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A Southern Chef Doesn’t Stray FarThe New York Times, February 2011
Sean Brock is a Virginia boy who attended the Johnson & Wales cooking school on this beautiful, historic peninsula where the Civil War began, moved around the South in apprenticeship, and in 2006 returned as the executive chef at McCrady’s, the city’s oldest restaurant. Late last year, amid a marsh fire of publicity that continues to roar, he opened a large and lavishly appointed new one, Husk, devoted to the excellence and promise of Southern ingredients.
Husk was hailed as possibly the most important restaurant in the history of Southern cooking, even before it opened in November. That remains to be seen. But the culture of the restaurant was clear from the start. Mr. Brock was a son of Dixie sounding a locavore’s horn. Every grain, protein, green and spice placed on a plate in the restaurant would come from the South, in some cases from a small farm he established just outside the city to grow heritage vegetables and fruit. “If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t coming in the door,” he said at the time.
I came to this port city to see if I could get in anyway. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.
I discovered a good, young restaurant with a zeal for its location and a passion for selling it hard. Mr. Brock makes a mean shrimp and grits at Husk, which is in a beautiful restored 1893 Queen Anne home in the town center. Bartenders carve fine country ham from suppliers like Finchville and Newsom’s and serve it with top-notch bourbon in a barroom next to the restaurant that’s as pretty as any on earth. It’s comfortable on the Husk bandwagon. Everyone’s happy. But as they say down here, I’ll tell you what: I ate at McCrady’s, too. And that restaurant is one of only a few outside the first tier of American cities that could compete in any of them. It is marvelous, well worth a two-hour drive from Columbia, the state capital, or the flight from New York.
Of course, coming to this salty gem of a city would be worth it even if neither restaurant had ever opened. Charleston, with fewer than 125,000 residents, is one of the great eating towns of the American South, on par with New Orleans for quality if nowhere near it for size or variety.
Other horses it puts forth in the great-restaurant sweepstakes include Robert Stehling’s storied Hominy Grill, and Frank Lee’s hometown dining room, Slightly North of Broad. There is Fig, Mike Lata’s ode to Lowcountry cooking, and, west of the Ashley River, the new and rustic finesse of the Glass Onion. Downtown, there is the Peninsula Grill, where Mr. Brock worked after graduating from college. A thousand jessamine flowers bloom in Charleston, each marvelous in its way.
But the spotlight is now on Mr. Brock, 32. He built his reputation on the sometimes playful, occasionally brash and always highly technical form of cooking that is often associated with the Spanish chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli in Catalonia and, in New York, with Wylie Dufresne of the restaurant WD-50, on the Lower East Side.
At McCrady’s, in a building built in 1788, where George Washington is said to have dined, he installed immersion circulators and stored pounds of gellan gum, carrageenans and methylcellulose. In a city that saw its commercial heyday in the 18th century, when some 40 percent of the Africans brought to America in chains passed through its market, and Charleston’s per capita wealth exceeded that of the Virginia plantations by 400 percent (in 1774, it was six times that of New York City), Mr. Brock introduced dishes that nodded to postmodernism as much as history: powdered tortilla chips with jellied salsa, say, and country-ham cotton candy.
He used elastic sheets of cucumber gel, and served savory coconut ice cream with Arctic char roe. He was a mad modern scientist, the face of a new, cosmopolitan South. It brought him awards, and a kind of fame.
Then came Husk, at which Mr. Brock declared allegiance to a new style of Southern cooking, one in which the point is to shine light on the ingredients and the people who grow them, rather than on the chef.
That would appear to be the exact opposite of what he does at McCrady’s, which is an occasion restaurant with high prices (for Charleston, anyway, with entrees in the $30 range), and a consistently high level of service.
But whatever passion for science and trickery Mr. Brock had at the start of his run at that restaurant five years ago, he appears to have settled down now into a relatively foamless environment, and his cooking is largely free of scientific high jinks. (Indeed, over the course of an eight-course meal that lasted more than three hours, only one dish arrived in a bubbling rush of liquid nitrogen vapor.)
Instead, Mr. Brock’s efforts at Husk seem to have greatly informed his menu at McCrady’s. Now he places Southern ingredients at center stage at both restaurants, and gives them much to do.
At McCrady’s, under soft yellow light in the giant formal dining room that was once the building’s kitchen, I ate country ham aged 17 months and served with local pickles — sweet, almost curried okra and crisp sunchokes chief among them. A waiter brought oysters out of the Cooper River inlet — south and east of the city, where the tidal waters give way to the Atlantic — along with a local egg fished up out of one of those immersion circulators, some citrus-punching yuzu broth and bits of salty seaweed.
