When it comes to bridging the gap between hard-drinking, balls-to-the-wall stereotypes of kitchen life and the new movement toward chefs as cultural thought leaders, few pull off the balancing act quite as convincingly as Sean Brock.
Since winning Best Chef Southeast at the 2010 James Beard Awards for his modern Lowcountry cooking at Charleston’s McCrady’s, and opening the nearby Husk later the same year, Brock has become one of the most well-known chefs from the South—not to mention one of its most visible boosters. He’s a charter member of the Fatback Collective, working to bring humanely raised heritage breed pork into the mainstream of Southern barbecue culture. And despite being a self-proclaimed “hillbilly,” he’s the guy with a CSA box worth of produce tattooed on his arm who gets invited to wax poetic at chef confabs from Portland to Copenhagen to Tokyo.
He is also, at least for a little while, the guy with the TV show. This season, Mind Of a Chef, the Anthony Bourdain-produced documentary series airing on PBS, follows Brock and April Bloomfield as they explore (independently) the foods, places, and people who contributed to their respective culinary identities. Brock’s episodes are mostly concentrated in the American South, and they show him sweating through an order of Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville, visiting Appalachian Virginia where he was raised, and tracing some of the foundational techniques and ingredients of southern cooking back via the slave trade to Senegal.
But while Brock’s reputation as a chef is assured, his true legacy may be the work he does with folks like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, whom he collaborates with to preserve the heirloom crops and foodways of the South. Many of the ingredients he uses at his restaurants—including a recently opened Husk spinoff in Nashville—were verging on extinction not long ago. Brock’s realized that reviving them and educating people about why they matter is a lifetime’s work, though that’s not to say he doesn’t think about his eventual retirement.
“My real dream, that I know will provide me with a lifetime of happiness, is to own a pug farm—I have a pug and it’s my prize possession. I want to have a farm where I can raise Chinese pugs, where I can do whole-hog barbecue, make some country ham, and maybe a bit of whisky on the side.”
From mom’s untouchable chicken and dumplings to life-changing soba in Japan, these are the 10 dishes that have shaped Brock into one of the interesting culinary minds in America.