shares with his two French bulldogs, Ruby and Linda. Brock began collecting the art in 2014, after a broken knee laid him up for weeks. While he was researching the Mississippi blues during his involuntary down time, his girlfriend suggested he might also like the Alabama folk artist Mose Tolliver.
“Once I started doing research into folk art, it linked art, music, food, literature, and storytelling all together in a way that allowed me to truly understand what soul was,” Brock muses. “You hear people talk about soul food, but what does that mean? To me, it means you take minimal things and make something extraordinary. When I was a kid, a typical meal would be soup, beans, cornbread, killed lettuces—that was the greatest meal on earth. It’s simply made from pantry ingredients, but it brought so much fulfillment, and it warmed my soul. Folk art does the same thing for me. And I get that same emotion from the blues. It hits my core. To me, that’s soul.”
ESSENCE OF THE UPCOUNTRY
In 2010, Brock hatched the idea of cooking with only Southern ingredients. The result was Husk, the chef’s ode to Southern cuisine in Charleston. That was the same year Brock brought home the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast. Husk was named “Best New Restaurant in America” by Bon Appétit magazine in 2011.
“Husk is Sean’s vision,” says David Howard, president of the Neighborhood Dining Group, of which Husk is a part. “Through Husk, Sean spreads the word about his philosophy of the South’s culinary heritage.” Brock, however, seems to marvel at his restaurant’s success. “It’s been amazing to see the chefs that Husk has produced over the years and where the restaurant is now,” he adds.
And it just keeps getting better. Travels to Japan over the past year have shaped the chef’s thinking about hospitality. The Japanese obsession with how the guest feels has prompted him to look beyond the kitchen. “Japanese hospitality anticipates the guests’ needs before the guests even know the needs exist,” observes Brock. “When you leave a restaurant in Japan, the owner or the chef is outside to tell you good-bye and thank-you, and they stand there bowing until you are out of eyesight to show appreciation. If you view hospitality as a service, what an opportunity that is.”
Really appreciating the moment and being thankful for what you’re standing there doing, that gives you great respect for the people around you, from the guests to the team, and also the products.
When distilling regional Southern flavors at Husk, Brock is careful not to let creativity cloud the regional identity of his cuisine. His menu attempts to answer the question: “What is it like to eat in this place at this moment?” That sense of being present infuses all parts of the chef’s life. “Really appreciating the moment and being thankful for what you’re standing there doing, that gives you great respect for the people around you, from the guests to the team, and also the products.”
As far as local products go in Greenville, Brock and his team are currently focusing on the Three Sisters, beans, corn, and squash—the three main agricultural crops of the Cherokee and other Native American groups. “I’m most excited about continuing my research with Cherokee cooking, because I have Cherokee blood,” notes the chef.
This is a daunting task, as there is hardly anything written on the subject. “You have to really dig for information about Cherokee cooking,” Brock claims. “Everything is considered—they even make yellow jacket soup. That provides so much inspiration for us. What else is out there in the wild that we can forage for and use in this cuisine that’s better for the environment and better for our bodies?”
Sean Brock feels a strong pride of place for the southwestern Virginia mountains where he grew up. “That’s where I was born and where my family has lived their whole lives,” he says. “Everything that happened to me there in my formative years made me who I am as a chef and as a human being. That’s my place, and I can pay my respects to that place by carrying its stories on through food.”
Given Husk’s location in the Blue Ridge foothills, Husk Greenville brings the chef closer to his beloved mountains, as he continues to follow his personal canon of Southern cuisine. “There’s so much to explore here,” he maintains. “From a culinary standpoint, the Greenville area is an undiscovered world. What a great opportunity to make a small contribution to Upcountry cooking!” A look of gratitude lights up his face as if he is realizing something for the first time: “I get to do that for a living, I get paid to do that. I’m a lucky guy. And it’s a crazy journey.”
Originally published December 2017. In 2018 Sean Brock left Neighborhood Dining Group to pursue his own unique restaurant venture in Nashville.