No one understands the importance of seed-to-table cooking as well as Sean Brock, executive chef at McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. The James Beard award-winner was raised in a family that grew their own food and cooked everything from scratch — so it’s no surprise he’s taken a similar hands-on approach in his restaurant kitchens, growing his own ingredients and even raising his own livestock.
I asked Brock his thoughts on growing heirloom crops, southern cooking and the joys of preserving. Keep reading to hear his insights, and click here to try his new recipes.
You grew up in a family that grew and cooked their own food. How does that impact your own approach to cooking?
Most of my chores were centered around the garden or prepping vegetables. When you see the source at such a young age and know firsthand the work that is required to get the food on the table, you have a completely different respect for it. It shaped me into the chef that I am today. If you plant the tomato seed and care for the plant through its life cycle, you eat it a bit slower and with more appreciation.
What has your experience been working mostly in southern kitchens? What draws you to that style of cooking?
I am in love with southern food and have been as long as I can remember. I love how each little region of the South has its own style of cooking and its own stories. If you study the food and stories of each region, you can have a much better understanding of its individual cultures. In fact, you start to understand how cultures are formed.
What led you to culinary school and to pursue a cooking career?
I witnessed the power of food throughout my childhood cooking alongside my mother and grandmother. Being able to nourish someone and provide them with a positive memory is amazing. It’s why I get out of the bed in the morning each day and it’s why I knew that I wanted to spend my life around food and people who love food.
How would you describe your cooking style?
My cooking has changed a great deal in the last few years. The older we get, and the more we cook and spend time around food, the less we want to do to it. I suppose this is the natural path as a chef. My goal with food is for it to appear as simple and clean as possible and be packed with as much flavor as possible.
That takes years of cooking and thinking. That’s what makes it fun! I also draw a lot of inspiration from the 19th century cooking that was happening in the South. That subject fascinates me.
After becoming a chef at McCrady’s you started working on a farm. What led you back to growing food?
Honestly, I was unhappy with the quality of produce that was available to me at the time. This was six years ago, and things have certainly changed for the better here in the low country. I thought that growing food would be much easier than it turned out to be — I was so naive. Once I realized how difficult it was going to be while running a busy restaurant I could have backed out, but I knew it would change my life. It totally changed my life; I am so glad I did it when I did. I needed that change, and I owe alot to that patch of dirt out on Wadmalaw and the lessons it taught me.
Why have you focused on crops at risk of extinction? What should people know about heirloom varieties, and why do you think they are important?
All of my attention these days revolves around the restoration of low country cooking. To restore a cuisine you have to search out the plants that they were growing while the cuisine was being formed. Once you start reviving a cuisine you become a storyteller and a teacher. When people come to Charleston I want them to taste the true cuisine of the Carolina Rice Kitchen. I want them to taste our terroir and history. That’s a lifetime of work. Thanks to brilliant people like Glenn Roberts, Merle Shepard and David Shields, we are finally starting to taste the true flavor of our beloved city. Without their work, knowledge and care, none of this would be happening.
You raised pigs and other livestock for your restaurants. What did you learn from that experience? Why do you think a hands-on approach to food sourcing is best?
After my experience with growing vegetables, I knew the next step would be livestock. I knew I needed to be responsible for the health and well-being of the animals that end up on the plates in our dining room. After raising an animal and becoming attached to it, you view it in a way that you can only view it if you own the animal and have an emotional attachment. You don’t waste a single piece. You push yourself to become a better cook. You push yourself to become a better person.
At Husk, you develop the menu based on what your local purveyors and vendors can provide at the time. How does that affect your process and approach?
We want to capture a specific day and what that particular day tastes like. What does the 9th day of July taste like in the South? We only purchase food grown in the South. When you sit down at Husk you can taste the most current state of southern food. The pulse of a restaurant is much different when you change the menu two times a day as we do, for lunch and for dinner. This forces us to cook in a very simple manner. That turned out to be a great by-product of the whole theory of the restaurant: keep the food simple and let the ingredients speak, so that the dialogue at the table is about the people who brought us the food and not about a chef. I believe it becomes a more educational experience for the diners.
You’re an advocate of “low and slow” cooking. Why? Any tips for people trying to recreate it at home?
Any time that I think about food or approach a new dish, slow cooking is the first thing that enters my mind. I prefer to slow cook everything, even vegetables. I believe it is more gentle and you preserve more flavor. When cooking meats, keep in mind they are mostly made of water. Water boils away at 212 degrees F. Always try to cook low to preserve that water. Once you reach your desired internal temperature, finish it on a very hot grill or a cast iron pan. That’s my favorite way to cook meats at home.
I always rub vegetables with cold butter after I have cut them the way I want them. I place them in a pan and add vegetable stock halfway up the vegetables. Then, I turn the heat to medium, place a lid on top and cook them until tender. The natural juices inside the vegetables emulsify with the butter and make the most delicious glaze. With fish, I like to start with high heat and then cook it as slowly as possible.
What interests you about preserving? What’s your favorite ingredient to preserve? Any tips for beginners?
I am totally obsessed with preserving food. I honestly believe it’s an amazing way to show respect and honor to the product. If you raise an animal for a year and then cure it for two years, that’s a lot of time to wait before tasting it. You certainly appreciate and respect it more than if you were to simply pick up the phone and order a ham from a company.
What I like about preserving vegetables is how it allows you not to be wasteful. I also really like the impact it could make on local agriculture — farmers throw out a lot of food they can’t sell. If we all started preserving food to get us through the year, they could sell so much more produce. Imagine if we simply made our own pickles for our restaurants; farmers certainly would sell those cucumbers that end up in the compost pile.
About the author: Olivia Terenzio grew up in Mississippi, where she cultivated a love of sweet potatoes, crawfish and cloth napkins at a young age. A passion for sharing food with friends and family led her into the kitchen and later to culinary school, where she learned how to roast a chicken and decorate a cake like a pro. As a Williams-Sonoma blog editor, she’s now lucky enough to be talking, writing and thinking about food all day.