A conversation with chef Sean Brock is beautifully and inextricably interwoven with roots, both literally and figuratively. From the sassafras flavoring his exclusive Southern-Inspired Pork Chop for Freshly, to his unwavering commitment to perpetuating the tastes and cultural roots of his Appalachian childhood—Brock is a superlative food historian, educator, and collector of heritage, not to mention a two-time James Beard Award-winning chef.
We sat down with him to catch up on the surprisingly varied array of Southern regional dishes, the secret ingredient in his biscuit ‘n’ gravy recipe, and why his new flagship restaurant, Audrey, is a dream come true in more ways than one.
Freshly: You have a new restaurant opening soon called Audrey. Who’s that named after?
Brock: Audrey was my storybook Appalachian grandmother. My story with food starts with her. She had a farm in rural Virginia that was only for our family’s consumption. A two-acre garden basically, which is a farm. So my childhood was spent running around in the garden, and my chores were always in the garden, not just picking or tending to things in the garden, but also a lot of prep.
So you got into the kitchen pretty young.
I started cooking meals by myself when I was nine, large full meals for the whole family, with the help of my grandmother. Even when I was in high school, junior high, I would come home and cook every day. My house became this place to hang out and see what I was cooking next. At 16, around 1996, I was legally able to start in the restaurant world. It was really exciting. And I also continued to work closely with my grandmother and absorb as much as possible and learn as much as possible while working in a professional kitchen. At 18, I went to culinary school. It was the first time I moved out of Appalachia into the low country of Charleston, South Carolina, and I witnessed a completely new, very foreign cuisine.
So Southern food is not monolithic, you’re telling us?
It could not be more opposite. The South, I'm not exaggerating, is made up of 50-60 micro regions, that all have different cuisines and different landscapes and environments where different plants can grow, and different animals can thrive in. While I was in Charleston, I fell in love with Lowcountry food. It was so fascinating to me because it was so different from what I grew up with—very stimulating and rewarding.
That was really my first experience in realizing the diversity of Southern food, and it also spurred a lot of communal pride for the food that I grew up with, because nobody in Charleston had ever heard of any of the things that I grew up eating, from dishes to preserves to actual ingredients.
"I would drive from Charleston to my grandmother's, raid her basement, take all of her preserves, and load up pawpaws, and all these strange Appalachian items."
Then I would bring them back and have a show-and-tell at the restaurants I was working at in Charleston!
That’s so cool. Did that perspective of moving away from home influence your practice in other ways too?
My career became very focused on being a seed-saver. I ended up with my own pig farm, my own vegetable farm. There was a deep agricultural side very, very early on, but then also more of a historical study side as well, diving deep into the history of Southern food with some really amazing professors, historians, and food writers. In 2010, I had this idea for a restaurant that would be the truest form of Southern food that I could think of. And by doing that, I declared that no ingredients produced outside of the South were allowed in the door. And so that changed my life drastically because I couldn't just pick up the phone and order salt or flour or sugar. All these things that I'd been relying on hadn't even thought about, where they came from or how they were made, became something that I had to learn very, very quickly.
Favorite childhood dish and do you make it for your kids?
Biscuits and sausage gravy. I make it all the time for my kids. I’ve totally modified my grandmother’s biscuit recipe. For the sausage gravy, I make it the way she did, except I sneak in a bit of soy sauce. And my mom caught me doing it once—I didn’t want her to know, I just wanted her to think mine was better!
And did she?
Yeah, she did. She puts soy sauce in hers now too.
Huh, I like A-1—it’s underrated!
Brock wags his finger. Try to make A-1 and tell me it’s not one of the most complicated and amazing sauces ever made!
You wear more than one hat when it comes to food.
Yes. I've become a collector of ingredients, a collector of historical documents and traditions, old books, old, handwritten Southern recipes, preserves, and preserving techniques.
You had a lot of restaurants at one moment in time. And now you’ve decided to pare it down. Sort of.
