Sean Brock on Soul Food, Heritage Grains, and the Beauty of a Cheap Guitar
"I adore Southern food, that's my favorite thing," Sean Brock tells Chow Bella over the phone. "It's what I crave, that's what I grew up eating. If you can approach cooking that way, it just makes you a better human being."
Brock's career testifies to his statement. The Virginia-born chef is executive chef at Husk, with two locations in Charleston and Nashville, McCrady's in Charleston, and a newly-opened Mexican-inspired eatery Minero in Charleston. In 2014, he earned the James Beard Award for his work, and his season of Mind of a Chef, a PBS food and culture documentary series narrated by Anthony Bourdain, picked up an Emmy Award.
With his new cookbook, Heritage Brock shares recipes from home and his restaurants, details his dedication to heritage grains and vegetables, discloses where he procures this wonderful stuff, and tells stories about sweetbreads, bottles of BBQ in his truck, and booze. Brock will be signing copies of the book at Changing Hands at the Newton on Monday, November 17, and hosting a dinner with Justin Beckett at Southern Rail Restaurant featuring recipes and cocktails from Heritage.
Chow Bella: You're a lot of fun to follow on Instagram, because in addition to pictures of incredible dishes, you post all sorts of awesome records. You've got a thing for country and the blues.
Sean Brock: That's a big part of my life, records and music.
You seem to dig Danelectro guitars, too.
Oh man, you should see my crazy ass collection.
What do you dig specifically about Danelectros?
I feel like they're such unique guitars. The tone, the fact that [they are] made of masonite, with lipstick [pickups]. The shapes are cool and I just love the way the necks feel, and you can only get that tone from Danelectro. It's perfect for that blues feel and surf stuff. I've been collecting them since I was 17; I first saw Southern Culture on the Skids playing a '59 double-cutaway, black-and-white, and I've been hooked ever since. [Laughs]
There's an elemental sound to them, something raw, which ties into the food featured in Heritage, in terms of getting to elemental essences of things.
Yeah, and it's totally linked into a lot of things I'm obsessed with: blues, soul food, and folk art. It's all the same thing; it all comes from the same place. It's the same idea, making something extraordinary from something humble and honest. Danelectros represent that for me as well. They're old cheap, Sears catalog guitars, but if you know how to use it you can make something truly unique and beautiful. I feel like that's the same attitude those blues artists have, and Southern folk artists. It's making the best of nothing.
There's a big chunk of Heritage focused on fresh vegetables. I've heard you address that misconception about Southern cuisine, that it's all about meats and fats, but you seem to have a unique approach to cooking from the garden.
Growing up, all of our meals were probably 90% vegetables. Nothing was fried. It was based around what was coming out of the garden and what was preserved in the basement. My family composed these amazing meals from vegetables. When you grow up that way you see it firsthand, and it becomes burned into your brain the importance of respecting vegetables and respecting where you come from.
That's the reason I made that the first chapter in the book. My love affair with food started in the garden, and I wanted that to set the tone for the book. You look at my arm and it's [tattooed with] vegetables. A lot of people peg me as a pork guy, and I sure as hell cook and eat my share of pork, but I get more excited over vegetables than anything. They're diverse and unique. You never know how a carrot is going to taste. It's like every time you eat a carrot you're thinking, "Has it rained? How hot has it been? Has the frost hit? How long has it been out of the ground, what ground is it from?" There's all these cool little variables that determine the character of that product, and that'll fascinate me until the day I die.
Your section about pickling is awesome, too. That's also something you picked up from your family?
Yeah, the idea of eating from the basement was twofold. First and foremost, it was a matter of survival. At the very beginning, you had no choice: if you wanted to eat good food that was delicious, you planned ahead and you preserved, dried, canned, and fermented. What happens is after it becomes a necessity, then it becomes this flavor you crave. You grow up eating that way, with those flavors on the table, it just becomes what you want and desire. My family's traditions, I've carried those over into all of my restaurants. That's really the foundation, the backbone of a lot of my cooking. Whether it's something as simple as drying corn to cure it to make cornmeal or fermenting ears of corn for sour corn, or pickling, or making moonshine. It's a very interesting way of approaching food that used to be commonplace, and it certainly still is where I'm from, but it's fun to translate that into a professional kitchen and teach all these young cooks that mindset of, "Alright, well, Brussels sprouts are in season, they're at the peak, they're perfect right now. That's only going to happen once. Buy every one of them and preserve them so you can celebrate that all year.
Peter Frank Edwards, from Heritage
You've worked with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills extensively, and he's worked with Jeff Zimmerman of Hayden Flour Mills and Steve Sossaman to help grow heritage grains here in Phoenix. How did you get into the idea of using heritage grains?
It ties into the way I was raised, saving corn, beans, peas, and things like that, but it hit me like a ton of bricks every time I would receive a small package in the mail from Glenn Roberts. I would taste these things and they were just extraordinary, and I'd never tasted anything like that. Once you sort of get hooked on that, you fiend for it. You can't wait for the next package to come in the mail. You can't wait for that next discovery from Glenn and his team of people who are combing the planet, looking for these lost grains, these varieties of plants that haven't been messed with, that carry incredible stories and flavors you're not gonna find anywhere else. Once you start cooking with that, you realize that they're doing all the hard work, all you have to do is apply heat to it and put it on a plate and you get to take credit for it. [Laughs] Once you realize that that's one of the big secrets of being a great cook, having those connections, making those discoveries, and having a pantry full of incredibly delicious things, before you even put your hand on them.
In addition to Husk and McCrady's, you recently opened a Mexican-inspired place, Minero. Where did you pick up your taste for Mexican food?
It's always been one of my favorite things to eat. It's always something that I search out in every town I travel to. I never really thought about why, but now that I've really put a lot of time and research in, eating tacos every day for quite a while, I realize that the power of your flavor memory profiles that are locked away in your brain are insane. The reason that I crave tortillas is because I'm obsessed with dried corn, it makes all my favorite things: It makes whiskey, it makes corn bread, it makes grits, it makes johnny cakes, hominy, these things that have been locked into my brain since I was born.I think I finally figured out why I'm obsessed with Mexican foods. It's [shares the] same ideas of soul food that I grew up with. Humble ingredients, prepared with care, and served alongside dried corn. You know what I mean? You never have a meal without corn bread, and I still don't ever wanna have a meal without cornbread. It's kind of cool when you see that link, that common thread that people share when it comes to the heart and soul and roots of a culture's cuisine.
It's fascinating to see that it's all kind of the same thing, the tiniest bits of tweaks here and there, but at the end of the day the most important thing to remember is taking nothing and making it beautiful and making it comforting. It's a very specific emotion that occurs when all of those factors come into play and end up on the plate. It doesn't matter if you're sitting in Japan, Vietnam, or Mexico, or Tennessee [it all goes back to] those ideas of comfort food and soul food. That's my inspiration as a chef.
When you talk about BBQ in Heritage you discuss needing a good soundtrack to do it right. What's on your BBQ playlist?
My collection is pretty focused on Mississippi blues and Tennessee and Texas honky tonk, country and western. Of course I love a lot of stuff [like] Jason Isbell. I just saw him at the Ryman on Friday, and I was nearly in tears the whole time, [it was] one of the most amazing things I've ever witnessed - that's the future of Southern music, with guys like him and Drive-By Truckers leading the way. I could listen to that every day. But for me to sit down and relax, it's blues: Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, R.L. Burnside, and the country and western side of things, Waylon, Merle, Hank Williams, Buck Owens...That's the music that makes me the happiest.
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