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Chef Sean Brock "in love with food"

Gwen Fowler Gwen Fowler
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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Chef Sean Brock points out the crops coming up in his garden at Thornhill Farms in McClellanville.

There are Wild Goose beans, benne seed plants, "ham and gravy" crowder peas, squash, corn and okra.

"It allows us to see the food the way the guests will see it," he said.

But this produce won't find its way onto the plates of diners at McCrady's in Charleston. These crops are far too precious for eating. Brock's garden is planted with seed that he is saving, plants almost lost that he wants to help restore.

Watching him stroll down the garden rows, dressed in a black T-shirt that proclaims him a Fine Swinetologist, or driving his black Chevrolet truck back to another part of the farm, it would be easy to mistake one of the nation's most talented chefs for exactly what he proudly claims to be: a country boy.

In May, country boy Brock was named the James Beard Best Chef in the Southeast.

On awards night in New York City, Brock, 32, sat in the audience waiting for his category to be announced, thinking there was no way he'd win. Statistically, he said, "there was no way Charleston is going to get three years in a row." The southeastern award went to Mike Lata of Fig last year and to Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill the year before.

"I was so convinced that I didn't have a chance that I didn't have a speech prepared."

But he did win. And he did manage to make a speech, thanking "my mom, my wife, my family, food and bourbon," according to the Foundation's twitter report.

When he's sent off to get his picture taken and go to the pressroom, he ducks into a restroom.

"I knew I needed to call my mom so I called her from the bathroom in the stall," he said. "She was crying, and so was I. I still can't comprehend it."

The chef seed saver

This wasn't Brock's first trip to the James Beard Awards. He was nominated for Rising Star Chef in 2008 and 2009, and he was a nominee for Best Chef Southeast in 2009. One of the reasons he thinks he won over all chefs from six Southeastern states this year is his work with saving seeds. He's dedicated to restoring pre-Civil war Southern seeds that were at risk of being extinct.

Thornhill is a 100-acre certified organic farm that Brock calls "one of the most special farms in America." In his garden there, Brock explains the science behind an Indian planting method called the Three Sisters, in which corn, beans and squash are planted in the same hole.

The corn pulls nitrogen out of the soil, and the beans return nitrogen to the soil. The squash plants grow larger and close to the ground, providing shade and helping keep weeds under control. The bean runners climb the corn stalk. It was a planting method Brock's family always used, and as a small child, he thought beans grew on corn stalks.

Next are two rows of benne seed, what a sesame seed was before it was genetically modified in the 1930s. Brock got the seed from Glenn Roberts, owner of Anson Mills in Columbia. Roberts and others got the seed from a USDA Agricultural Research Service seed bank and are trying to bring it back from the verge of extinction.

"Benne is the missing link to Lowcountry cooking," Brock said. "Originally, in its true form, it was a protein source."

Almost 70 percent protein and 30 percent oil, benne was ground into flour, and the oil was used for deep frying. When genetically modified, it became about 70 percent oil instead.

"What we think sesame tastes like is completely wrong. We've messed up and we've got to fix it."

Tourists want the type of food that was cooked and eaten in the Lowcountry in the 1700s and 1800s, he said. "Without the ingredients of that period, we can't exactly give them a true representation of the Lowcountry. That's why I'm so passionate about it."

He also has two rows of Sea Island rice peas, a cowpea that looks like a swollen piece of rice. He has planted about one-tenth of the seeds in existence. The seeds from these two rows will be enough to plant up to 12 next year.

"You can't justify eating it. One seed will provide you with 20 or 30 more seeds."

Brock works in the garden almost every day before going into the restaurant. It's a two-hour round trip from Charleston.

"It actually costs me money, but it's worth every single penny and it's worth every single minute."

Maybe one day, he says, he can serve his grandmother's Wild Goose beans in his restaurant.

In love with food

That would be fitting, because it was his grandmother who encouraged his love of cooking. When he was 11, Brock became fascinated with Yan Can Cook, a television show featuring Chef Martin Yan. He wanted to cook the way Yan cooked, doing everything fast.

When he was 12, his grandmother gave him a hand-hammered wok and cleaver, which he still has. She taught him the proper way to preserve foods, how to make chicken and dumplings.

Brock graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Charleston and went to work as chef tournant under Chef Robert Carter at the Peninsula Grill. It was Carter, he said, who taught him what it means to be a chef and skills in people management.

He was executive sous chef at Lemaire Restaurant in Richmond, Va., and executive chef at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., before coming to McCrady's in 2005. He and his high-school sweetheart, Tonya, who also works at the restaurant, have been married for three years. He proposed to her on a night he was cooking for the James Beard House.

On a recent night, Brock and his staff of seven prepare for dinner. Before the first meals leave the kitchen, white linen is dropped over the two stainless counters.

"It allows us to see the food the way the guests will see it," he said.

Every dish leaving the kitchen is pampered and treated with such detail, as if it is the only dish they will serve that evening. A warm vegetable salad, with tiny carrots, onions and radishes, is a work of art.

Rather than directing the work of everyone around him, Brock spends an hour or so cutting the stem out of 125-pounds of green tomatoes from Johns Island. After dinner service is over, he and the staff pickle them.

The menu at McCrady's is only a starting place. What is served changes daily, depending on the produce and meats that Brock has gotten from local farmers and fishermen. Almost all of the vegetables are grown locally. He gets grits and farro from Anson Mills, pork from Caw Caw Creek near St. Matthews, chickens from Thackeray Farms on Wadmalaw Island

In November, Brock will open Sazerac, a new restaurant at 76 Queen St., Charleston, that will serve only Southern foods. Only products from the South will be allowed through the door, he said, and that will mean no balsamic vinegar or olive oil.

Until a few years ago, Brock said, he thought being a chef was the only thing he ever wanted to do, but he doesn't believe that now.

"It's not being a chef that I'm in love with. It's food that I'm in love with. That's me saying I don't want to just be a chef."

He also wants to make bourbon and country ham, open a pickling business, help young farmers.

"I want to touch food in every aspect."

He loves food so much that he's endured about 30 hours so far with a tattoo artist who has covered part of one arm with his favorite vegetables, including Jimmy Red corn.

Recently when Brock has walked through McCrady's dining room, he has been greeted by diners who congratulate him.

"It blows my mind. You just see it as genuine happiness that people have for the restaurant. The expectations are much higher now so we have to work harder.

"That's a lot of work. That's a lot of thinking. Thank God for bourbon."

Gwen Fowler
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.