At one point, around 2017, I was operating restaurants in five cities, and became very unhappy because I wasn't having fun anymore. So I stepped away, left all those places I created, and started over with a blank piece of paper, and I had a midlife crisis. I'm 43, and that was when I was right around turning 40, and decided that I wanted to spend the second half of my life focusing on the food of Appalachia, where I grew up. And I took out a piece of paper and drew the dream restaurant scenario, and that's where I'm sitting right now.
Incredible! Any other sneak peeks into Audrey?
We have a research and development kitchen with very unique and rare pieces of equipment you don't commonly see in restaurants. We have a rotary evaporator for vacuum distillation and a $50,000 microwave that allows us to isolate flavor compounds. So I can say, these little green leaves of this marigold flower taste citrusy, then I can study the detailed makeup of the marigold. We also have cold closets and mold closets that are designed to grow different beneficial molds to help us convert our pantry of Southern beans and corn into liquid aminos. Yeah, that's the lab.
So, you’re clearly very invested in the future in addition to preserving the past. Is that partly what led you to collaborate with Freshly?
That’s right. I've always wanted to be an ambassador, someone who can use a platform to teach people about how unique, wonderful, and diverse Southern food is, and how wonderful it can be in the future. The goal is to reach as many people as possible, so the traditions stay alive, but to also move Southern food forward. So the next step is moving outside of the restaurant world, into people's homes.
Tell us more about your Southern-Inspired Pork Chop.
Traditionally, greens in the South would be cooked with a little bit of onion and some vinegar and sometimes a sweetener, or a piece of cured meat for savoriness. Departing from those ideas, we did lemon juice, raisins for sweetness, and roasted garlic and brown butter for umami. The sweet potatoes are in purée form. They use orange juice to brighten and enhance the natural flavor of the sweet potato. And then we garnish it with some roasted mushrooms. My main ethos is to focus on the ‘aliveness’ of food, because there's nothing like eating something right out of the field, while it's still vibrant. We are constantly chasing that in whatever we cook.
Given how intentional you are about ingredients, how did you choose the parts of this dish?
We have a saying in the South, 'If it grows together, it goes together.' In Appalachia, there was a very specific cycle of these traditions of when you plant certain things and when you harvest them and how you preserve them so that you can eat them at different times. You can almost map it out on a calendar. There's a cycle of life that happens, and you know that you're gonna be eating certain things together at a certain time of the year. That's just how I grew up, but it's also how I operate the restaurants, it's how I cook. And so this one is inspired by the tradition of pork, greens, and sweet potato. Those three things on the plate are as old as you could possibly go.
"Once you start looking at traditional Southern food you can follow the rhythms of a garden and find things that are perfect nutritionally and also agriculturally."
And the mushrooms are seasoned with sassafras. I’m blanking on what that flavor is!
Sassafras is a plant that I grew up digging in the mountains as a child. It’s a very unique Southern ingredient and flavor. It’s where root beer comes from.
If you had to have just one flavor for the rest of your life.
Perigord black truffle.
Favorite unsung ingredient?
What’s the first dish a customer sent back and how did you feel?
One of the worst memories of all time was the opening night of my first chef job—I was responsible for the kitchen. And I had a venison osso buco on the menu and a guest said it was like shoe leather and sent it back. That was pretty embarrassing. Chuckles. And it was pretty overcooked.
Was that your most embarrassing moment in the kitchen or do you have another one to share with us?
That opening night was definitely the worst of my career. The ship had sunk, it was already at the bottom of the ocean. And on the other side of the line in the midst of all the chaos, I saw the two people who had hired me, the food and beverage director and the general manager of the hotel really regretting their decision. Laughs. That’s by far the worst I’ve ever felt.
Worst kitchen injury?
Mine was making potato rosti. And you have to get the pan hot for like 10 minutes. Or at least that’s what I thought you were supposed to do. And when I threw in the potatoes, the water hit the oil and it actually exploded. It knocked me over and burned the top of my hand, which seized up, I couldn’t even open it. And when I got to the emergency room they actually had to scrub off the burnt skin.
One more thing: how DO you pronounce Appalachia?
If you say Appalachia, I'm going to throw an apple at you. That’s straight from my grandmother. We'll throw an apple-atchya.
Hungry yet? Eat something right out of the field with chef Sean Brock’s Southern-Inspired Pork Chop