If you’ve recently eaten a bowl of shrimp and grits above the Mason-Dixon, you can thank one person: Sean Brock. The Charleston-based chef’s outspoken passion for indigenous crops and techniques has helped spread the gospel of Southern food all over the country, and even the world.
When Brock isn’t on the road speaking about antebellum produce and seed preservation, he is in Charleston or Nashville, running his restaurants: Husk, McCrady���s and Minero, a Mexican taqueria. A second Minero location is scheduled to open in Atlanta this summer. His first cookbook, Heritage, is nominated for a 2015 James Beard Foundation book award. We caught up with Brock in Kentucky, where he was recovering from South By Southwest.
Did you eat anywhere good while you were in Austin?
All of the BBQ there is just extraordinary. They’re doing stuff that no one else in the South is doing. I had a really amazing meal at Gardner, a new restaurant that’s vegetable-focused, so there aren’t really any meat dishes. They have vegetable dishes with maybe a garnish of meat. It’s a lot of fun, my kind of restaurant. Plus one of the chefs in the kitchen worked for me for a few years, so it’s cool to see him doing his own thing.
What you’re saying is you’re biased.
I’m definitely biased.
What’s your favorite city to eat in?
Tokyo. Theyʼre light years ahead of everyone. They always have been, they always will be. The technique there is just flawless. It’s the attention to detail, the amount of respect, the amount of discipline, and the amount of care that goes into everything from a gin and tonic to a soba noodle.
The most common misconception is that it’s just one thing. If you understand the definition of cuisine, it’s the combination of the cultural influences, the geography, the agricultural practices, the plants and animal breeds, and the foods that thrive in those environments. The South is made up of 100 different cuisines.
You just opened up a taqueria. Do you consider Mexican food part of those 100 different cuisines of the South?
No, I think what defines a cuisine is its region. Mexican food shares a lot of similarities with Southern food, which is why Iʼm attracted to it and enjoy it so much. It’s a corn- and bean-based cuisine, much like Southern food. And while that can influence certain smaller aspects of various Southern cuisines, Mexican food is really its own thing.
Having grown up in Virginia, you add a certain authenticity to the Southern food you cook now. What do you add to Mexican food?
Minero has the same mindset as all of our restaurants. It focuses on ingredients that are raised in a clean, nutritious, and correct way, with care. We respect it, which affects how we handle it and think about it, and it also affects our creativity. We go out of our way to taste several varieties of masa and then we spend six months trying to master the tortilla technique. It’s this drive, this idea of forward thinking… that’s how we create food, and Minero certainly fits that theory.
Today Indian and southeast Asian food are cooked all over the South, but they aren’t necessarily associated with Southern cuisine. Will these foods ever influence your menus?
We could say Southern food is historically based on the later part of the 16th Century to 1930. So weʼre looking at the cultures that came to each area and made their homes there during that time. They added certain things to the pot. They added their flavors, their techniques and their ingredients, and that was the birth of these cuisines. The easiest example for me to talk about is Lowcounty: You have enormous West African influence, French Huguenot influence, Native American influence and a very early Venetian influence. You take those influences and you add them to the agricultural practices and the ingredients that thrive in that environment and geography, and then you get Lowcountry cuisine.
The future is even more interesting because there’s more and more cultures now living all over these cities. Nashville has this enormous Kurdish community here. If that’s part of your life and you go and eat that all the time, that’s going to get stored away into your brain as flavors that you enjoy, and that’ll act as inspiration. If you think about the future of Southern food, it’s a much broader spectrum as far as cultural influences go. And to me that’s very exciting.
What do you think about Southern food being on trend right now?
I think it’s fantastic when people are interested in what’s always been going on. I hope that it never ends. Southern food is Southern food and its foundations haven’t changed. What’s changing now is better ingredients and more knowledge of the history, and that’s catching people’s attention. The more people who get excited about it, the more interest there is, and that pushes us because now we have to take on the responsibility of knowing what the hell weʼre talking about and serving what weʼre supposed to be serving. It really is very inspirational for us. It pushes us to really stay on top of our game and that’s why you keep moving forward, that pressure.
Will incorporating those other influences, those international flavors, keep people interested in Southern food in the future? At some point people are going to tire of eating deviled eggs at every bar in Brooklyn.
I’m not concerned about the future of Southern food at all. I know that what’s happening right now will go down as one of the most important periods of time in this cuisine’s history. Right now there is this rebirth, this restoration, this repatriation, of not only the old recipes and dishes and stories, but more importantly the original plants and the varieties and animal breeds that made this cuisine taste a certain way. People are going back and finding out which varieties of plants which breeds of animals do best in their town, their region of the South. This creates a true sense of place. Ten years from now youʼll be able to travel and taste what each place is all about. Youʼll hear the stories that go along with those ingredients and youʼll realize how special the South is and how insanely diverse its cuisine and culture is. To me that’s a big goal and there’s a lot of work ahead of us, but we have our heads down and weʼre steamrolling right along.
Is that overly optimistic? Expecting people in those microcosms to care as much about this as you do?
That’s me being a very positive person. But it’s also me traveling the South constantly and having friends all over the South and feeling the energy and seeing the interest and the rebirth of this passion. Because what happens is as other people start to discover and taste things again for the first time and become inspired in new ways, then they start to realize how special their own town is, their own region, and along with that comes a sense of pride. And pride is a very powerful thing.
Who is the most underrated chef in Nashville?
Tyler Brown at the Capital Grille in the Hermitage Hotel. This guy’s raising his own red poll beef that he takes care of himself. Heʼs basically a cowboy. But he also has a biodynamic garden that supplies all their vegetables. Heʼs a very smart cook and heʼs working harder than any chef out there to get the ingredients right and cook them with care. Heʼs just not getting the recognition that he deserves. I also go to The Treehouse in east Nashville a lot. Iʼve probably eaten there more than any restaurant in Nashville.
Are there any chefs you are just in awe of right now?
Dan Barber. Heʼs so closely linked with the agricultural side of things, and especially the experimental side of things as far as soil nutrition and plant breeding. You know how I feel about how agriculture affects cuisine. I’m so jealous of his situation.
Do you see yourself incorporating his methods—use of food scraps—into your cooking?
Yeah, we kind of look at food that way as well. That’s the same as growing up poor. You donʼt throw anything away, you donʼt waste anything. And you should feel guilty when you do. But you also shouldnʼt cook with garbage.
Do you see any other regions of the States that are owning their cuisine? Like is there a rebirth of Midwestern cuisine?
Yes, absolutely. It’s been happening forever in California. But it’s more detailed than just big regions. You go to Portland, Oregon, and it has its own cuisine. You go to Seattle and it has its own cuisine. I think the rest of the world’s going to start to realize how many different and unique cuisines America has. Iʼm telling you, weʼre in the middle of one of the most important times in the history of American food.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist and Southerner at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep