Sean Brock has one foot in the farm-to-table movement and another in the world of molecular gastronomy — he once used liquid nitrogen to pulverize heirloom corn to make grits. But these days the executive chef of McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., is focusing on the food culture of the South, so much so that the new restaurant he’s planning to open in November, called Husk, will only use ingredients from the South. That means no olive oil or balsamic vinegar. He’s also working on rehabilitating heirloom vegetable breeds and on developing his own breed of pig. Brock, who earlier this year won the James Beard Foundation Award for best chef in the Southeast, spoke Wednesday with Nation's Restaurant News about what he's up to.
Tell me about your pig.
The Ossabaw pig came over from Spain during the Ponce de Leon era. The Spaniards dropped off a bunch of livestock and took off, thinking they’d get used to the land and breed, and then the Spaniards would come back and have tons of food.
Obviously, South Carolina’s not Spain and the pigs didn’t survive, except on this little island called Ossabaw, where the pigs bred and they’ve learned to store fat for when there’s no forage.
They’re almost too fatty for a normal chef to use. You really need to be charcuterie driven. … You can make lardo that’s six inches thick from them, and I think their ham is way better than Iberico. I’m not kidding. I had some Iberico in New York and it tasted like an old piece of cardboard to me.
But they’re still basically wild pigs. They tend to cause a ruckus and tear things up, and they’re also very small. So we have this idea to create a pig that will be just enough Ossabaw to have a nice balance. The general term for this kind of cross breed is a Crossabaw.
What breed are you going to use?
It’s still in the experimental stage. No pig sex has been started yet, and we probably won’t complete it until February or March, but I’m thinking we’ll take a Berkshire and a Red Wattle, because of their build, their fat-to-meat ratio and their growth rate.
Once we breed them we’ll have a Berkawattle.
We like how the Duroc pigs are proportioned, so we plan to breed a Duroc boar to a Berkawattle sow, and we’ll get a Berkawattleroc. Then we’ll breed a Berkawattleroc with an Ossabaw boar and get a Berkawattlerocabaw.
We think it will be a beautiful pig that will create demand for the Ossabaw and educate farmers about the breed, but that also will be able to be raised within a year, instead of the two years you need for an Ossabaw to reach its optimal weight.
You’re also working on growing heirloom produce, right?
I have a two-acre garden that I have three guys working on today. We’ll maybe use 10 percent or 20 percent in the restaurant, and the rest is being used for seed.
Now we can look at these cookbooks and farm journals from the 1700s and 1800s and really do them justice, because we’re just now getting the proper ingredients.
A perfect example is benne [sesame] seeds, which came over from Africa [in the early 1800s] when Charleston was one of the richest cities in the South. Benne changed a lot of things, and it became a really important protein source for the workers on the plantations.
Then in the 1940s it was modified to be an oil crop instead of a protein crop. So now it’s 70 percent oil and 30 percent protein, when the original mix was the reverse. So what most people think that benne seeds taste like is completely wrong.
How is it different?
It’s very nutty, very earthy and it has the most pleasant bitter flavor you’ve ever tasted. We’re growing it now in our seed-saving project, and the thing is 12 feet to 14 feet tall. We’re using the leaves of the plant, which are very much like okra, even with the slime, which I love.
We’re also using an old Indian form of okra, and I realized that even as a Southerner the only okra I’ve had has been modified to suit our laziness, so you don’t have to pick them every day, and they’ve lost their identity.
But aren’t you doing that with the Crossabaw?
You could argue that, but raising awareness of the Ossabaw is a step forward, and we’ll always keep and breed 100 percent Ossabaws, and maybe 10 years from now as we raise awareness there will be a demand for them. So we’re making something of a sacrifice to go in the right direction.
What’s the food going to be like at Husk?
Right now, in half of Charleston’s restaurants, if you removed the name of the local producers and showed it to people, they’d say, “Cool, where’s this Italian restaurant?”
Italian food’s delicious, but I want people to sit down at this new restaurant and know that they’re eating Southern food without a doubt. It’ll be a daily pulse-taking of Southern products.
We’re only going to purchase food from the South. I want to study, document, celebrate and educate people about what’s been happening here since the late 1600s.
But we have to be careful, because even though we’re going to be celebrating Southern food and products, it’s unlikely that you’ll find mounds of fried chicken or overcooked pots of collard greens bubbling away in the kitchen. We’re looking at more beautiful, healthier food. But there’s still going to be pork all over the place. I mean, we won’t be able to use olive oil, so we’ll be making vinaigrettes with lard.
And we won’t be able to reach for balsamic vinegar, so now we’re working on a 30-gallon batch of watermelon vinegar from [vinegar mother] I just inherited from my grandmother. We’re going to make zucchini vinegars, tomato vinegars, and cantaloupe vinegars.
We’re designing the restaurant so that when you walk in you’re going to know right off the bat that we mean business. You’re going to see stack of oak for our wood-burning oven, and beside that stack of wood you’ll see this board with every single ingredient that’s on the menu written on it, with the name of the person who produced it. The menu will change twice a day.
We already have thousands of Mason jars filled with pickles. We bought 2,000 pounds of [local] Italian peppers from a farmer the other day. The work involved is completely off the wall.
How many seats will it have?
About 150. It’s not small, but it’s going to be very simple food. We’re going to be able to crank it. We don’t want an entrée to be over $24 because we want to reach a lot of people, and it’ll be fun to keep coming back because the menu’s going to change so much.
Is it going to be affiliated with McCrady’s?
Oh yeah, and you can walk to it in about five minutes. I’ll be starting out working three days at Husk and two at McCrady's, and then it will be two days at Husk and three at McCrady’s, and I’ll be able to run between the two during prep.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].