Chef Sean Brock wins The 2012 Culinary Preservation Award in our Trailblazing Chef Awards.
Food people, chefs leading the way, toss the terms “local” and “seasonal” around like so much loose change. And, indeed, the definitions can sometimes be conveniently flexible. But Sean Brock’s devotion to the local/seasonal principle is fierce. He makes his own salt from South Carolina seawater, for Pete’s sake. What truly sets him apart is his extraordinary crusade to restore the glory of Southern food by reintroducing local ingredients not widely used since the 19th century: Carolina Gold rice, palmetto asparagus, and James Island red corn, just to name a few. “I believe I was put on this earth to create this Restoration Era,” Brock says. “That’s what my passion is.”
Since building a network of farmers, grain purveyors, food historians, and scientists over the past few years, Brock’s seed-saving mission has revived about 35 Southern plants, some of which might otherwise have gone extinct. The network leads Brock to rare heirloom seeds, which he plants on a 2.5-acre plot on Wadmalaw Island, 40 miles from Charleston. Diners at Husk can taste the fruits of his labor in dishes like Heritage Pork Chop with Smoky Field Peas and Butterbeans, Heirloom Kale, and Plantation Rice. But he’s not looking just to supply his own restaurants. Ultimately, Brock wants to restock the region’s pantry with the same wealth of intensely flavorful grains and produce that Southern great-great-grandmothers had at their disposal. Conservation is one motivator, but taste, of course, is the paramount concern. “We’re chasing deliciousness,” he says.
Others who share his convictions hail Brock as a game-changer. “For the long term, Sean has changed the definition of what it means to be a chef in the South,” says Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, whose company specializes in organic, heirloom grains. Roberts works with Brock on seed-restoration efforts.
For a guy who loves plants, Brock has been celebrated more often for his snout-to-tail swine cookery. “I never thought I’d be the guy who’s known for pig ears. I’d rather be known as the guy who does the most beautiful work with, say, carrots.”
Growing up in rural Virginia, he did not eat a lot of meat. “It was all vegetables. At my grandmother’s house, you were either eating from the garden or the basement,” he says, referring to her vast stash of preserves and pickles.
For Brock’s ambitions to really take root and spread, he first has to convince more farmers to eschew chemicals and nurse overworked Southern soil back to health.
“Crops are being grown in soil that has no nutrient value; therefore, they have no flavor. We’ve bred out flavor so we can grow things bigger, faster, and easier.”
Nostalgia is a powerful force in the South. Bringing back old plants should appeal. But Brock’s backward-looking innovation, like any innovation, meets its share of skepticism. He leans hard on another Southern tradition: evangelizing.
“You have to spend every waking hour researching,” he says. “You have to get out of the kitchen and make friends with food historians, professors, people dedicated to saving seeds and heritage breeds of livestock. That’s what it takes. And no one else is willing to do it, which is what scares me to death.”