In yesterday’s column for the print edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I wrote about Sean Brock, the chef at McCrady’s restaurant in Charleston. Brock pulled an upset at this year’s James Beard Awards and won Best Chef Southeast, besting two more established Georgia chefs.
Have you tried Brock’s food? I’d love to hear your comments on it.
THE CHEF OF THE FUTURE
When the James Beard Awards were announced last month, most industry insiders expected the award for Best Chef Southeast to go to one of two Georgians: either Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta or Hugh Acheson of Athens’ Five and Ten. Both are innovative chefs with loads of national recognition, both are leaders who’ve done a lot to define Southern food today, both are nice guys who’ve paid their dues and both were repeat nominees.
As is often the case with the James Beard Awards, chefs are often finalists in their category a couple of times before they win.
But the award went to a parvenu — a 32-year-old, first-time nominee in the Best Chef Southeast category named Sean Brock who runs the kitchen at Charleston, S.C.’s long-standing McCrady’s Restaurant. It was a surprise for one and all, including Brock, who let loose with an expletive of dismay upon receiving his award.
Yet the fact is he has emerged as the most original new voice in Southern cooking today. If there is one restaurant in all the South that deserves a pilgrimage, it is McCrady’s under Sean Brock.
I first tasted his food in 2006 when he was the chef at the starchy Capitol Grille inside Nashville’s grand Hermitage Hotel. He cooked the steaks and chops of a fancy hotel menu, but also set up outrageous tasting menus for diners who contacted him through his blog. I encouraged a group of Atlanta food writers — Bill Addison, then of Creative Loafing, Christiane Lauterbach of Atlanta Magazine and Meridith Ford Goldman, then of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — to drive up to Nashville and join me for a three-hour meal. Brock was experimenting with all the tricks of molecular gastronomy at the time. There were lots of weird, gooey gels, a minute-smoked chunk of pork belly presented in a bong-like glass cylinder filled with smoke and a shower of liquid nitrogen-frozen olive oil, shot from a garden sprayer. It was an exhausting meal, but one with moments of real brilliance.
Soon after that, Brock moved to Charleston, and I made a point of visiting the restaurant every time I was in town. At first he still presented flourishes of technique as a calling card, and the traditional Charlestonians I took to the restaurant found the food “interesting, ” but wondered if it would fly with natives.
But on subsequent visits I began to notice that Brock was less interested in rendering barbecue sauce “Dippin’ Dots” with liquid nitrogen, and getting more interested in knowing where his fish came from, how his tomatoes were grown and whether the roots of wild vines were edible. The food kept getting both more interesting and more approachable. I remember once having the most subtly seasoned, perfectly cooked, crispy-skinned rabbit before the thought occurred to me: “Crispy-skinned rabbit?” It was chicken skin, carefully attached with transglutaminase — a natural chemical chefs call “meat glue.”
In 2009, I spent a day with Brock to profile him for Food Arts magazine. By this point he was farming a 2 1/2-acre garden plot on Wadmalaw Island, about 25 miles from Charleston, using biodynamic growing methods. First we visited the pigs he had started to raise, then tramped around the garden as he gathered beets, fennel and radishes. He scooped up an armload of bright yellow rapini blossoms and said they smelled just like amaretti cookies — that sweet, almond smell. I could practically see the light bulb going off over his head.
Back in the kitchen, he showed me the bags and bags of frozen beans he had kept as part of his adventures in seed saving — keeping heirloom varieties viable. Some were beans that his mother and grandmother had cultivated in rural Virginia. And yet …
All the high-tech tools of the trade were in full force in the kitchen. Brock’s team was poaching that farm fennel with saffron inside vacuum-sealed sous vide bags. One shelf was lined with the culinary chemicals that Brock used to spherify and gel. But instead of magic tricks, he was more interested in practical purposes. How could he use these chemicals to make the most potatoey potato gnocchi around — ones made of 99 percent flavorful heirloom potato and only 1 percent flour? Before I left he gave me a tour of the cabinet filled with house-cured salamis and hams, pressed a piece of peppery cured jowl bacon and some Sea Island Red Peas into my hand, and told me to go home and make dinner for my family.
I drove back to Atlanta thinking that I had never met a chef who thought so deeply — and with such engagement — about where his ingredients come from and what he could do with them. It has been fascinating to see what Sean Brock has accomplished the past four years. This young man is going to take us all on a wild ride in the years to come.