Born and raised in rural Virginia, Sean Brock helped to grow everything his family ate, cooking, preserving, and learning a deep respect for the cultivation of flavor at its most basic roots alongside his parents and grandparents and neighbors. After studying the culinary arts at Johnson & Wales College, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, eventually opening his celebrated restaurant Husk, which now has outposts in Greenville, Savannah, and Nashville.
Brock began seeding his future career path literally, growing heirloom and often endangered produce on his own farm. His first cookbook, Heritage, featured the chef’s cupped (and tattooed) hands filled with different varieties of beans. His new book, South, emphasizes the varieties of cuisines to be found in a region that is larger than Western Europe, yet still largely misunderstood as a place that serves mostly fried foods.
I sat down with Sean Brock on Capitol Hill at the Liaison Hotel Art & Soul restaurant. Over caffeine (coffee for him, iced tea for me), we discussed his new book, his new Nashville restaurant Audrey, and his new son, Leo—just eight months old.
Bethanne Patrick: Years ago I went to Husk in Charleston, and it remains one of the religious experiences of my life. As I’ve said to so many people since, “They put pork fat in their butter.” I thought it would be over the top, but instead it was transcendent. I am sorry for those who have not tried it.
Sean Brock: Well, there is still life to live, for them. Opening multiple houses in different cities opened my eyes a lot, and that actually ended up changing this book, South, quite a bit. When you go to a new city, you get to explore the history of that place and the people who were the natives and the people who the immigrants and the ingredients that they brought in. All those things kind of linked together and you start to see the flavor of place. It’s very interesting to me.
BP: I was intrigued by your trips to Senegal, and how you researched that culture’s use of dried seafood as something to enrich stocks and stews.
SB: I was so confused when I was there cooking with multiple generations of families and to see them crumbling, dried, smoked, fermented seafood into the oil before making a stew. It didn’t make any sense to me, but at that same time, it smelled so familiar. And I thought: Ham hocks! In the south, people use small amounts of highly flavorful smoked meats to change the taste of beans, vegetables, grains. It was a moment that helped me tie the soulful cuisines—and yes, I said cuisines—of the American South together. That smell is an emotion, a feeling. Soulful cuisines are all about some form of presentation, some layer of preparation, that adds nurturing comfort to food.
And so now that’s really become the basis of everything I’ve ever cooked since then. It’s like, all right, I can take really, really fresh, beautiful ingredients. We’ll cook them simply, more and more, at my new restaurant. But how do I add that one little layer that hits that nostalgic neuropathway that reminds you of home? If you can link amazing ingredients with that. I’m feeling that memory that gets triggered here.
BP: I know you’re passionate about teaching people that “the South” is neither one region when it comes to food, nor is it only about “Southern foods” like fried chicken and hand pies.
SB: Most cuisines and cultures have those unhealthy foods. It’s just not what they’re known for because they had such a larger area or larger, larger amount of time to create more foundational fishes before we as humans started to frame unhealthier things.“In South, I wanted to do my part in carrying on traditions that are relatively young in global age. So young that they’re really, really fragile.”
You know, I’ve just realized something. How old is Washington, DC, where we’re sitting now? Less than three hundred years old, right? Think of this: How old was Modena, Italy, when they decided they were going to focus on making the most unbelievable balsamic vinegar? I don’t know that answer, but our nation hasn’t had the same amount of time to work with—yet. There’s no reason we can’t do the same thing. And there’s no reason that there isn’t all this, these opportunities in, in our future.
There’s unhealthy food in every cuisine, French and German and Thai and Chinese. But over time, you decide which things are the ones you want to keep and share. In South, I wanted to do my part in carrying on traditions that are relatively young in global age. So young that they’re really, really fragile. By cooking these recipes and telling these stories, we keep a dialogue alive.
BP: Were you at the Southern Foodways conference?
SB: Probably my favorite food memory of all time was there. Every year they have a Saturday lunch, and it is considered the greatest honor to be invited to cook that lunch. I got invited one year, and did it in honor of my mother’s kitchen. She came and together we cooked like 22 different Appalachian recipes for 400 people. It was amazing. It was incredible.
