TRADITION & PLACE
Place is at the heart of Sean Brock’s work. He is much more than a chef. His life’s work is preserving and championing the storied foods of the South. It’s food he learned to love as a child, eating at his grandmother’s kitchen in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s taste rooted in tradition and place: ingredients grown in her garden, in ancestral dirt, made with know-how and recipes passed down through generations.
These formative memories are a center that Sean returns to, and draws forward into the present. Early on, when he started cooking at serious restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, he grew frustrated with the supplies available to him. He wanted true Southern ingredients, like he’d had at his grandma’s table. But while he could easily find olive oil from Italy, cheese from France, pork from an industrial farm, he couldn’t get Lowcountry staples like Carolina Gold rice or Ossabaw Island hogs. This dissatisfaction drove Sean down a long, hard path: seeking out and forming relationships with farmers and growers, then working with them to revive these lost varietals and breeds. He went deep, even plowing his own bit of soil to nurture Jimmy Red corn. When he finally ground his crop into meal and baked it into his grandma’s cornbread, he knew he’d found his answer: the antidote to a globalized, industrialized food system. He instituted a constraint for his kitchen: they could no longer source from just anywhere. They had to find a new way forward. They made their own oils from Palmetto and vinegars from local ingredients. They filleted “junk” fish from local waters. Necessity forced ingenuity and invention.
Eventually, Sean was able to stock his pantry with ingredients true to the place. In this way, he created a community and an economy: buying produce and meats from people who he had gotten to know and trust, elevating them in the kitchen and, over time, turning skeptical diners into passionate fans. Sean won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast and more accolades followed. His restaurants became the center of a new way of Southern cooking that rippled out from Charleston to Atlanta and Richmond. By staying so closely tethered to place, Sean has built up a deep understanding of every component—the ingredients, the soil and the sea, the craft and technique, the history and people—which has enabled him to create food of incredible quality, authenticity and meaning. Food that he, the people he sources from, and the people he serves can connect to and actually be a part of. “These heirloom ingredients and culinary traditions are part of American history, not just the history of the South. The traditions have stood the test of time because the food is both insanely delicious and nutritious,” Sean says of his devotion to preserving Southern cuisine.
But even with this commitment to tradition, Sean keeps one eye on the future. The jar where he feeds and nurtures his grandmother’s starter sits alongside modern kitchen tools. He is not one to sit still. He’s relocated to Nashville, where he is setting up new restaurant projects, establishing new connections to local foods and people there. And maybe most interestingly releasing his new, essential Southern cooking bible, simply titled South. There is always more work to be done.