Many chefs have their first exposure to cooking at a young age. For Sean Brock, who was born and raised in rural Virginia, it was the experience of his family growing their own food that left a deep impression. “This was a coal-field town with no restaurants or stoplights,” he explains. “You grew and cooked everything you ate, so I really saw food in its true form. You cook all day, and when you’re not cooking, you’re preserving. If you were eating, you were eating food from the garden or the basement–it’s a way of life.” These were the building blocks that Brock remembered as he began his career as a chef, inspiring a lifelong passion for exploring the roots of Southern food and recreating it by preserving and restoring heirloom ingredients.
Leaving Virginia to attend school, Brock landed at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, SC. He began his professional career as chef tournant under Chef Robert Carter at the Mobil Four-Star/AAA Four-Diamond Peninsula Grill in Charleston. After two years at Peninsula Grill, Brock was executive sous chef under Chef Walter Bundy of Lemaire Restaurant at the AAA Five- Diamond Award/ Mobil Five-Star Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, VA. His success in Richmond led to his promotion within the Elite Hospitality Group in 2003 to executive chef at the AAA Five-Diamond Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, TN. Brock spent just under three years fine tuning his craft in Nashville before accepting a position as executive chef at McCrady’s Restaurant.
Shortly after his return to Charleston, Brock began the development of a 2.5-acre farm on Wadmalaw Island. “While I was growing there, I began dabbling in resurrecting and growing crops that were at risk of extinction, such as those indigenous to this area pre-Civil War,” he says. These experiments have led Brock to become a passionate advocate for seed preservation and he continues to grow a number of heirloom crops, including James Island Red Corn (aka “Jimmy Red”), from which he makes grits, Flint Corn, Benne Seed, Rice Peas, Sea Island Red Peas, and several varieties of Farro. Brock has worked closely with Dr. David Shields and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, studying 19th century Southern cookbooks–which Brock collects—to educate himself on Southern food history and discover new ways to resurrect antebellum cuisine. He also cares deeply about the way animals are treated before they become food on the table and sources heritage breeds of livestock for his restaurants. He has even raised his own herd of pigs.
In November 2010, Chef Brock opened his second restaurant with the Neighborhood Dining Group. Husk, just down the street from McCrady’s, is a celebration of Southern ingredients, only serving food that is indigenous to the South. “If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t walkin’ in the door,” Brock says. The emphasis at Husk is on the ingredients and the people who grow them, and a large chalkboard lists artisanal products currently provisioning the kitchen. Working with local purveyors and vendors has had a great impact on Brock’s cooking, and the menu changes twice daily based on what is the freshest that day. “Gone are the days of a chef sitting in the kitchen creating recipes and then picking up the phone to order food from wherever it needs to come from,” he says. “At Husk, we might get three suckling pigs, three whole lambs, half a cow, and upwards of 450 pounds of fish, as well as mountains of vegetables. We only take it when it’s ready, so it shows up and we have to start piecing the recipes together; it’s like a puzzle every day.”
Brock is also passionate about wood-fire cooking and a firm believer that “low and slow” imparts the most flavor—evident by his two smokers, barbecue pit and spit, and wood-burning oven at Husk, all fueled by an old fashioned burn barrel. At McCrady’s, he cooks food in the dining room fireplaces, originally built for this purpose in the late 18th century. Because the main dining room was actually the kitchen in the 19th century, Brock believes cooking this way brings the historical building full circle. In the future, he sees his cuisine being geared more toward the fireplace–the smell and visual of a chef cooking on an open hearth changes the feel of the restaurant and inspires him a great deal.
Drawing from his early education, the chef also pickles, cans, and makes preserves from the produce that cannot be used immediately, saving it for a later date and for new creations. His favorite old southern preservation techniques include lactobacillus fermentation and making vinegar using his grandmother’s 40 year old vinegar as the base. Brock pulls from his memory of ingredients and their flavor profiles to create the menus at McCrady’s and Husk depending on what is delivered to the kitchen. It’s a modern approach to cooking that comes from a pure appreciation of the food itself. The results are constantly changing offerings for diners that always surprise. “We emphasize the importance of the food from the Lowcountry region and constantly refine our cooking processes to best honor our relationships with the farmers, artisans and fishermen that provide us with their amazing products,” he says.
Brock’s abilities have resulted in a number of awards and accolades, both locally and nationally. He was nominated in 2008 and 2009 for the James Beard “Rising Star Chef” award and in 2009 and 2010 for the James Beard “Best Chef Southeast” category, winning the award in 2010. Most recently, he was nominated for the James Beard “Outstanding Chef” award for 2012. He was the winner of the “Next Great Chef” episode of the “Food Network Challenge” and appeared on “Iron Chef America” in December 2010, taking on Michael Symon in “Battle Pork Fat.” Bon Appétit magazine named Husk “Best New Restaurant in America” in September 2011. Later that year, Chef Brock joined an exclusive group of chefs from around the world in Japan to take part in the prestigious Cook It Raw.
When he does carve out free time, he’s often at his home just outside of Charleston, which he shares with his two dogs and his wife, Tonya, to whom he proposed while cooking at the James Beard House. Chef Brock sports a full-sleeve tattoo on his arm depicting his favorite vegetables, including Jimmy Red Corn. He is soon to begin work on the other arm, planning a map of Southern food. He is working on a cookbook, due out in 2013.