There was local swordfish with black truffles, and a combination of cauliflower and sorrel that was brilliant in taste and haunting in memory. Crisp sweetbreads turned up with turnips from the restaurant’s garden amid a scattering of local winter rye. A wee nugget of triggerfish tasted as fresh as the morning, with that distinctive sweet punch that accompanies fish that has never been frozen, that was swimming not long ago. (Firm and white-fleshed, it is caught for both restaurants by Mark Marhefka, a local fisherman who has done much to educate Charleston about making commercial fishing in the South a sustainable enterprise.) Mr. Brock crisped it hard on one side, and served it this night with celeriac batons, chervil and capers, surrounded by clams that come from the inlet, near the oysters. It was, to use a technical term, insanely delicious.
Even better, and perhaps more fun to consume, was Mr. Brock’s take on Chinese beef and broccoli, made with beef rib and belly meat and served with kimchi, broccoli and a stir-fry of farro that tasted exactly like the best and crunchiest bits of the fried rice served at a takeout shop with bulletproof windows.
This wasn’t overtly Southern food. But that was fine. As Clint Sloan, the restaurant’s sage and elegant sommelier, said at the start of the meal, pouring a Duvel Golden ale he thought (correctly!) would go well with the country ham, “There are no rules at McCrady’s.”
There sure are at Husk, however. Mr. Brock says the restaurant’s purpose is not to rediscover Southern cooking so much as to allow diners to experience the realities of Southern ingredients. His cooks can work only with what they can get from below the Mason-Dixon line. This leads to simpler, more stew-centric foods than are available at McCrady’s, and to a more obviously Southern menu. “We didn’t even have olive oil until chef found some in Texas,” chirped a waitress there.
Apparently these draconian rules do not apply to the wine list, however. Husk’s has precisely no Southern wines on it, but a wide selection of New and Old World varietals instead. Georgia oenophiles, to the barricades!
Still, here was a salad of peppery arugula and thin-shaved turnips, with a fiery pimento cheese from a local organic cheesemaking outfit called Giddy Goat and curlicues of salty, rich Finchville Country Ham, from just east of Louisville, Ky. It made the point nicely. So too did another version of Mr. Marhefka’s triggerfish, with parsnip purée, leeks out of the restaurant’s wood oven and another handful of those plump inlet clams.
Two crisp and confitted legs of North Carolina duck came over a creamy farro and a luscious red-eye gravy, with tendrils of bright greens weaving in and out of the brown, and charred palmetto onions that could throw a glove before any Vidalia.
Mr. Brock’s luscious shrimp and grits were studded with smoky Benton’s sausage and bits of caramelized roasted tomato, some braised fennel and a triumphant topping of pig’s ear, braised into submission, sliced into a kind of porcine chiffonade and fried.
And his Carolina Gold rice was served as if it were risotto, creamy and toothsome at once, with local mushrooms and an egg from Sea Island (its yolk the brightest orange), surrounded by a broth flavored with ham hocks. The dish managed to evoke the marshy salinity of the air that rises off the flats of the Cooper River at low tide, as dogs run into the water below the Carolina Yacht Club. This was the promise of Husk revealed, local cooking at its best.
Or near its best, anyway. For no discussion of excellence in Southern cooking in Charleston can really be complete without a visit to Martha Lou’s Kitchen, a tiny pink-hued soul-food restaurant a mile or so north of downtown.
It sits beside railroad tracks, a ramshackle heap with a spotless interior. Martha Lou Gadsden, the primary chef, and Debra Gadsden, her daughter, do well by fried chicken and pork chops and fish, and quite well by chitterlings in spicy brown gravy. You can eat those for the $8.50 that lunch there will run you, and be happy indeed.
But it is their vegetables, cooked low and forever, that can open horizons for anyone seeking to understand what Mr. Brock is trying to do. A bowl of Martha Lou’s okra stew is as red and as vibrant as the sun slashing low over the Ashley River downtown, near the battery where Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter 150 years ago this spring. Their lima beans, creamy and thick, with bits of smoked pork neck studded throughout the bowl, are a triumph of legumes, a side-dish miracle.
This cooking establishes a baseline of excellence that would be difficult for any cook to top, even Mr. Brock.
In the cosmology of Southern cooking, Martha Lou’s is no dwarf planet. It is close to the sun itself.