review: provenance… (husk)
He’s a farmer, horticulturalist, anthropologist, historian, and preservationist.* He’s an author, inventor, husband, cocktailian, comedian, and restaurateur. He’s a peacemaker – advocating for cornbread, not war. He’s a James Beard Award-winner and, undoubtedly, one of the best chefs in America right now.
And he’s only seventeen days older than I.
But most importantly, he’s a Southerner and gentleman.
I met Sean Brock when we were twenty-seven. He was chef of the Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, and I was a lone diner willing to let him cook for me.** At the time, he was enamored with the chemistry set, giddy about the impending opening of alinea, where he would be (and was) the first diner through the door. A cherub with ruddy cheeks, his enthusiasm and passion for cooking was infectious. And his laugh: it etched and echoed in my soul henceforth, begging me to keep in touch.
Although we saw each other briefly a couple of times at events in New York over the subsequent years, I was, sadly, relegated to watching his star rise from afar, unable to make it back to his table. He moved to McCrady’s in Charleston in 2006, where his focus shifted toward the local and sustainable. There, he began to work alongside farmers, foragers, and fishers in his region, becoming a champion of their ways and their products. In the last couple of years, his work as a chef seemed to surpass the stove and take on greater significance and influence, culminating in the opening of Husk, which is as much a museum to Southern cooking as it is an exciting dialogue about the current direction of our foodways.
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There are many reasons why I would be predisposed to write positive things about Sean Brock, not the least of which is because he’s a generous mensch. Thankfully, he helped keep me honest by throwing down one of the most thoughtful and thrilling meals I’ve had in a long time, leaving me no room to exaggerate. If you are skeptical about my ability to be objective, then stop reading here, because this post is going to be a nonstop gush, which I insist is wholly deserved.
I’ll admit that part of what made this meal great was Sean’s hospitality. Despite his busy schedule, he personally presented and explained each course to us, bringing products and ingredients to our table where possible.*** Afterward, he gave us a tour of the restaurant, including a peek at his stash of preserved and pickled produce, a rainbow within a closet, and threw a little bourbon party for us at his bar next door.
And part of the meal’s success was owed to my company, a group of friends who share my appreciation for food and those who prepare it well. We have fun wherever we go.
But at the heart of it all was a soulful and delicious meal that was part history lesson, part philosophy, and far beyond the reach criticism.
My friends chuckeats, Miss O.M.G., and Tomo and I arrived at Husk on the later side of the night. There, Sean greeted us with with a flash of white lightning and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He offered to “feed us.” We gladly accepted.
Here is what we ate:
Caper’s Inlet Blade Oysters
HUSK Muscadine Mignonette. ($14)
Spicy Pig Ear Lettuce Wraps
Butter bean chow chow. ($6)
Samp, sausage, herb mayonnaise
Sweet peas and onions, green garlic,
pea shoot, and mint broth. ($14)
Squash and tomato butter.
Kathadin Lamb Terrine
Butter-braised cabbage, red pepper.
Black Bottom Pie
Strawberries and milk ice cream.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
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Our country is now littered with restaurants that promote the local, sustainable, and seasonal. Menus crowd with all sorts of references to provenance. But how many of them actually attempt to understand and convey the origin of their cause and the countless, nameless, and unsung upon which it is built?
It’s a tricky line to walk these days. Stray a little to one side and you risk being branded self-righteous, your cause dismissed as an inflated gimmick.
At first glance, Husk isn’t that different from those of its ilk. There’s a giant ticker board prominently displayed in the entryway that catalogs the manifold that provides. Names and places pepper the menu.
But look a little closer and you’ll find a box and a story, whose sides and pages are faithful to the South: its land, its waters, its people, and its history. This isn’t simply a directory of local farmers or a sermon, it’s an invitation to explore, understand, and fall in love with a region and culture, one that is largely foreign to me.
For Sean, food isn’t merely the subject of research, but the practice of everyday life.
In a smoky cocotte of plump clams – a portrait of the Low Country – came samp, a rough form of cornmeal that, when cooked, has the semblance of rice but the flavor of corn. The result of a labor intensive process in which corn kernels are cracked by hand (according to Sean, literally between palm and fingers) to minimize the release of starch, it cooks in a fraction of the time that it takes for grits to soften. It’s a rare relic that Sean hopes to revive.
