Feast Portland Q&A: Sean Brock

By Kathleen Squires  |  September 21, 2013

The current king of Southern cuisine made a detour to the Pacific Northwest to serve up “hillbilly” fried bologna sandwiches at Feast Portland’s Sandwich Invitational. James Beard Award-winning Sean Brock is the mastermind behind the restaurants McCrady’s and Husk, and an unabashed champion of regional American cooking. Between assembling sandwiches, Brock took a break to sing the praises of the good old U.S. of A. 

Zagat: How do you define American cuisine?

Sean Brock: There is extremely unique cuisine all over the country. Obviously, my focus is Southern cuisine and trying to dedicate my life to showcasing diversity all through the micro-regions of the South. But first you have to define what the word “cuisine” means and how cuisines are formed. To me, cuisine is two things. It’s the ingredients that thrive in a particular region based on geography, growing seasons, climate and soil; and also the cultural influences. So if you look at South Carolina, the biggest cultural influence is West Africa. Then it’s coastal, and you look at the ingredients that thrive in coastal areas and you combine that with West African, a little bit of French and Italian and most certainly Native American and that’s how you understand a cuisine. And that’s what’s so great about America.

Zagat: Do you think there is a particular rise in Southern cuisine right now?

SB: I think this generation of chefs, writers, farmers and artisans is really embracing what is means to be from the South and they are using that as the biggest form of inspiration. That develops a sense of pride. Once you have pride in where you are from there is no stopping you.

Zagat: What are some of the best examples of the new wave of Southern cuisine right now?

SB: You see it happening all over America. I am so happy to see my friends in Louisiana really embracing that and my friends in Tennessee really defining what that means today. And obviously the Low Country, too. All up and down the South, you see people with the same sensibilities, the same mindset and the same ideas, yet it’s so diverse and so interesting and so different and we all feed off of each other and we all inspire each other. It is just such an exciting time to be a chef in the South right now.

Zagat: I understand you are a buff of Southern historical cookbooks. Which one is your favorite?

SB: That’s easy. It’s called the Unrivaled Cookbook and Housekeepers Guide. I love it because it was the first book about Creole cuisine, which is essentially Low Country cuisine. When you flip through these pages, you see a cookbook that is based on honesty and truth. You see the foundation of what we are striving to celebrate today and in order to do what we are trying to do, you have to start with those books. And you have to take it even further and look at agricultural literature, farmer’s journals and old newspaper clippings and old community spiral-bound cookbooks. That’s a lifelong journey. My house is filled with 19th century cookbooks.

Zagat: I’ve heard rumors about an NYC project. When is that happening?

SB: I don’t know, one of these days. All chefs have that desire to see if they can make it in New York City. It really is the truest test because there are so many restaurants there and so many amazing chefs and the spirit and the vibe of New York City is so intense and different from the South. We all have that hidden deep in our unconscious. Some day I’ll do it but not any time in the near future.

Zagat: What would the concept be?

SB: I wouldn’t really be able to do Southern food because Southern food relies on the ingredients and terroir of that region. I would do seasonal modern cooking in a tasting menu format. It would be a small place.

Zagat: What other new projects do you have on the horizon?

SB: New projects are happening but it’s all top secret right now. I’m the type of guy who always wants to have projects going on. I like keeping myself stimulated, and for me the coolest thing about having new projects is providing opportunities for the people who have had my back for so long - the people in the kitchen, the people in the front of the house who deserve to be able to spread their wings and do their thing and take over a restaurant. For me, that is my future--developing restaurants and concepts and watching young chefs become amazing chefs.