BP: Which shows that Appalachia is just one region, and has its specific preferences.
SB: Thank you for pronouncing “Appalachia” correctly. We say there, “If you say ‘Apple-ay-zuh, we’ll throw an apple atcha.”
BP: You focus on one region, and it gives you so many different flavors.
SB: And in order to do that properly, in order to act, to answer the question like what does this taste like on any given day at a grandmother’s table and why, why are those flavors there? That all goes back to the native Americans, then groups of immigrants that ended up in those particular areas. I mean, I’ll be able to spend my entire existence studying the South and trying to understand that amazing diversity based on that theory of the geography deciding which of the animal breeds and plants and ingredients brought from those immigrants thrive in that area. All those little things kind of have to come together. Oh, it’s right next. And when they do come together naturally, which I will say is a very important word.
I think I’ve learned that the best food happens naturally. And, uh, when, when those things come together, you, you, I’m, I’m an example of someone who was born into, I was born in 1978. So, um, in 1978 in wise County, Virginia, the flavor at my grandmother’s table was heavily Scots-Irish, German and Cherokee influenced. And so the, so then you say, okay, well of those three cultures, what are the flavors they’re born into? What do they carry with them and their, and their nostalgia neural pathways. So therefore, what are they crave and have to have? And that’s where you’ve seen the book, talk about, the tradition of sour corn in the South and the Germans using native American ingredients too. The Germans were trying to get their fix of the kinds of sour pickles they were accustomed to eating, and they created something that now only exists in the American South. You’re not going to find sour-corn dishes in Germany.
BP: Which makes me want to ask you about “leather britches.” And they are a food!
SB: The beans of Appalachia are very unique and they grow big, really fast. They have to be what my family called “full” when you pick them, don’t let them go too far because then they get “woody” during the drying and seed-saving times. So you take “full” pole beans, remove the strings, then take a needle and thread and make big strings of them to hang by the fire.
Why? Because the meatiness that happens while they dry replaces meat for people who can’t afford it. I thought that that was a Cherokee tradition until about five years ago, when I learned it also comes from the Germans.
On my family’s table you would always have these trays of condiments: something sweet, something sour, something acidic, something salty. They didn’t do this intentionally, or because of instruction, but intuitively. They created umami before anyone on these shores had used the word. It was just this like intuitive desire to have this full flavor experience.
BP: You cook meat so well;, what can Southern cuisine teach us about how to use meat, about eating animals if that is what we choose?
SB: So this is something that blows people’s mind. But I didn’t really eat pork until I was like 15. Probably why I’m so obsessed with it, I was so deprived. And then I tasted it. I was like, wait a minute, I’m missing out on this! I’d had turkey bacon, a lot of braised chicken. Occasionally we had steaks for celebratory occasions. But we were so obsessed with the garden, and the traditions of the garden, and how the garden can be the glue that holds the community together. Not to mention those aspects of communal pride that come with being able to grow a fatter bean than your neighbor can. I remember these things very clearly from when I was a kid. It was this very competitive thing. This person who had better beans from us one year, we grew better potatoes, so we traded. Now we live in Nashville, and I want my son Leo to grow up with that. He was eight months old yesterday.
So we’re going to dig up our front yard and create a garden for him to experience those things like sitting on the porch, stringing beans and hearing stories of the past, but also just catching up on what’s happening at school.“Southern cuisine is about how having the desire to make someone feel a certain way, not just feed them so because they’re hungry, but to welcome them into your home.”
Another tradition when I was growing up were the beautiful potlucks that occurred to process things like sorghum, or apple-butter making, or canning large amounts of produce, like sorghum. You would, everybody would get together and it’s always vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. OK, fruit, too! I think a lot of that has to do with the ability to do it yourself and be so rich and so wealthy with these incredible foods while never spending a penny at the grocery store.
When I moved to Charleston and I was 18 and started eating food that had hamhocks and salt pork and smoked bacon and all these things, I’d never had that in greens before. And now my mind was blown. I cooked for two years in a kitchen with a bunch of African American women who were in their seventies, sixties, and my mind was just blown and I was learning a whole new palette.
