Chef Sean Brock has won multiple James Beard Awards (the Academy Awards of the restaurant business). His cookbooks have been on The New York Times bestseller list. He’s been lauded by major food publications including Food & Wine and Bon Appetit. But if you get a minute or three to talk to him, it is Wise County that is likely to come up in conversation first.
“I will talk to anyone who will talk to me about Appalachia before it is too late,” he said in an interview.
Brock, 45, is from Pound and lived there until he was a young teen. His years there, cooking and foraging in Southwest Virginia, were among his most formative. In May, Brock was the keynote speaker at the eighth annual Southwest Virginia Economic Forum at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He told that audience about the “night and day” experience of the food he ate at his grandmother’s knee and those that were served in the first restaurants where he worked.
“I remember coming back and telling her, ‘You wouldn’t believe this lettuce they’re making people pay for at this restaurant.’ Because I grew up eating hers directly from the garden. And that flavor of the field, that feeling of being in the field and eating food while it’s still warm from the sun and the smell of the dirt is still in the air inspired me very early,” he told attendees.
Brock drove to the Wise County event from Nashville, where he now lives and cooks and runs four different restaurants: Audrey, June, The Continental and Joyland.
He’d helmed the kitchen at the Capitol Grille in the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville from 2003 to 2006, before heading back to Charleston, where he’d attended culinary school, and cooking low-country menus that grabbed the attention of national audiences. Brock led the teams at McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston and then moved back to Nashville to open the Music City outpost of Husk in 2013. And now Nashville is home for the long term, but that doesn’t dilute his love of Virginia.
On this most recent drive back home, he watched the landscape change. By the time he reached Johnson City, Tennessee, “it felt like an enormous blanket. I felt that comfort of the mountains. You read about it. People write songs about it. I felt it,” he says.
Right before his trip to Wise County, Brock had been in Japan, another place that speaks to him. When there he traveled through the rural countryside on a train and noticed that the landscape out the window, well, “it felt like home.” It wasn’t that it was familiar because he has been there often, but because the landscape is similar to that of Southwest Virginia. The country of Japan and the Appalachian region do share a latitude, which means some of the same things grow there (yes, kudzu, but others, too).
Brock’s career has been focused on the foods of the South (in fact, “South” is the title of his 2019 cookbook) and the repatriation of the Southern pantry. It was when he was in the kitchen at McCrady’s in Charleston that he won his first James Beard Award.
“He was the first true chef I had ever been in the presence of,” remembers John Burns Paterson IV, who started his career as an intern for McCrady’s wine director. “It’s important to point out that this was a time when it wasn’t easy to understand what that really meant from the media. [Brock] had established a kitchen, a place, that was operating at a level I didn’t know was possible.”
Today Paterson is managing partner of Frankies Nashville and credits Brock’s influence as one of the factors that encouraged the New York Italian restaurant Frankies Spuntino to open in Nashville. “To see that meticulousness, drive, and dedication at that specific moment in my progression: It changed everything, set me on the right path. And there are hundreds and hundreds of people who would say the same. I’ll always be grateful for that experience.”
Brian Lea, co-owner of Kisser, Nashville’s popular new Japanese comfort food restaurant, was similarly inspired working with Brock at Husk in Charleston and then joining him.
“Working with [Brock] had the obvious benefits of working with an internationally acclaimed chef, but on a more personal level, it was the first time I was cooking food that was inspired by nostalgia and put flavor center-stage,” Lea says. “When working on a new dish, I remember him saying, ‘It has to be delicious,’ that presentation and the details would come later. As obvious as that may sound to some, it was the first time I had heard a chef in the fine-dining world say that or approach a dish that way, and it’s been my primary approach ever since.”
Now, in what he calls “the second half of my career,” Brock is dedicating himself to what he calls “untapped traditions and discoveries,” looking to places like Japan for inspiration.
For example, in the U.S. landowners struggle with how to eradicate kudzu. It was brought to the U.S. as erosion control — which worked — but it is invasive and a fire hazard and difficult to remove. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it can take 10 years of persistent herbicide applications to eradicate kudzu and two years with a combination of organic bioherbicides.
In contrast, in Japan, Brock says, kudzu root is dried and then a starch is extracted from it. Chefs pay $80 a pound for the starch, also called kuzu starch, which is packed with flavonoids and antioxidants and is used in broths and even desserts.
“My next big idea that I’m so excited to focus on for the next half of my life is the taming of kudzu. We’re gonna call it the ‘war on kudzu aggression,’ ” he told the UVA Wise audience with a laugh.
The kudzu festivals in Japan remind him of the Virginia potlucks he attended as a kid. He’d like to leverage the climate of Appalachia and its traditions to make better use of the omnipresent crop. But that’s not his only focus when it comes to representing the region in the kitchen.
The relative youth of Appalachia — as compared with Japan — gives Brock hope that new discoveries are still ahead of the region. He gives the example of balsamic vinegar, discovered in Italy in a town that had existed for 1,500 years. “I think we have some balsamic vinegar ahead for us in these forests.”
The menus at Audrey, the 2021 Nashville restaurant named after his grandmother, lean heavily on the foods and traditions of his upbringing in Virginia, and what comes from those forests. Menus are seasonal and may include greasy beans, killed lettuces, sour corn and other dishes that would sound familiar to those who grew up in Wise County, although presented with an artistry that is uniquely Brock’s, such as the rosin potatoes served in a basket made from kudzu vine.
Brock estimates that 80% of the time at the restaurant is spent looking for ingredients, including those that may be lost or extinct. Brock is widely credited for helping to bring Jimmy Red Corn back from near oblivion. He encourages folks to continue to plant the brown pole beans known as leather britches. Selecting ingredients for the restaurant is “almost like a wine pairing,” he says, “looking for different ways of weaving flavors together.”
But Brock credits his grandmother, with whom he lived for a few years, with instilling in him an appreciation for local, seasonal food and the ingredients of Appalachia. She also taught him to be respectful of food and to be resourceful, which meant never throwing anything away, a value that he says could border on hoarding tendencies if he is not careful. “She did things the old-fashioned way. She had a crank-start, 1940s tractor like you would see in a cartoon.”
Exploring the forests around him, he could identify ramps and morels early on. “It was almost biological how we knew them,” he says. “That is how I was wired.”
He also remembers sitting on his grandmother’s screened-in back porch listening to people tell stories or sitting at a kitchen table with just-picked blackberries or pawpaws. “I stayed in the middle of that tiny kitchen. That is where all the action was, not her living room,” he says. “I saw that early on.”
“If you look at Appalachian food, nothing like it in the world,” he says, noting that chefs and specialty store owners would gladly stock fermented corn on the cob, sauerkraut and other local specialties. “I know that Whole Foods and other grocery stores would line up for apple butter from Wise County.” He wants to help preserve that canning culture.
Brock is a professional chef who has spent his entire life focusing on the foodways of the region, and in recent years has become interested in photography. He admires Southern photographer William Eggleston, who is known for capturing everyday scenes, “photographing the boring,” as Brock calls it. Like Eggleston, Brock is using discipline to only take one image and taking one that doesn’t have to be edited.
That drive to do things thoughtfully is something he learned from his grandmother in Wise County. What he calls grit. “It’s a grit geared towards doing the right thing and really trying to focus on taking the best care of the person beside you that you can. It’s an extraordinary generosity that lives here that I try to carry on in my restaurants.”