I’m back with your companion to Vol. 6, Episode 4 of Chef’s Table, featuring Appalachian chef Sean Brock. If you missed my guide to the last episode, check it out here. By the way, did anyone notice that I’m inadvertently working my way backwards through the series? This happened accidentally, as the product of hitting play on what I thought was the first episode, which was actually the first episode in Volume 6 of the show. I discovered my mistake yesterday. But c’est la vie, we will continue backwards.
This episode follows another Southern chef, but one very different from Mashama Bailey of Vol. 6 Ep. 1. His name is Sean Brock. Like Mashama, he’s been honored with the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. His story provides another platform on which to discuss the complicated baggage of Southern cooking, but also the rigors and stresses associated with professional cookery. First, a little background on the leading man.
Sean Brock was born in rural Appalachia, coal country. He recalls playing in coal fields as a child, and his father worked tirelessly as a coal miner to support Sean, his mother, and his siblings. Sean remembers his father, who died of a heart attack at the age of 49 when Sean was 11, as a man who loved life — loved steak, fast cars, and living it up.
After his father’s death, Sean and his family moved in with his maternal grandmother, Audrey Morgan. It is in her household and under her tutelage that he developed the love of food and cooking that would carry him into the future. During high school, the family relocated again — this time to a larger city, where Sean landed his first restaurant job. From the get-go, he was hooked by the fast pace of the job and the roar of the kitchen, and knew that he wanted to devote his life to becoming a professional chef. After graduating high school, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, center of Southern fine dining, to chase his dream.
Those close to Sean describe him in that period as insanely driven, intense, perfectionistic, and obsessive. And he himself admits that he wouldn’t be the chef he is today had he not driven himself into the ground over a period of two years. You may have heard stories of chefs driven into crippling addictions by the rigors of their chosen careers. What makes Sean different is that while he was working, he was only working — devoting himself single-mindedly to his cooking. There was no void to fill with a drug or alcohol addiction: work was the addiction. It was only when he became unable to work that the real nightmare began.
This happened not long after he opened three restaurants in quick succession, following the success of McCrady’s during his tenure as head chef there. The symptoms — weakness, double vision, drooping eyelids — came out of the blue, and it took six unneeded surgeries and two years to figure out the condition that lay behind them. Sean suffers from myasthenia gravis, a rare autoimmune neuromuscular disorder exacerbated by stress and anxiety. After being prescribed heavy doses of Prednisone and other medications, Sean made a recovery — only to fall instantly back into his old intense ways in the kitchen. He relapsed not long after and fell into a deep depression, drowning his sorrow in bourbon.
His friends, seeing his struggles, staged an intervention, and he went willingly to rehab. There, he finally had a chance to slow down, learn to enjoy life, and work through the issues lying behind his workalholism. Eventually, armed with the support of loved ones and a rigorous self-care routine, he was able to step back into the kitchen — and, he says, he’s cooking the best food he’s ever cooked.
Since the beginning of his career, Sean has had a commitment to using and reviving specific varietals of Southern crops, many of which are near extinction. Working with local farmers, he’s been able to showcase through his cooking the French, Native American, and West African roots of Southern cuisine, telling stories through his dishes. Below is an example featuring Carolina Gold rice set in a heart of palmetto sleeve.
Sean’s use of these ingredients highlights the importance of keeping traditions and heritage crops alive. It also casts light on Southern culture, much of which was lost following the mass exodus of Blacks from the South. As one commentator in this episode puts it, those West African populations had a tremendous amount of crop knowledge, all of which vanished with them from the South. Today, it’s up to Southerners like Sean, Mashama Bailey, and the farmers they work with to reclaim the roots of Southern cuisine and preserve them for the future.
In the final scene of the episode, Sean visits with Glenn Roberts, a farmer playing a pivotal role in the restoration of heritage crops near the verge of extinction. In Glenn’s seed collection is a packet of bean seeds with a familiar name: Audrey Morgan’s beans. They’re the variety that his grandmother grew on her plot of land. In Southern cooking, everything seems to come back around.
Visit this website to learn more about Sean Brock and his mission.
Continue this Chef’s Table guide with my coverage of Volume 5, starting with the story of Mexican chef Cristina Martinez.
She serves up traditional Mexican barbacoa at her Philly eatery. She’s also an openly undocumented immigrant. Read more here.