Chef Sean Brock is three parts studious historian, one part good ol' boy.
Determined to revive antebellum cuisine with heirloom ingredients, Brock is blasting Southern cooking into the 21st century at the renown McCrady's restaurant in Charleston, S.C. As executive chef, Brock is updating dishes that enticed George Washington when he ate in the very same building in 1791.
"That's our mission right now," said Brock, winner of the 2010 James Beard Best Chef: Southeast award. "You have to understand the history before you move forward."
Scouring the yellowing pages of old cookbooks and ancient farm journals, Brock found recipes chock full of ingredients dwindling in supply or no longer existent.
"You start seeing antebellum wheat, rice peas, Sea Island red peas, native corns," Brock said.
They were crops planted on rice plantations of the 1700s to help restore nutrients to the soil when crops were rotated. Soon they became part of the local diet, making their way into the mouth-watering recipes of the Old South.
"We should be cooking those ingredients. ... We should be able to replicate it because that's our biggest inspiration," Brock said.
His dedication to the past prompted a search for heirloom seeds and livestock, and sources were shared with local farmers.
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Grew Up In Town So Rural There Was No Restaurant
"Discovering these seeds, planting these seeds, convincing farmers to plant them, so we can get the seed stock up so ... you can sit down in a restaurant and eat the food that's supposed to be here," he said.
Under Brock's guidance, they're also cultivated on McCrady's own 2.5-acre farm on nearby Wadmalaw Island, which grows 90 percent of the restaurant's vegetables.
"We're getting to a point now where we're really able to take incredible ingredients -- super fresh -- and reinvent them and cook it the way it's supposed to be cooked, the way it used to be cooked," Brock said.
Brock's love of all things old belies his own youth. At 32, he is a rising star among celebrity chefs, with features on the Food Network and a slew of awards.
Before running the kitchen at McCrady's, the Johnson & Wales University graduate had worked as executive chef at Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., executive sous chef at Lemaire Restaurant in Richmond, Va., and apprentice at La Terraza del Casino in Madrid.
In the fall, he plans to open a new restaurant in Charleston, called Husk, which will also feature Southern cuisine and local ingredients.
It's quite a resume for man who grew up in a rural Virginia town so small there were no restaurants and so provincial he had never heard the word "chef." That's not to say he never cooked. Indeed, every man, woman and child in his community had a hand in the daily preparation of family meals.
"My entire childhood, my chores were working in the garden, sitting on the porch shelling peas or shucking corn or grading cabbage for sauerkraut," Brock said.
By age 11, he knew he wanted to cook professionally. "At a very young age, 11 or 12, I started cooking entire meals," he said. "I had my own pots and pans. I had my own knives ... I would watch Julia Child, 'Yan Can Cook.' I would be amazed at how fast he [host Martin Yan] could chop and onion. I was like, 'I have to be able to do that.'"
His love for cooking and for the South have fueled his quest to clear up misconceptions about Southern cooking, largely caused by the widespread use of canned and frozen ingredients and the prevalence of genetically modified foods to mass produce inexpensive, disease-resistant food.
"Southern food isn't about big plates of fried chicken and overcooked pots of collard greens. Southern food is about ingredients, and craftsmanship," Brock said.
That means "raising some eyebrows" with simple ingredients like pork and corn, he said.
"Eat a piece of country ham and drink a little bit of bourbon and tell me it's not the most amazing thing you've ever had," he said. "It's the craftsmanship, tradition and care put into those ingredients. It's the patience that tastes so good."
"The South kicks ass," Brock said of the popularity of dishes even George Washington enjoyed when he toured the Southern states and dined in the 1788 brick Georgian mansion now occupied by McCrary's and listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Landmarks.
"I love it, I live it and I want other people to experience it because I know how awesome it is."
Freshness of ingredients is so vital that Brock ventures into the field to pick his own fennel and goes to the dock to get stone crab that's still warm from being cooked onboard the boat as soon as it's harvested from the sea. He's also devised a way to lure 800-pound pigs grazing freely on six acres into a trailer on their way to becoming pork chops.
"They like Froot Loops. You make little Froot Loop trails," Brock said. "I had to lasso one once. Or at least I had the idea. Then I did it and it didn't work so good. I needed a horse or something."
So what does a sophisticated chef with a hand in centuries-old culinary sensations crave himself?
"My favorite food that I'm embarrassed to talk about eating is definitely Slim Jims," Brock said. "They're so delicious. That's Southern charcuterie. It has such a pleasant snap."
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