MFWF 2013 – Langham Melbourne Masterclass – Sean Brock
Sean Brock – Son of the South
Sean Brock hails from rural Virginia – he wears a cap that says “Make Cornbread, Not War”, and his left arm is covered in tatoos depicting carrots, onions, corn cobs and leafy greens. He loves food – and that passion for food is contagious. He is intrigued about where food comes from, how it grows, about heirloom and almost extinct varieties, his grandmother’s recipes, and most importantly the food he grew up with in the South.
In 2010, when he was offered the opportunity to open his own restaurant, someone asked him: What would you want your restaurant to be known for? He replied: The best cornbread ever. That got him thinking… it was almost a whimsical answer at the time, but it inspired him to research the origins of Southern food and the whole field to plate philosophy. He says that everything comes down to agriculture – food, music, everything. And don’t get him started on the Blues… he loves that too!
Quoting Wendell Berry’s famous proposition, “Eating is an agricultural act”, Sean went on to talk about the history of Charleston, South Carolina, where he first started working. As he delved deeper in it, he found out that the culinary influences were from the English settlers, the Italian engineers, native Americans (he himself is part Cherokee), the French and West Africans. Sean passionately spoke about his pursuit of ‘rebooting’ this Southern cuisine, to uncovering the original dishes and their origins. So much so, that he even went to West Africa recently to rediscover some of those original ingredients and techniques.
Sean kicked off the cooking part of the presentation with a sentimental dish, one of his favourites – Shrimp and Grits: Rebooted. Sean says that this is the first thing he makes for himself when he gets home from being away. Alas – the grits couldn’t make it through customs, so he made this dish with polenta. The difference between grits and polenta is the type of corn (grits use dent corn, whereas polenta uses flint corn) and the degree of grind (grits are coarser, polenta is finer).
Shrimp and grits with preserved tomato, fennel, crispy pig ear
It was a beautiful dish – the prawns were stunning, and I am a big sucker for polenta! The main components were highlighted by a beautiful tomato and fennel mixture which had been enriched with shrimp stock, and some finely sliced crunchy fried pig’s ear! It was a great textural foil to the prawn and the polenta. I also really liked the small kick to the polenta which had been achieved through the judicious addition of some hot sauce! But not too much!! Delicious.
Roasted catfish, cornbread puree, butter bean chow chow
Our next dish was fascinating in that Sean used day old cornbread to create this amazing puree that had an unexpected smoothness, and was absolutely delicious. It was sort of like a bread gravy – but so much yummier. The catfish was cooked expertly and wasn’t at all muddy – which it sometimes has a reputation for. The other component was Chow Chow – beans that had been pickled with vinegar, sugar, turmeric and a few other ingredients. It was a delicious earthy foil to the smooth cornbread puree and fresh clean taste of the catfish.
Pork belly with herbed farro, pickled elderberries, chantarelles and sumac
In finishing, Sean prepared one last dish – Pork belly with herbed farro. Much to our disappointment, we didn’t get to taste this one. Please forgive my pic – as my camera had decided that it wasn’t going to focus (Grr…). So, just use your imagination – because this was an amazing dish. He told the story of how he’s managed to convince one of his best friends to raise pigs – so he was out on the farm, and looking at the pigs and how they were running around free range, free to eat what they wanted to around the field – and he was inspired to create this dish. The animal is definitely on the plate – pork belly (Hello!) – but the other components were the wild mushrooms the pigs would forage, the grain they would be given as feed, the wild berries around the farm, and the wild herbs that grew locally that would naturally be eaten by the pigs as they wandered around. It was an amazing dish that we all wanted to try… Maybe we’ll have to make it at home.
And that’s the joy of Sean Brock – every dish has a story, even if you don’t know it yet – and we should be uncovering those stories so that we better understand the food we eat, the earth it comes from, and the natural connections between the land and the plate. Sean’s mission is shared by many people – in fact a whole network has emerged to ensure that the food history and memories are captured, rediscovered and documented. Check out the Southern Foodways Alliance if you’d like to know more.
In particular, I loved the quote by Glenn Roberts – who appeared in a video vignette about the field to plate philosophy in South Carolina. He said: We’ve got it wrong. It’s not field to table, it’s table to field. It’s chefs who plate up beautiful heirloom ingredients in a way that make people seek them out and create a demand for it – this is what drives the farmers to go back to original crops and raise different breeds. That’s how it’s driven culturally. He used the example of corn – and how difficult it was to get old fashioned corn. Only the moonshiners were growing it!! But now, you can actually find those different, heirloom strains of corn – they’re becoming more widely available.
Loving the ink Sean… that’s true dedication to food!
Needless to say, Sean’s presentation was inspirational, passionate and most notably – humble – and I walked away feeling that “I got it”. It was a brilliant session and has inspired me to put his restaurants on my list. He has two: McCrady’s Restaurant, and the more casual Husk – both in Charleston, South Carolina. And maybe I’ll even try to make a couple of those dishes…