After all the sweet potatoes stuffed beneath the collard leaves had been devoured and just when the bowls holding the finale of smoke-flavored ice cream were being scraped clean, chef Sean Brock shuffled dutifully between the tables of Death & Taxes.
He'd finished the third of four "Firestarters" he would lead during two nights at the new downtown Raleigh restaurant, where Ashley Christensen invited friends and chefs from across the Southeast to test drive the kitchen's magnificent grill. Brock smiled for photos, shook hands and said thank you, rewarding everyone who had spent $182.12 to eat the meal he'd made with a personal reception.
Brock responded warmest of all not to requests for selfies with culinary celebrities but instead to questions about the dinner he'd just made: Why do humans savor the flavor of smoke so much? How hot can the grill in the new restaurant get? ("When you have the doors open," he cautioned, "you've got to be careful if you have testicles.")
Despite his jolly nature on the second season of Anthony Bourdain's The Mind of a Chef, a laugh that makes a room shake and a reputation as one of the most active and inventive cooks in the South, Brock can be a bit shy, staring at his feet, the floor or the tattoos that cover his forearms. When he starts talking about food, however, as he did in the dining room a few hours before dinner service, his enthusiasm seemed boundless.
INDY: You're here to cook with Ashley Christensen and Scott Crawford, two of many Southern chefs at a moment when the idea of the great Southern chef seems to be blooming. How are you connected?
SEAN BROCK: The Southern Foodways Alliance is to blame. It brought us all together. It's a forum, a platform, a meeting place. The common thread we all share is the goal of the Southern Foodways Alliance—to take Southern food as far as we can, continue its evolution and learn as much about its past as possible.
I opened Husk in 2010, and that's where my focus really started to become Southern food. I'd always cooked Southern food, but it's my lifestyle. Southern food is one of the great cuisines of the world and certainly one of the first that America ever saw. You wonder what is going to happen next. What is the next generation going to do? That's our role now, to lead by example and teach the next generation.
What has changed on the ground to make that shift happen?
The SFA has taught us about history and pride and ownership of our cuisine. We're finally getting to the point where we have the relationship with our producers to create the cuisine that was once cooked and served, a cuisine of very specific products and very specific plants and breeds. For the longest time, those products weren't being grown. Southern food was being cooked with food that has no flavor. That's when you start deep-frying everything and covering everything in cream and butter. That's when Southern food gets a bad rap. The truest and most honest form of this cuisine is a very light, vegetable-and-grain-driven style. That's coming back now. Our jobs are getting so much easier thanks to the work that's being done in every region of the South. People are re-identifying what it means to live and cook in that region, to identify the plants that belong there. That's how you create a sense of place.
Does that trend stem from generally growing interests in locally produced or sustainable foods?
What I see happening today, all over the country and most certainly in the South, is the consumer becoming more and more educated, which causes more curiosity, which causes chefs to have to wake up with the answers because our customers trust us. I remember writing menus in 2006, even 2008, where you had to have very specific things on the menu. You had to have grouper, tuna, salmon. You had to have filet mignon. But now, guests are wanting to be challenged. Anytime dinner is more than dinner, people are going to come back—when they can go to dinner and experience something new and hear a story and learn something and witness someone's passion.
Did you ever feel any pressure to betray your Southern origins, be it the accent or the way your mother taught you to cook in Virginia?
I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, and that accent is thick. When I moved to Charleston to go to culinary school, I was the hillbilly. I was totally made fun of, and I lost the accent. You want to work; you don't want to be harassed. It's the same journey with cooking. You do everything you can to get away from home. You hit your 30s, and you do everything you can to get back to that. That's exactly what I'm doing. My main focus is studying Appalachian hillbilly culture and cuisine. If I am researching something, it's Appalachian hillbilly culture. That's what I want to spend the next 10 years doing.
It's very, very important for me to continue on the cuisine of my area. I believe that you're born, if you're a cook, with a very specific thing you're supposed to recreate or evolve. It's in your blood. There's not a whole lot of people doing that with Appalachian food. It's a cuisine that's really reserved for grandmothers and cooking at home. It's a very difficult cuisine for cooking in restaurants, because it's based on very specific items that are only grown on kitchen farms, not large-scale farms.
Do you think we're close to overlooking that culture and cuisine until it just disappears?
We've already lost it. It's gone. That happened to low country cuisine, too, and I was able to watch that become completely repatriated over the last six or seven years. It just takes a lot of crazy people that don't mind losing sleep and money. If you draw a line from 1700 to 2000 and make some notches and start talking about what was happening in Southern food, once you get to this time period, you'll soon find out that what's happening to Southern food now is one of the most important things that's ever happened to Southern food. It's resurrecting itself.
What's the next step in that process?
Seed stock is everything. I've been collecting seeds for the last eight, nine years. Now my goal is to basically do what the low country has done for the last eight, nine years—get those plants back in the earth and back on the table and back on the plate and back in the conversation. I have just about everything I could want or need as far as plant varieties go with Appalachian cooking. Now it's the years that it takes to take 12 seeds that exist, plant them and save them. It takes at least three or five years before I have enough to cook, and it's another two years, if your crops don't fail, to get it into circulation. I remember, even in 2008, I would travel with Anson Mills stuff that wasn't available because the stock just wasn't there. And now, everywhere I go, everyone's cooking with Anson Mills, even on the West Coast. It's possible.
Will you open a restaurant in Virginia to serve that cuisine?
Absolutely. I will have a restaurant that replicates the food that I grew up on, someday—as soon as we get these damn seeds saved up.
To read more from Brock, including his talk about cooking with garbage, visit indyweek.com.