Chef Profile: Sean Brock

Life on the pirate ship, duping diners into loving sweetbreads

Despite its roots in American culinary history, Southern cuisine has gained a bad rap, stereotyped for heavy, unhealthy dishes. But the region is undergoing a transformation, driven by old-fashioned recipes and modern techniques. One of the denizens carrying this cuisine back into the spotlight is James Beard award-winning Chef Sean Brock, who has gained international acclaim for blending modernist technology with local Low Country ingredients. Brock was drawn to the tatted-up, foul-mouthed line cook lifestyle (which he likens to “a pirate ship”) but sought the discipline of the European brigade system. Here, he riffs on his love of sorghum, Led Zeppelin, Southern tradition and a trait he wishes all cooks could have today.

“The first restaurant I worked at was The Hardware Company Restaurant in Hillsville, Virginia. I would watch these crazy dudes with bandanas smoking cigarettes and blasting Metallica, while  cranking out 250 covers.”

Your alter ego wants to say this to diners: If there were no repercussions? [laughs] Don’t look at the bill, just eat.

Most famous person you’ve ever cooked for: Lionel Richie, Neil Young, Hank Williams, Jr., Bill Murray and the band Drive-By Truckers.

The dish you wish your diners would try: Sweetbreads. We decided to pretend like it’s chicken because everyone loves chicken. So we came up with a list of the most beloved chicken dishes and came up with General Tso’s sweetbreads. People loved it.

The ingredient that’s grabbing your attention right now: Sorghum. It’s impossible to find because it’s an extremely labor-intensive process. I’m growing it side-by-side with corn, and it looks nearly identical. When I was a kid, each year we had a sorghum potluck, where everyone would get together for an all-day affair. One person would have a mill and a kettle, and would use horses to power the mill; or if you’re a redneck, you’d use a lawnmower with a brick duct taped to the power the mill. The beauty is how it brings a community together. When you lose the sorghum, it’s just another thing we lose as a culture.

Your favorite jam to rock out to in the kitchen: “The Life Aquatic” soundtrack has a song called “Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op.” It’s this really quirky song with no lyrics, just really crazy electronic music that makes you work faster. Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Drive-By Truckers. On Sundays, it’s Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.

When you knew you wanted to be a chef: When I was 10 or 12, I was fascinated with the power of food and the table, watching Julia Child, Martin  Yan and Jacques Pepin.

Free time is spent doing this: I play guitar, read and play with my pug, Yuzu. Right now, I’m completely wrapped around this book “Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking” by Andoni Luis Aduriz.

The one person you’d like to cook for: Thomas Jefferson. He knew the climate of the South and traveled the world, bringing hundreds of varieties of plants back to the South—he knew that olives would grow here. He was so experimental and really paved the way for our culture and cuisine through his unwavering disregard of failure.

The traits you wish every cook could have: Humility, because it keeps you focused.

WHO'S THIS BROCK GUY?

Age: 34

Employer: McCrady's and Husk, both in Charleston, S.C.

Hometown: Pound, Va.

Education: Johnson and Wales in Charleston, S.C.

Mentor(s): Chefs Robert Carter of Carter’s Kitchen in Charleston, S.C.; Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala.; Louis Osteen of Louis’s at Sanford’s in Pawleys Island, S.C.; Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C.