2014 American Chef Of The Year: Sean Brock

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). 
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."[pullquote:right]
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.

Your career has been dedicated to various interpretations of Southern cooking, in which you have long personal experience. In late 2014, you opened Minero, a Mexican restaurant in Charleston — though, admittedly, one with Southern accents, like the hoppin' john in your burrito and your fried catfish taco with pickled green tomatoes. What drew you to Mexican cuisine, and do you feel the same commitment to it that you do to Southern cuisine?
I wish I had a long and thoughtful answer, but I selfishly wanted a place to eat tacos and drink micheladas! I have always loved Mexican food. I think it's because of my dried corn obsession.

How would you characterize the key differences between your two Charleston flagships, McCrady's and Husk? Is one a purer or more accurate expression of you philosophy of cooking than the other?
It's very interesting, because both restaurants pull from the same pantry and inspirations. I think it's as simple as McCrady's being a modern point of view and Husk being a traditional point of view. Those are both equally important parts of my personality. I'm very lucky and very thankful to have both as creative outlets. It keeps me sane.

You have had your own small farms to grow many of the ingredients you use, and have been instrumental in reviving many Southern heirloom food plants that had been largely forgotten. Why is it important to preserve or revive these fruits and vegetables and grains? Is it possible that their demise came about because they simply weren't as good as the varieties that have become mainstream?
I haven't had a farm in quite some time; I wish I had the time to grow food these days. My main focus currently is seed saving. I'm very obsessed with finding old varieties and getting them back into the kitchens. These old varieties have a very distinct flavor and also carry stories along with them — stories that can teach us many important lessons about our culture. If those seeds go away, the stories go with them.

Who were your most important inspirations or mentors as a chef?
I have always admired the great Southern cooks who paved the way for all of us. To name a few: John Fleer, Ben and Karen Barker, Louis Osteen, Bob Carter, Edna Lewis, Frank Lee, Bill Neal, Jessica Harris, Ronni Lundy, Frank Stitt, and great writers like John Egerton and John T. Edge. The Southern Foodways Alliance has been an enormous inspiration and source of knowledge that I can't imagine living or cooking without.

Is there a chef, in America or abroad, who challenges you? Who inspires you to better things?
Four come to mind. And, luckily, they are in charge of my kitchens: Brian Baxter, Travis Grimes, Daniel Heinze, and Wes Grubbs. These guys are world-class bad-asses. They blow me away every single day with their passion, brilliance, and hard work.

What are the most interesting things happening in the American food world today? And has the American dining public become more knowledgeable and discerning, or are we all just chasing trends?
It's so rewarding to watch America grow as a food nation. As chefs and customers become more and more educated about our foodways, regional pride increases. That pride is very powerful.

Do you have plans to open more restaurants? If so, how would they differ from those you already have?
Lots of fun stuff in the works. That's all I can say. Who needs sleep?

Do chefs have a responsibility to be socially and politically active, concerned with issues such as the environment and world hunger, or is it enough for them to just cook good food, responsibly produced?
The role of a chef used to be much simpler. We woke up in the mornings, spent the day trying to master our craft, and went home after dinner service. These days, as more problems arise within our food systems, people are turning to chefs for answers. We feed people, and it's our responsibility to feed them clean food. That requires a lot of work outside the kitchen. The more voices, the more results.

If you were to reflect now, what do you hope your legacy as a chef will be?
Legacy is a very powerful word. But if I wanted to be remembered for something, it's inspiring people to be very proud of where they come from, and to honor the traditions of their families and regions.

Please answer the following Actor's Studio-style questions in as few words as possible. Have fun with it... or be absolutely serious. Completely up to you:

What's your favorite flavor?
Dried corn.

What's your first food memory?
Eating from my grandmother's garden.

What one food can't you stand?
Really crusty bread that cuts the roof of your mouth.

When did you first realize that you were going to be a chef? Was there one moment?
When I cooked my first meal in my infomercial wok at age 11.

What's your favorite tool in the kitchen, besides your knife?
My tongue.

What qualities do you look for when you're hiring a chef?

What's your favorite sandwich?
Tomato, Duke's Mayo, and squishy white bread. 

What's your favorite alcoholic drink?
Anything produced in the Stitzel-Weller Distillery during the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

What are you reading right now?
A manuscript from professor David S. Shields about the lives and careers of America's first chefs from 1793—1919.

If you weren't a chef, what would you be?
I would race cars.

Who are your heroes?
Luke Skywalker.

Who are your villains?
Darth Vader