Fork in the Road

Southern to the Bone

Chef Sean Brock’s latest venture might just be the ultimate in Dixie dining

Photo: Grace Beahm

Chef Sean Brock shows off his veggie tattoo.

Writing about a restaurant before it opens is a treacherous enterprise. The journalist, drawing on interviews and breathless PR promises, runs the risk of coming off like a shill for the restaurant. And the chef, still in the throes of translating grand ideas into executable dishes, runs the risk of delivering an opening-day experience that is far different from the press-time concept. With those caveats top-of-mind, you should know about Husk, a high-concept restaurant with a chalkboard menu that promises, once and for all, to get Southern cuisine right.

Set in a two-story antebellum home, with deep front galleries and a wood-burning oven at the center, Husk opens this November on Queen Street in Charleston, South Carolina. On chef Sean Brock’s menu will be dishes like cornmeal-dusted Mississippi catfish with jowl bacon, pickled peppers, and pole bean salad. And sunny-side-up farm eggs with ham hock broth. And South Carolina shrimp and Choppee okra stew with Carolina Gold rice. And heritage chicken with buttermilk dumplings, braised garden celery, and carrots. This will be the second restaurant for Brock, who continues in his role as executive chef at McCrady’s, the Charleston fine-dining sanctuary where George Washington once supped. Brock has been at the McCrady’s helm for five years now; from that prow, he won a 2010 James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast.

Photo: Winnie Lee

South Carolina shrimp and okra stew.

Born in Wise, Virginia, an Appalachian coalfield town, Brock, thirty-two, earned his reputation while still in his twenties, working in a genre known as molecular gastronomy. Detractors and acolytes alike knew him then as a wild-eyed human pinball, a young man with a deft skillet hand, a voracious intellect, and a hollow leg for whiskey. Aided by a command of food science and a working knowledge of the chemical processes at the core of cookery, he conceived flights of fancy like foie gras marshmallow terrines, infused with licorice. And country ham cotton candy, made by spinning rendered pork fat and sugar into a tangle of angel-haired porcine filament. Back then, Brock cooked with a wink, a nod, and a flourish. One bite into that terrine, you could almost feel his elbow in your ribs. Two bites into that cotton candy, you could conjure him standing in the back corner of the kitchen, grinning a Jack Nicholson grin.

Photo: Winnie Lee

Heirloom seeds and pickles.

Brock’s science obsession isn’t wholly behind him. “Take a steak dinner,” says the chef who can hold forth on the chemistry that makes Slim Jims possible. “On the plate, you see a grilled rib eye with mashed potatoes. In my head, it’s all science. It’s about butter emulsification in the potatoes and protein coagulation in the steak.” At Husk, however, he’s fixed on using that science, not to grandstand, but to coax the most profound flavors possible from indigenous Southern ingredients. Taking advantage of the farmer and artisan relationships he has developed at McCrady’s, Brock is opening a restaurant that will source every single ingredient from the American South. (To keep chocolate and coffee in the mix, he’ll cheat, just a little, and source those goods from regional coffee bean and cacao bean roasters.)

“I’ve been studying vinegar,” he says. “Balsamic vinegar is from Italy. So I asked myself, ‘What if I couldn’t use balsamic? What would I do?’ So, to get ready for the opening, we’ve started making our own vinegars. Southern vinegars, with watermelons, with tomatoes. And we won’t use olive oil either, until we can get olive trees going strong in the South like Thomas Jefferson imagined we could.”

Photo: Winnie Lee

Mississippi catfish with jowl bacon.

Brock relishes the prospect of laboring within such self-imposed restrictions. “It will make me work harder,” he says, sounding like a boxer who is fond of pounding the training bag with weighted gloves. “I need constraints, I need limits. I’m easily distracted, and if I don’t adopt this discipline—of sourcing everything from the South and cooking dishes that come from the South—the next thing you know, I’ll be cooking tortellini.”

This admirable experiment comes at a time in our region’s history when consumers are awakening to the import of geographically specific foods and food traditions. More important, farmers and artisans—the men and women on whose labor great restaurant cookery relies—are now producing an unprecedented bounty of regional ingredients, from aromatic heirloom corn, stone-ground into grits, to country ham, salt-cured from peanut-fed hogs. “I talk to other chefs from other parts of the country all the time who are jealous of what we have,” says the man with a tattoo running down his left arm of his favorite vegetables. “They’re jealous of our ingredients. They’re jealous of our bourbon whiskey. They appreciate what we have. Too often we don’t. I want to fix that.”