Chef Sean Brock has had quite a year. From opening new outposts of his critically acclaimed Charleston-based restaurant Husk in Savannah, Ga., and Greenville, S.C., to his very public battle with alcoholism and subsequent stint in rehab, Brock is now firing on all cylinders. His love of bourbon has been replaced with a love of vintage guitar effects pedals and music. His eyes are clear, his mind is focused, and he feels he’s now finally capable of reaching the heights he has always aspired to.
Those heights are distinctly evident in the small room in the back of McCrady’s restaurant in Charleston, where Brock has served as executive chef since 2006. The small dining area, with its open kitchen and 22 seats, is Brock’s main stage, and when the curtain rises, a culinary experience unfolds that takes guests through a myriad of flavors, emotions, and pleasures.
After experiencing Brock’s tasting menu, I sat down with the chef to discuss where he’s been, where he’s going, and if the reports that he’s now happier than ever are accurate.
With all of the projects you are currently working on, why is this type of menu so important to you?
I became very interested in the tasting-menu format—eating it, studying it, and cooking it—in around 2002. And then from 2003 to 2006, I was at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., and my tasting menu was 30 courses. I was a kid. I was 24, and it was just my passion. Serving someone 30 dishes in an evening was just so cool. And as soon as I got here in 2006, we had a tasting menu right away. But we had an à la carte menu, too. So it was like living a dual life because it’s a dozen new dishes on top of 15 that are on this side, so you are having to be creative and come up with twice as many dishes, which stretches you too thin. You’re in the kitchen and there’s 200 covers on, and 35 people get the tasting menu and the board is full of chaos. I did it for 10 years. We pulled it off, but it wasn’t always fun. Now with only serving the tasting menu, it’s like a dream come true. It’s an opportunity to finally create an experience that I’ve dreamt of, and it’s a culmination of 20 some years of obsessing over what it would be like to have a 20-seat restaurant with one menu. I knew that it would make me really, really happy.
How does your staff prepare for this type of service, and what role do you play?
We prep upstairs away from the dining area because that is a sacred place. It’s the stage, and we enter the stage right before the show. It’s pretty calm all day upstairs. That’s the advantage of a tasting menu—the unknown doesn’t exist. When I come in, I know exactly to the tee what I need to prep. You know exactly how many slices of squash you need and exactly how many fennel fronds you will use. There is no waste. It’s so efficient and so respectful toward the food. I believe there is this really small window when a product has its moment. When it’s most vibrant, most alive, when it’s happiest—that’s when it’s still full of energy and life. It’s really cool, and it’s a fun thing to chase.
My role is to be the visionary. My obsession is those tiny little things that can take something from really delicious to shockingly delicious. Like the broth on the scallop. My idea is how do we have these layers and layers of complexity and thought and concepts and ideas and disciplines in a simple broth? In order to do that, you need a pantry like ours. Our pantry is crazy with flavors. You can’t make that broth at home. It’s tomato and water with a lot of our pantry shit in it. It’s seasoned with soy sauce, aged for 3 years, infused with seaweed from northern Japan that’s aged in a cave for 3 years, then it’s cold-steeped for three months with Katsuobushi, and then I season it with sorghum vinegar that I made 8 years ago and have been aging, and on and on. But it’s one thing; it’s just a broth. But you drip this over tomatoes, and your mouth goes crazy. It’s jarring.
The tasting-menu experience goes well beyond the food. How important are all of the other details?
When we opened, I was in a really interesting place in my life. I was obsessive and a perfectionist and a workaholic. I had every detail covered because I knew I couldn’t be here every day, even though I wanted to. So I had to set up crazy systems and would teach and teach and teach. I had to make sure not a single thing could go wrong. During the setup, we go through the menu, and I tell the staff, ‘These are the exact words I want you to say when you drop this plate of food.’ It’s all with the guests’ comfort in mind. It’s not about pumping information and talking endlessly. I’m shooting for this moment in your life, this 2-hour window when you cannot worry about anything and be present in that space and have all of your needs anticipated. When you sit down, we have every minute planned. It’s like a play. It’s an unbelievable opportunity to orchestrate what to me would be the best dining experience that I could come up with.
The music playing during service seemed to always complement the dish being served. Whether it was Queens of the Stone Age or Radiohead or Zero 7, the music was somehow an extension of the food. How important is music to the overall experience?
I spend as much time on the playlist as I do the food. It’s really important to me. Obviously I’m obsessed with music, and I play music and write music, so I’ve always known the importance of a playlist. You go to Husk, and you hear music that fits that room. You go to McCrady’s Tavern, and Van Halen belongs in that room because that’s how I want it to feel. The right music can add so much to the meal. I have a goal of what emotion I want to hit when you eat this food, and music helps that. Music just adds to it. Eighty percent of our guests or more thank us for the music, and every time I’m here, I update the playlist. No one is allowed to touch that playlist but me.
Many people on your team have been with you for years. You are certainly the public face of the operation, but you’re also quick to give much of the credit to your staff, especially to chef de cuisine John Sleasman.
I used to have to be in control of every single thing, down to the socks that the servers wear, and that wasn’t a healthy thing for me. My perspective on life has changed this year, and almost all of the menu now is John’s ideas. John would email me once every couple of days telling me how bad he wanted to work at McCrady’s. He kept at it, and I finally said, “Dude, just come work here.” Now seeing him create food better than I could create in that space makes me so happy. It’s emotional to see someone who cares so much and has sacrificed so much to be dedicated to a craft and fully understand my vision and my standards, and for me to act as a foundation for his vision and his standards. I rarely have to change anything when he presents a dish. He’s my prodigy, and I’m so proud of him. He blows my mind every day.
So now the big question: Are you happy?
I can say with 100 percent honesty that I’m the happiest I could ever be. What I’m doing here is bliss. It’s not that I have to have complete control over things. I had to let that go. It took a lot of therapy, but I let that go. It’s just about everything clicking when it’s supposed to click. As a chef not feeling a single millisecond of stress, it’s all positive energy. I strongly believe in energy, and I love the energy in that room, the music, the colors. It’s spiritual. It’s serene. All I need is this and a few more guitar pedals. You should see my collection. It’s clearly a coping mechanism that bourbon used to take care of for me.