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. â€śThis was a coal-field town with no restaurants or stoplights,â€ť he explains. â€śYou grew and cookedÂ everything you ate, so I really saw food in its true form. You cook all day, and when youâ€™re not cooking, youâ€™re preserving. Â IfÂ you were eating, you were eating food from the garden or the basement–it’s a way of life.â€ťÂ 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 andÂ 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 theÂ AAA Five-DiamondÂ 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 McCradyâ€™sÂ Restaurant.
Shortly after his return to Charleston, Brock began the development of a 2.5-acre farm on Wadmalaw Island. â€śWhile 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,â€ť 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 (akaÂ â€śJimmy Redâ€ť), from which he makes grits, Flint Corn, Benne Seed, Rice Peas, Sea Island Red Peas, and several varieties of Farro. Â Brock has worked closely with Dr. David Shields andÂ Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, studying 19thÂ century Southern cookbooks–which Brock collectsâ€”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 onÂ theÂ table and sources heritage breeds of livestock for his restaurants. Â He has even raised his own herd of pigs.
In November 2010, Chef Brock opened his second restaurant with the Neighborhood Dining Group. Â Husk, just down the street from McCradyâ€™s, is a celebration of Southern ingredients, only serving food that is indigenous to the South. Â â€śIf it ainâ€™t Southern, it ainâ€™t walkinâ€™ in the door,â€ť 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. Â Working with local purveyors and vendors has had a great impact on Brockâ€™s cooking, and the menu changes twice daily based on what is the freshest that day. â€śGone 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,â€ť he says. â€śAt 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 itâ€™s ready, so it shows up and we have to start piecing the recipes together; itâ€™s likeÂ a puzzle everyÂ day.â€ť
Brock is also passionate about wood-fire cooking and a firm believer that â€ślow and slowâ€ť imparts the most flavorâ€”evident byÂ his twoÂ smokers,Â barbecue pit and spit, andÂ wood-burningÂ oven at Husk, all fueled by an old fashioned burn barrel. At McCrady’s,Â heÂ cooks foodÂ in the dining room fireplaces, originally built for this purpose in the late 18th century. Â Because the main dining room was actually the kitchen in the 19thÂ century, Brock believes cooking this way brings the historical building full circle. Â In the future,Â he sees his cuisine beingÂ 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 himÂ 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.Â Â Brock pulls from his memory of ingredients and their flavor profiles to create the menus at McCradyâ€™s and Husk depending on what is delivered to the kitchen. Itâ€™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. â€śWe 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,â€ť he says.
Brockâ€™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 â€śRising Star Chefâ€ť award and in 2009 and 2010 for the James Beard â€śBest Chef Southeastâ€ť category, winning the award in 2010. Â Most recently, he was nominated for the James Beard â€śOutstanding Chefâ€ť award for 2012. Â He wasthe winner of the â€śNext Great Chefâ€ť episode of the â€śFood Network Challengeâ€ť andÂ appeared on â€śIron Chef Americaâ€ťÂ in December 2010,Â taking on Michael Symon in â€śBattle Pork Fat.â€ťÂ Bon AppĂ©titmagazine named Husk â€śBest New Restaurant in Americaâ€ť in September 2011. Â 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, heâ€™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 armÂ depicting hisÂ favorite vegetables, including Jimmy Red Corn. Â He is soon to begin work on the other arm, planning a map of Southern food. Â He is working on a cookbook, due out in 2013.