BP: I was frustrated me for years that I didn’t know how to appreciate greens. Then I had my mother-in-law’s green beans with hamhocks and potatoes.
SB: That’s all you need for dinner.
BP: “South” is not just a celebration of ingredients, but foundational recipes.
SB: These women I was working with had been cooking the same thing day after day, week after week, you know? I’m 41 and I’ve been cooking passionately since I was 11 or 12 and I have a very investigative mind and crazy amount of curiosity. And so this book is filled full of the product of that obsessive nature to try and figure out the best way to do these traditional things. Years and years and years and years and years of this idea of, okay, I’m making fried okra today, but I’m not gonna make it the way I did yesterday cause I want to try something new to see, to see if I can improve upon the technique that I’ve had. So, probably about seven or eight years ago, I just, I took that stance, said I’m never going to cook anything the same way twice when I’m in the new restaurant.
So when it comes in the door, if I’ve seen it before or if I’ve cooked it that way before, we can’t do it, we have to figure out something else. That opened up a lot of doors as well and drove a lot of our cooks crazy. This book is just filled full of a lot of trial and error, a lot of research and development. A lot of mistakes.
BP: I don’t think anyone else is going to call them mistakes, Sean. But I was interested in the fact that it is comprehensive, but not all-encompassing. You can’t say every single Southern recipe you’ve ever heard of is in this book. So explain that because I think that’s important to you and to what South is.
SB: This book also helped me realize how much I don’t know how, much I have to learn. I don’t really have the desire to write a book filled with things that I haven’t spent years and years and years and years and years trying to master. These are the things that I know, the best and are my favorites, the things that pop into my head when I start to build dishes or fuel build meals. These are those foundational recipes, where it starts, where the process starts, because those base recipes are years and years and years of work. If you can start here where we’re the foundational recipe, that allows room for creativity and to make it your own.
BP: The perfect example of this is your elderberry dumplings with grapefruit crème anglaise. Here we’ve got French sauce, German dumplings, elderberries that grow everywhere, and grapefruit, a Southern import. But once you know how to make a dumpling and a sauce, you can do anything you want with them. Right?
SB: And that’s one of the biggest lessons that I try to teach young cooks. Don’t even think about being creative until you’ve mastered these things because it takes a lot longer than you think. And it’s a lot more difficult than you think. And it doesn’t matter how creative or how interesting or how neat it is if it’s not delicious, nobody cares.“Comfort food, the kind of nurturing, loving recipes I have worked hard to learn, is not simple food.”
BP: Corn bread with rice in it. How have I never had this? Where’s this been all my life?
SB: So that is an example of a dish that came about because of necessity, and not creativity. That’s important, In the low country, there’s always leftover rice, and the next morning he folded into your, into your cornbread batter. And you use it to not to be responsible and not have waste and to, you know, pick up that grain of rice. It falls on the floor and eat it anyway.
BP: But you wouldn’t be teaching anyone how to make it if it weren’t something that worked.
SB: And that is proof that it has to be delicious to stay alive. It has to be delicious to continue on and, and continue to exist. And there’s no amount of creativity that can, that can replaced deliciousness.
Deliciousness can exist in a lot of different ways, but when, if you can make something delicious and soulful, you’ve got a fan for life and you know, you’ve got a memory that it’s created and will stick there and so soulful to you. Southern cuisine is about how having the desire to make someone feel a certain way, not just feed them so because they’re hungry, but to welcome them into your home, to make them feel safe and secure and not alone somewhere. It’s cooking to evoke an emotion in some way. And that’s its own formula. It’s so personal to every single person that does it.
So if most of that, nearly all of that happened at a table in someone’s home and nobody’s cooking at home anyway, then becomes the chef’s responsibility to cook that way. And can we do that? I’m interested in moving both ways, in expanding the chef’s role, but also in teaching people about how to cook at home. Food has so much power, to me. Comfort food, the kind of nurturing, loving recipes I have worked hard to learn, is not simple food. It may appear simple, but it has to be well thought out to trigger those neuropathways that remind people of home or family or great meals.