James Beard Foundation award-winning chef Sean Brock was the force behind acclaimed restaurants including McCrady’s Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina and Husk, which opened four locations across the South. He currently is launching a restaurant project in Nashville, Tennessee devoted to the food of his native Appalachia. Brock built his career exploring Southern culinary traditions and ingredients and is known for applying futuristic culinary techniques to traditional dishes. He also has become an advocate for healthier work environments after a severe bout with an autoimmune disease and alcoholism. Brock recently released his second cookbook, “South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations.” Brock is in New Orleans this week for a book signing and talk with chef Kelly Fields at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17 at the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute.
Gambit: How do you reconcile traditional Southern food and the modern techniques you’ve embraced in your cooking?
Brock: I think in order to contribute to something so steeped in history, you have to move it forward because it keeps the story alive and at the forefront of conversation. If you just focus on history and tradition, there is an end point, a finish line. You can discover new things all the time, but I believe to contribute to something you love, you’ve got to take risks and push things forward.
Gambit: You describe Southern food as hailing from microregions. What ingredients or techniques from south Louisiana do you find most important?
B: When I was in high school, I would buy crawfish tails from the back door of a restaurant and make etouffee like three times a week after school. People would come over and eat this new interesting thing that no one in my region had ever tasted. I fell in love with that style of cookery at a very young age, and I blame it all on (TV chef) Justin Wilson. When I was a kid, I would watch that show with my grandparents. If you look at origins of Southern cooking, Creole is at the foundation and something I continue to draw inspiration from.
This is embarrassing to admit, but when I had my first kitchen job at 15, all I talked about was Emeril (Lagasse), so much so that my nickname became “Little Emeril.”
G: You’ve been candid about your health struggles. What changes have you seen in the hospitality industry toward creating healthier environments?
B: A lot of people ask me why I’m public about it because when you’re in the recovery world that’s rule No. 1: You don’t speak about it publicly. That has never resonated with me. I have been blessed with a platform and surrounded by a community that listens and cares. By sharing my story, I’ve received hundreds of messages from people saying, “You’ve saved my life.” A big part of my recovery process is that service aspect. There’s also a lot of accountability involved when you put your story in The New York Times.
As an industry, we are at the infancy of the learning process. I was miserable for so long because I wasn’t educated in the ways of wellness. I didn’t know how to communicate; I never went to counseling or therapy. I took all my fears out on a bottle of whiskey. I’m now starting to see people more interested in gaining the knowledge to get help.
One thing we are doing as a restaurant is basing every single decision on how stressful it is. From writing the menu to how many people we schedule, to how much we pay them… it’s all based on stress level. For the longest time, I just pushed and pushed and took for granted that it was going to be really stressful. That’s not sustainable.