Chef Sean Brock: ‘I’m proud to be a hillbilly’

Inspired by his mother and grandmother, Chef Brock knows a thing or two about canning. He believes in supporting local farmers and buying seasonally and in bulk. What isn’t used now, is preserved for later. “That’s why I’ll have fresh tomatoes in January, and you won’t” he laughs.

Chef Sean Brock has a reputation. He chuckles about his collection of moonshine. It is no secret he is a fan of Kentucky bourbon; his friends include Julian Van Winkle of the Frankfort distilling family. He is a compulsive seed-saver, dissatisfied with today’s hybrid vegetables; he seeks out varieties long forgotten, grows them out, and then showcases their beauty, their taste, their sensuality at his restaurants.

When Sean Brock won the coveted James Beard award for “Best Chef in the Southeast,” he hid in a restroom stall calling back home to Wise County, Va.

He’s been featured on “Martha Stewart” and “Iron Chef.” His Bacon Cornbread was highlighted on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” “Esquire Magazine” dubbed Brock “A Genius Who Gives Us Hope.”

The 30-year-old is executive chef to two nationally- acclaimed restaurants, McCrady’s and Husk, in Charleston, S.C.

Currently authoring his first cookbook, the future is bright for the Appalachian Ambassador with the playful laugh.

Brock grew up less than 100 miles from Pikeville. Closely tied to coal mining, his family lived “off the four-lane and up Robinson hollow.” Under a ball cap and behind dark glasses, one can see Brock’s mind wistfully travel through time, to a place where muscadine grapes draped across his Grandma’s swing, and the garden was filled with Goose Beans, White Hastings beans, cushaws, and corn.

His love of old-fashioned open-pollinated vegetables is literally tattooed on his arm. You could call Chef Brock “Farmer Brock.”

Brock maintains two gardens, one supplying Husk restaurant, another to preserve and propagate heirloom seeds that are becoming increasing endangered. He reverently holds a tomato in his hand like Indiana Jones cradles a priceless artifact. Casually, he slices a peach with his pocketknife, and offers his guests a bite.

“Food should be beautiful, pure and simple. We’ve got to get back to the garden and cooking at home,” Brock says.

The logo for Husk Restaurant is an “H” with a shovel and fork, representing his farm-to-table philosophy. Brock insists on buying locally, and literally changes the menu daily to reflect what is in season.

An avid canner, Brock recently bought 800 pounds of tomatoes, beautiful and tasty, that a farmer could not find a market for.

Brock laughs, “We stayed up all night and canned. That’s why I’ll have fresh tomatoes in January, and you won’t.”

The chef is adamant about food preservation.

“People need to support their local farmers. Learn to buy in bulk and can,” Brock says with passion. Brock makes his own hot sauces, is learning to make his own salt, and is obsessed with creating his own vinegars, muscadine being one of his favorites.

Chef Brock has the soul of a poet, and the gift of storytelling. He talks about Appalachian culture as a culture that “gets it.”

“I am proud to be a hillbilly.”

Brock said his pride comes from the cultural understanding of the beauty of fresh produce, the uniqueness of vegetable varieties shared from one generation to the next, the importance of family and food.

“I grew up in a town without restaurants, without a grocery. So we cooked and grew our own food. I didn’t know how lucky I was. I’m proud of where I come from, so much that it hurts. It’s a beautiful way to live life.”

Behind the scenes at Husk Restaurant, one discovers grills, wood-burning ovens, and a small section of ground where Brock is successfully growing olive trees.

The chef beams like a child with a shiny toy, showing off his new Viking smoker. To the side, pallets of Kentucky bourbon barrel staves stand ready for the next task, smoking and roasting vegetables. There’s even a secret pantry stocked full of mason jars; two in fact.

Husk Restaurant is about using Southern ingredients, but putting them together in new and exciting ways. There’s fried chicken skins and pig’s ear sliders with pickled peppers. Homemade ricotta cheese complements tomato and arugula salads. Smoked trout, barbecued lamb and duck comfit rotate on the daily seasonal menu.

The pimento cheese is to die for! I am sworn to secrecy about the Husk Cheeseburger, but trust me, you want one.

With a twinkle in his eye and an infectious laugh, Sean Brock proclaims, “I was put on this earth to proclaim the gospel of Cornbread, Grits and Whiskey.” I believe him, and so should you.

For more stories about Chef Sean Brock see friendsdriftinn.com.

Joyce Pinson is a Master Gardener, home cook, and a local insurance agent. She maintains a food and garden blog at www.friendsdriftinn.com.