2014 American Chef of the Year: Sean Brock

Looking across the American culinary landscape, one chef in the US stands higher above the rest this year
Andrea Behrends

In this interview with Sean Brock, the chef explains the magic of Southern cooking, the difference between his two Charleston flagships, and his most important inspirations and mentors as a chef.

Andrea Behrends
The rise of Southern cuisine over the past 10 years has been fascinating to watch, and not only in its home region: chefs in the Northeast tackling fried chicken, New Yorkers earning barbeque cred, collard greens and biscuits (sometimes even good ones) showing up on menus from coast to coast…. And while there’s a wealth of culinary talent in the South itself, one chef above all exemplifies America’s modern approach to Southern cooking: Sean Brock. 
 

The Daily Meal's Chefs of the Year 2014
2014 International Chef of the Year: Andoni Aduriz

Ten years ago, Brock was still relatively unknown, and even now he may not have the near-universal recognition that the great and notable Southern chefs before him like Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme enjoyed — but, while those chefs owned (and own) modern interpretations of Creole cooking, they didn't represent Southern cuisine in general in the way, and to the degree, that chef Brock has done in recent years. So, for the first time in the four years of naming The Daily Meal’s American Chef of the Year, the award goes to a Southerner, Sean Brock of McCrady's, Minero, and Husk in Charleston and Husk in Nashville. When you consider that Southern cuisine is often described as America’s one true culinary invention, this acclaim is even more significant. 
 

This is hardly the first time The Daily Meal has singled chef Brock out for honor. His Charleston Husk has been named to The Daily Meal’s list of the 101 Best Restaurants in America three out of four years (in 41st place in 2012, 24th in 2013, and 13th in 2014), and it will undoubtedly be on the list again in 2015. 

We’ve also ranked Brock's cheeseburger among the top 20 in the country. Brock has long been on a personal quest to perfect the burger. He steams, slices, and toasts butter- and beef-fat-smeared house-made buns and piles on two ripping hot, seared, and crusted chuck patties ground with hickory-smoked Benton’s bacon; adds three slices of cheese, shaved white onions, special sauce, bread-and-butter pickles; and tops it all with lettuce and tomato (when they’re in season). 
 
Brock has long been on a personal quest to perfect the burger.
NDG
Brock has long been on a personal quest to perfect the burger.
 
No, a hamburger isn’t the reason to name Brock American chef of the year. But the mission to perfect this American institution by a chef who celebrates heirloom indigenous Southern products like no other restaurateur (“If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door,” he has stated)…well, that juxtaposition of culinary mud and opera epitomizes this chef’s scope, ethos, and ambition.
 
Born and raised in rural Virginia, in what he has described as a coalfield town with no restaurants or stoplights, where people eat food from the garden as a way of life, Homer Sean Brock (credit the New Yorker for revealing his first name) began his culinary career at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston. After seven years in the food world — two under chef Robert Carter at Charleston’s Peninsula Grill, two under chef Walter Bundy of Richmond’s Lemaire, and three as executive chef at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville — Brock became executive chef at Charleston’s oldest restaurant, McCrady’s (George Washington is supposed to have eaten there). That’s where things really started taking off. 
 
We’re talking about a chef who decided to grow produce in his own gardens, who became a passionate advocate for seed preservation, and who, most significantly, opened Husk, a restaurant that former New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton noted “was hailed as possibly the most important restaurant in the history of Southern cooking, even before it opened.” Since then, it has been nationally acknowledged as meeting those expectations, even being named Best New Restaurant in America in 2011 by Bon Appétit. At Husk, Brock highlights black garlic barbecue pig’s ear and Cheddar pimento while simultaneously naming methylcellulose as one of his favorite new ingredients. As a profile noted in 2011, “At Husk, Brock is re-creating what Southern food once was. At McCrady’s, he’s showing what it could be.”A hamburger isn’t the reason to name Brock American chef of the year. But the mission to perfect this American institution by a chef who celebrates heirloom indigenous Southern products like no other restaurateur (“If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door,” he has stated)…well, that juxtaposition of culinary mud and opera epitomizes this chef’s scope, ethos, and ambition.
 
A risk-taker, a proponent of Southern tradition, and an advocate for modern technique, Sean Brock represents American culinary pioneering in one of its hottest, oldest, and proudest culinary traditions. For these reasons, we're pleased to announce that chef Sean Brock was singled out by The Daily Meal as 2014’s Chef of the Year in America (joined this year by The Daily Meal's 2014 International Chef of the Year Andoni Luis Aduriz). 
 
We reached out to both chefs to discover where they, and the state of food, may be heading. In this interview with Sean Brock, the chef explains the magic of Southern cooking, the difference between his two Charleston flagships, and his most important inspirations and mentors as a chef. 
 

The Daily Meal: What is the magic of Southern cooking? Why does it seem that the vast region we call the American South encompasses what is arguably the richest and most varied food culture in the nation?
Sean Brock: I suppose it all goes back to agriculture. If you look at the history of agriculture in America, the South has one of the oldest stories. Agriculture has a special way of shaping cuisines. The cultural diversity that agriculture has produced is certainly the guiding light for Southern cuisine. The range of cultures influencing the food of the American South is mind-boggling. All of those influences, combined with our unique geography, create a very special cuisine; one that produces specific emotions and flavors.

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