From sub-Sahara Africa came benne, a drier, slightly bitter predecessor to the modern-day sesame seed. The plant now grows in the South and its seeds appear at Husk, scattered over meaty soft shell crabs or the restaurant’s fluffy rolls.
Buttermilk, the backbone of Southern baking, Sean gets from the Cruze Dairy Farm in Tennessee. He drizzles it over local oysters, along with muscadine vinegar that he ages in mini caskets. And it’s used to enrich and add a tanginess to a pudding layered with chocolate mousse that’s topped with shaved chocolate from Scott Witherow, a bean-to-bar chocolatier out of Nashville.
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What’s striking about Husk is the ease and confidence with which simple things, like pecan pie and vegetable minestrone, are made spectacular with a minimum of ingredients. There’s nothing here you couldn’t make at home. Gaining access to ingredients of the same quality and knowing how to use them would be the tallest hurdle.
To me, Sean’s greatest talent as a chef is his ability to use nature to season his dishes. He coaxes the natural sugars out of corn, peas, cabbage, and peppers, using them to contrast the meatier side of his cooking. He uses the fragrant zest of Meyer lemons to lighten and brighten thin slices of pig head. And smoke, the perfume of Southern chefs, is seamlessly infused into everything from meat to chocolate to lower the tone and tenor an octave.
Refined sugar is banned from his cornbread (otherwise, it would be corn cake, he insists), in which there appear only four ingredients: corn meal, eggs, buttermilk, and bacon. After it comes out of the oven, it’s brushed with lard. As you can imagine, it’s incredibly delicious, especially the golden crust that forms around the sides of the skillet. All the sweetness you need is in the vegetable minestrone that is served with the cornbread, a stewed gargouillou, pure and naked.
It doesn’t get much simpler or better than this.
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Working with farmers in a temperate clime, Sean magically stretches the growing seasons.
In the wee hours of April, we saw fresh corn and squash, which Sean mixed with tomato butter to make a light, summery bed for a lovely piece of sheepshead, a fish from local waters.****
And he suspends time in jars. A canning operation to preserve the over-abundance of summer consumes much of his staff’s time in the hot months. The pay-off is a warm smile when one is needed the most. Tomatoes and butter bean chow chow both appeared at our table that early spring night, the latter as a relish for crunchy strips of pig ears glazed with a vinegary reduction. Damn, they were good. Throughout the night, I would mention them just to hear Sean laugh, a Pavlovian response that was faithfully followed by an exclamation of joy.
They really were that good. Along with a beautifully cooked soft-shell crab, served with peas and green garlic – warm, soulful, comforting – it was my favorite dish of the night.
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Husk is beautiful – unexpectedly so, if I may say so. The interior is bright and happy, decked with vegetables in glass showcases. It sounds kitschy, but it’s not. Upstairs, there’s a porch, a lovely setting for a brunch we would have a couple of days later.
Together, they comprise one of the most delicious and heartwarming corners of our world today.
After the excess is stripped away, you’re left with Husk, a glimpse into the past with hopeful eyes on the future. Here, food tastes as it really does and should. It’s sad that this comes to me as a reminder instead of an everyday joy. But, in Sean Brock’s world, it is an everyday joy, which is, perhaps, why everyone wants a piece of him these days.
Sean Brock, thank you for feeding us and showing us your world. You are a Southerner and a gentleman. I’m sorry it took me so long. I hope to be back soon.
76 Queen Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
* Among his many projects is a seed saving program, which he has instituted in conjunction with an heirloom garden that he oversees.
** I think it would make both Sean and me cringe if I were to dredge up my blog post about that dinner. The photography was borrowed, the writing atrocious. You’ll find it on this blog with a little sleuthing.
*** He told us that he shuttles between the kitchens of Husk and McCrady’s a few times a night.
**** Tomato butter is exactly what it sounds like. Sean said that he grew up with his grandmother’s simple tomato sauce, in which tomatoes, slightly stewed , were thickened with a knob of butter.